State of TFC: Where are they with one-third of the season done?

Sebastian-Giovinco

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco (centre). (Chris Young/CP)

Where has the time gone?

Toronto FC is 11 games into the 2018 Major League Soccer season, and things don’t look too good for the reigning MLS Cup champs at the moment.

Last week’s 1-0 home loss to FC Dallas meant TFC dropped to 3-7-1, and currently sits ninth in the Eastern Conference – three spots and nine points out of a playoff berth.

What’s going on with the Reds? How come they’re off to such a laboured start? And are they in serious danger of missing the playoffs?

Here’s a look at TFC through the first third of the MLS campaign.

TEAM MVP

Jonathan Osorio. Since the second half of last season, the Canadian has been in the best form of his career. Osorio has won back a starting role in 2018, earning plaudits for his consistent and outstanding play. He finished as the joint top scorer in the CONCACAF Champions League with four goals, and was named to the tournament’s all-star team. In MLS, Osorio ranks second on the team in minutes played with 790 (behind captain Michael Bradley), and has two goals and an assist in nine appearances, all of them as a starter. He’s been one of the Reds’ best attacking threats, elevating his game and playing at an all-time high confidence level.

BIGGEST UNDER-ACHIEVER

Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian was lights out in the CONCACAF Champions League, finishing tied with Osorio as the top scorer and being named to the tournament’s best XI. MLS has been a different story. Giovinco has flattered to deceive, scoring just twice and proving to be incredibly wasteful in front of the goal – he’s taken 58 shots, second most in MLS. To his credit, Giovinco has collected four assists, but he will always be judged by how many goals he scores, and on that front, the Italian has been lacklustre. With Jozy Altidore out injured long-term, the Reds need Giovinco to score, and score often.

BEST NEWCOMER

Auro Jr. Signed on a one-year loan deal from Brazilian club Sao Paulo in the off-season, the Brazilian fullback has quietly put together a solid debut campaign in MLS. Auro Jr. isn’t flashy – most of what he does goes unnoticed – but he’s given Toronto some added width in attack with his dangerous and probing runs. His versatility has also been a big plus, as he’s been able to play on both on the left and right flank, lessening the blow of Justin Morrow’s prolonged absence due to injury. Honourable mention to Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel, whose intelligence and ability to play out from the back has offered the Reds a big boost.

BIGGEST OVER-ACHIEVER

Ashtone Morgan. Just when you think he’s done and dropped way down the pecking order, Morgan climbs his way back up the depth chart. The Canadian has made the most of his opportunities this season when playing on the left side of midfield, hardly looking out of place and reminding coach Greg Vanney that he has plenty to offer. He also scored in the Reds’ win over Club America in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ryan Telfer. After spending last year with the TFC 2 farm club, the young Canadian signed with the senior team on April 13, and made his MLS debut 24 hours later in a 2-0 loss to Colorado. Telfer has had to fill in at left fullback, where he’s looked a bit suspect, but he’s proven to be a dangerous attacking threat when deployed in midfield, and he scored a spectacular winner against Orlando.

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Not ready to push the panic button on TFC just yet
May 26 2018

SOMETHING TO WORK ON

Getting healthy. Injuries have decimated TFC this season. At one point, they were missing their top four central defenders. Regular starters such as Drew Moor, Justin Morrow, Altidore, Victor Vazquez, and Chris Mavinga have sat out long stretches. Others who have missed significant time include Nick Hagglund, Nico Hasler and Eriq Zavaleta. As a result, players have been used out of position – Michael Bradley has been shifted from central midfield to the middle of defence.

All of these injuries have led to very little continuity and chemistry, both on the training pitch and in games. Injuries aren’t the only reason why Toronto is off to a poor start. But there’s no denying that all of these absences and inconsistent lineups have taken a toll on TFC, even with all of its depth. The upcoming World Cup break will offer some welcome relief, and a chance for the team to rest and recuperate. Somehow, though, Vanney has to manage his current resources until his team can get healthy again.

SOMETHING TO WORK ON, PART 2

Stop conceding early. It happened again in last Friday’s 1-0 loss to FC Dallas – the visitors scored early to put the MLS Cup champs in a hole to dig out of, forcing them to play catch-up.

In total, TFC has conceded seven goals in the opening 15 minutes of five games across MLS and the Champions League in 2018. Last season, the Reds proved quite adept at coming from behind, but there’s no question they’d much rather play with the lead. And with so many key players missing at the moment, giving up early goals is not a position that a team struggling with injuries should be putting itself in.

“Our goals have to be focused on winning the first 15 minutes [of games], setting up the game to give ourselves the best chance to get the result, versus playing from behind,” Vanney said after a 3-2 loss away to New England on May 12, a game that saw Toronto concede twice in the opening 10 minutes.

WHERE DOES TFC STAND AT THE MOMENT?

To be sure, things don’t look good at the moment for Toronto, sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference, three spots and eight points out of a playoff berth. Are the reigning MLS Cup champs in crisis mode, though?

No. Only a third of the campaign is in the books, and you have to think that once TFC gets healthy, with its quality, they’ll turn things around.

It’s difficult to envision Toronto finishing in the top two in the East, thus earning a first-round bye in the playoffs, after this laboured start to the year. But that’s not the end of the world. TFC finished third in the East and was forced to beat Philadelphia in the knockout round in 2016 en route to reaching the final that year, while Seattle won the MLS Cup after finishing fourth in the West. Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup as the third-placed team from the West. The point is that finishing out of the top two isn’t a death sentence.

Let’s also remember that it’s still only May. MLS campaigns aren’t defined by where you are in the spring, but rather in the fall, and there’s a lot of soccer to be played from now until October.

Toronto’s next five matches are against Eastern Conference rivals, with three of them on the road. This stretch of matches is an important chance for TFC to respond in a big way and climb up the standings.

“We have to look pretty closely at ourselves and continue to understand where things need to improve, and where we have to pick things up. Our margin for error is becoming slimmer and slimmer with every game. There’s a lot of games left, we still feel like we have a good team; we have a team that can win on a lot of days. But the reality right now is that we’re letting games slip away from us too consistently,” Bradley said after the Dallas loss.

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