TORONTO – Playing the role of spoiler: This is what Toronto FC has been reduced to after stumbling and bumbling its way through a seventh consecutive playoff-less Major League Soccer campaign.
The Reds host the Montreal Impact on Saturday in the season finale for both teams, with the Impact needing a victory in order to clinch their first-ever MLS playoff berth. Even a loss or a draw might be enough to see Montreal qualify for the post-season, provided results in other games go its way on Sunday.
Toronto, of course, was officially eliminated from post-season contention following a loss to New York on Sept. 14. But the truth is they’ve been out of the playoff race since as early as June after winning just once in their first 13 games of the year.
Now, with a record of 5-17-11 and sitting in second-last place in the 19-team league, all they can do is try to ruin Montreal’s playoff hopes and try to salvage a bit of pride.
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With head coach Ryan Nelsen attending an MLSE board meeting, assistant coach Fran O’Leary ran Friday’s training session.
The Irishman played down the “spoiler” aspect of Saturday’s Canadian derby, though, stating that all that TFC is looking to do is finish the season strong and reward the team’s long-suffering fans with a rare win.
It was a sentiment echoed by team leading scorer Robert Earnshaw.
“It’s the last game but we also have a chance to go out and try to improve. That’s the motivation for us. It’s not about what the game [means for Montreal]. For us, it’s to go out and try to improve and really finish the season on a high,” the Welshman told reporters after practice.
The last time Toronto faced Montreal was on July 3 at BMO Field when the Reds jumped out to a 3-1 lead after 24 minutes, only to throw the advantage away and settle for a draw.
Another strong start, married to “a solid defensive foundation,” will be the key to beating Montreal, according to O’Leary.
“The first goal is going to be important,” O’Leary says. “They’ll have some nerves going into it, and if we score first it’ll add to their nervousness…. For us, we’ll want to come out flying.”
One of the more interesting questions for Toronto surrounds who will start in net.
Joe Bendik has been the team’s starting goalkeeper all season, but was suspended for last week’s match, paving the way for backup Stefan Frei to earn his first MLS start of the year. TFC’s longest-serving player, Frei is in the final year of his contract and it’s expected he won’t be back with the team in 2014.
Bendik’s suspension is over and he’s eligible to play against the Impact, but many long-time TFC fans are calling for Frei to start so he can be given a proper send-off.
O’Leary coyly deflected when asked who would be starting in goal: Bendik or Frei?
“That’ll be [Ryan’s] call,” O’Leary said.
Toronto midfielder Darel Russell (quad strain) is questionable for Saturday’s game, while forward Justin Braun has recovered from an injury and will be ready to play. Forward Danny Koevermans (calf) and midfielder Matias Laba (toe fracture) remain out.
O’Leary said left-fullback Richard Eckersley “probably” wouldn’t be in the 18-man roster. Eckersley lost his starting role to loanee Mark Bloom in recent weeks, and it’s believed the Englishman won’t be back with TFC next season.
NOTES: Former Canadian international Tomasz Radzinski paid a visit to the Reds’ training facility on Friday and watched the team practise… Montreal is winless at 0-4-3 in all competitions at BMO Field… Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier and defender Jeb Brovsky are questionable for Saturday’s game. Bernier is nursing a hip injury and Brovsky broke a toe a few weeks ago. The Impact will also be without veteran defender Alessandro Nesta.