Burning questions: Is TFC slumping into the playoffs?

Some burning questions came to my mind after Toronto FC’s 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Sunday …

Are the Reds mired in a bit of slump?

Yes and no.

By TFC’s high standards, two wins and two losses in their last four games constitutes a slump, but don’t forget that winning ugly is a valuable character trait to have, especially in the home stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs. Despite the Reds’ “slump” in recent weeks, they still managed to clinch first place and secure a first-round bye in the post-season, so it’s difficult to find too much fault.

On the other hand, Toronto didn’t look all that polished against Montreal, a game that featured stretches of sloppy play, errant passes, silly turnovers, some spills by goalkeeper Alex Bono and the defenders struggling to build out from the back.

“It lacked some continuity. We weren’t as sharp as we’d like to be,” coach Greg Vanney said. “We were just off a little bit. We missed some passes. We missed [our] timing. We made some silly errors that put us under some pressure. It was probably the strangest 1-0 game that I’ve ever been a part of because it could have very easily been 6-5 or something like that. For us to get a shutout in that game was interesting and fortunate, [with] some good hard work combined.”

Also, Sebastian Giovonco showed the odd flash of brilliance, but overall, the Italian struggled to influence the game – not so surprising, considering he’d sat out the previous four games with a quad issue.

Overall, Toronto hasn’t looked like the best team in MLS over the past month, with the side suffering back-to-back losses, and then beating the New York Red Bulls in a bit of a shootout before just getting by Montreal on Sunday night.

The good news is that a lot of Toronto’s wounds have been self-inflicted, and not so much a case of being outplayed by their opponents. Vanney appears to have recognized this, and will use Sunday’s regular season finale in Atlanta as a chance to work out the kinks before the playoffs begin.

“We have to be sharper. We have to be better with the ball,” Vanney said. “Otherwise we’re going to put ourselves in some difficult moments. The most important thing going into the playoffs is you just can’t make mistakes.”

Is the starting 11 set for the playoffs?

It would appear that way, yes.

Vanney deployed his “A team” on Sunday, including all three designated players and Victor Vazquez. It marked the first time the Spaniard, Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and captain Michael Bradley all started together since Sept. 9.

Nick Hagglund returned from injury more than two weeks ago, but he hasn’t played a single minute, which would suggest he’s not going to dislodge Eriq Zavaleta as the club’s staring right defender. And he shouldn’t. Zavaleta has played the majority of the season, and ranks third on the team in minutes played, behind only Bradley and Justin Morrow.

Alex Bono is clearly the No. 1 goalkeeper ahead of Clint Irwin, and with Giovinco healthy again, he’ll start up front alongside Altidore, with Tosaint Ricketts coming off the bench as a “super sub.” Bradley, Vazquez and Marky Delgado are the heartbeat on the midfield, with Jonathan Osorio deployed as a substitute or an injury replacement for Delgado.

That only leaves the right wingback spot, and it looks like Nicolas Hasler has overtaken Steven Beitashour as the starter. The Liechtenstein international has proven to be a shrewd summer pick up (the Reds signed him as a free agent after Beitashour picked up an injury) and he has looked sharp on the right flank. With three goals and an assist in 10 appearances, Hasler has bolstered the Reds’ attack with his probing runs and dynamic play down the right wing, while also providing solid defensive support for Zavaleta.

Should TFC have played more Canadians?

One thing that stood out when the starting lineups were released an hour before kickoff on Sunday was the lack of Canadians in an all-Canadian matchup.

Only two players from Canada were on the field when the game kicked off, and both were wearing Montreal uniforms: midfielder Samuel Piette and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. Veteran midfielder and Impact captain Patrice Bernier also saw action, coming on as a second-half substitute. Jonathan Osorio played the last 20 minutes for Toronto, while fellow Canadians Tosaint Ricketts and Raheem Edwards remained on the bench.

Montreal was already out of playoff contention, so you can understand why coach Mauro Biello decided to play Crepeau, who is not a regular starter. In contrast, Toronto may have already wrapped up first place and first-round bye in the playoffs, but the club wants to build as much momentum as it can going into the post-season, so you can understand why coach Greg Vanney fielded his full-strength side.

On the other hand, given the opponent and the circumstances, it would have been appropriate for at least one Canadian player to be in the starting 11 for the Reds. Osorio has been one of the Reds’ most consistent contributors over the past month, and Vanney has stressed the importance of giving his bench guys minutes so they’re fully prepared for the playoffs. Surely, Vanney could have killed two birds with one stone by giving Osorio a start against Montreal.

Toronto FC supporters get an inside look into their favourite club every Monday night at 11 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. It’s an all-access pass with co-hosts Brendan Dunlop and Thomas Michalakos as they interview the biggest names around the team and preview and review of every TFC match.

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