If all goes well one of the most notorious streaks of futility in Toronto sports will come to an end this weekend.
Toronto FC can clinch a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history on Saturday with a home win over the Philadelphia Union, and if Orlando City and New York City FC both drop points. If TFC doesn’t clinch this weekend, it’ll happen soon enough.
Eight fruitless—and at times comical—seasons have led to this special moment, which at times seemed as though would never come. TFC in the playoffs? It’s still incredibly difficult to believe this is for real, even now.
And yet, there’s a sense of uneasiness, of foreboding about the Reds. There’s trouble bubbling not so far below the surface—and has been for some time now—that could undermine TFC’s ability to go on a lengthy playoff run.
For starters, the rate at which this team is still conceding goals is alarming.
That Toronto boasts the best attack in all of Major League Soccer (52 goals) is overshadowed by the troubling fact it also sports the league’s worst defensive record (also 52 goals). Toronto has kept only five clean sheets all season—five!—and have conceded a whopping 36 goals in their last 15 games (an average of 2.4 goals per match).
While mid-season pickup Josh Williams has been a bit of a revelation, Toronto has not received anything close to resembling value for the big-money contracts they handed veteran centre backs Damien Perquis and Ahmed Kantari.
Perqui was solid earlier in the campaign but he increasingly became a liability as the season progressed, although he’s put together strong showings in back-to-back wins. Kantari has looked unsettled ever since coming in during the summer.
The rash of injuries hasn’t helped matters as it’s forced coach Greg Vanney to shuffle his defensive starters from game to game. Still, even with the injuries, Toronto’s lack of defensive depth has been a major issue all year—this should have been addressed in the off-season.
This isn’t to entirely blame the back four, as they’ve received scant support and have at times been left cruelly exposed by their teammates further up the field.
Michael Bradley is a game breaker for Toronto FC, and capable of moments of brilliance—see his marvelous solo run and goal from this past weekend. But he’s also a bit too aggressive for his own good sometimes, as he was in trying to close down Patrick Nyarko, which directly led to Chicago’s second goal.
A few weeks ago at home vs. New England, Bradley was caught in possession inside his penalty area with TFC down a goal and mounting a late comeback. His dawdling on the ball led to a turnover, and a Revolution goal, killing off the game. Against Chicago, it was a silly giveaway by Jozy Altidore in the centre of the park that allowed the Fire to break at pace and notch the opener after just 40 seconds.
TFC needs its best players to be their best players for 90 minutes. Consistency from Toronto’s DPs isn’t an option at this point in the season—it’s an absolute requirement.
We also shouldn’t read too much into TFC’s recent two-game winning run that saw them dispatch Colorado and Chicago at home. The Rapids are the worst team in the Western Conference, while the Fire are dead last in MLS.
These are teams that Toronto should be beating, but they had to come back from a goal down against the Fire on two separate occasions. If not for superb individual efforts by Sebastian Giovinco and Bradley on two of their three goals, we could easily be talking about another Toronto loss.
“Three points. I’m not interested in the perception of what the game should have been like. Three points,” Bradley deadpanned when speaking to reporters after the game.
Bradley can downplay it all he wants, but Toronto made far too much work of dispatching the Fire. Ultimately, results matter the most. But how you get it done is important, regardless of what Toronto FC’s captain would have you believe, especially as the team prepares to compete in its first post-season.
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And while credit must be given because Saturday was the type of game that the Reds made a habit of losing so often in past years and earlier this season, the quality of Toronto’s overall performances over the summer is concerning.
Over the last three months, the only sides TFC have managed to defeat are Philadelphia, Montreal, Orlando, Colorado and Chicago—all teams that rank below them in the standings. Against the league’s top clubs (New York Red Bulls, Seattle, Columbus, New England, LA and Kansas City) in that same time period they are 0-6-1.
Toronto FC isn’t a team that inspires a lot of confidence at the moment, not even with a historic playoff berth within its grasp.