So, Toronto FC has dug itself a bit of hole to climb out of early on in the Major League Soccer season.
After nine games, TFC sits second-last in the Eastern Conference (and second-last in the league overall) with seven points and a 2-6-1 record, a whopping 18 points behind East-leading Atlanta United FC in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
Saturday’s 3-2 setback away to the New England Revolution marked TFC’s sixth loss of the 2018 MLS campaign. The Reds lost only five times in the league last season. Maintaining a steely focus on the CONCACAF Champions League hurt the Reds through the early part of the MLS campaign, as did a rash of injuries that left them decimated on defence.
And while it’s true that Toronto turned things around to make it to the MLS Cup final after suffering similarly slow starts in 2016 and 2017, the Reds have yet to play any of the elite teams in the East – Atlanta, New York City FC, and Orlando City – and they have a gruelling schedule, with six games over the next five weeks.
What does TFC have to do to get back on track?
Injury issues have plagued Toronto through the first three months of the campaign. Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow, Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, and Nick Hagglund have all sat out for significant stretches. Last week, both Jozy Altidore and Nico Hasler were also ruled out for several weeks.
The problem hasn’t been that the Reds have so many players out of commission, but rather that most of the injuries have been at one position: Four of the team’s five centre backs have spent time on the sidelines. The absence of Morrow has also meant that coach Greg Vanney has had to go with a makeshift back line, especially in the last few weeks when he’s deployed midfielder Michael Bradley and right fullback Gregory van der Wiel in the centre of the defence.
There’s not much TFC can do except ride out this injury crisis and cope with the situation as best it can in order to get everybody back at full fitness as soon as possible. You can’t rush players back before they are ready. Patience is the key, and that doesn’t appear lost on Vanney.
Van der Wiel was not named to the 18-man roster on Saturday as a precaution, as he was dealing with an Achilles issue. Vanney avoided the temptation to use the Dutchman against New England, giving him the day off so he could recuperate.
Vanney took a cautious approach with Mavinga, who only played one MLS game before Saturday, and only brought him on as a second-half sub. The last thing Vanney wanted to do was rush the Frenchman back and have him play 90 minutes after such a lengthy injury absence.
That was also why Vanney started Vazquez on the bench, and didn’t bring him on until the 70th minute. The Spaniard was subbed out at halftime of last Wednesday’s loss to Seattle after suffering a knock to his knee earlier in the game.
STOP CONCEDING EARLY
It wasn’t the best start on Saturday in New England for TFC, as it conceded twice inside the opening seven minutes of the match.
This continued a disturbing trend for Vanney’s team. It has now coughed up six goals in the opening 10 minutes across five games in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play this season.
Things went from bad to worse for Toronto in the first minute of the second half when Teal Bunbury scored on the counter to give the Revs a 3-0 lead.
These early goals have been absolute killers for TFC, forcing it to play catch-up far too often. It’s not a position that a team struggling with injuries should be putting itself in.
“We gifted away goals early in the first half and getting down on the road 2-0 is a horrendous start,” Vanney told reporters after the loss in New England.
“Also, just the way we give up goals, it’s unacceptable. I think we’re now minus-9 in the first 15 minutes of the first half and of the second half, and that’s something we took a lot of pride in last year, but, for whatever reason — not whatever reason — it will stop happening.
“But we’ve got to stop giving up goals in the first parts of the games or the second half. Playing from behind is not the position we want to be in and we’re finding ourselves [in that situation] too much.”
MORE GOALS FROM MORE SOURCES
The Reds boasted the best attack in MLS last season with 74 goals, from 15 different scorers. Toronto had two players finish in the top 10 in league scoring: Sebastian Giovinco (eighth, 16 goals) and Altidore (10th, 15 goals).
Toronto’s attack hasn’t exactly clicked in 2018. The Reds have scored a modest 12 goals thus far, with Giovinco, Altidore and Vazquez accounting for half of the offence.
With Altidore out of action for the next month or so, and Giovinco not producing in MLS (the Italian has just two goals in seven league appearances this campaign), TFC needs other players to step up.
Canadian Jay Chapman bagged his first goal of the season in Toronto’s recent 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union. But he followed that up by squandering several goal-scoring chances in each of the Reds’ next two games, including ballooning his shot over the crossbar from in close after Giovinco put it on a plate for him.