At the risk of sounding delusional, not only do I favor Toronto FC’s chances of making the playoffs this year, but in addition, I think they have reasonable potential to make waves once they get there.
Considering their last two outings were losses to Seattle and New England respectively, that may seem an outlandish statement to make. Given their history of failure and apparent fragility, many are starting to write this team off. With a shaky and unstable defense, no lead seems secure and playing from behind has become common, at least against teams from the upper half of the Eastern Conference and just about all of the Western Conference.
Toronto FC Plays Well but Keeps Losing, For Now
Yes it is true, statistically, Toronto FC have only been able to really dominate teams below them in the Eastern Conference, such as Orlando City FC and at times, New York City FC and the Montreal Impact. Trouble comes quickly against teams who defend well, have a potent counter attack, can rule the midfield or simply have a well-developed identity with a deep lineup and a winning tradition. Teams such as Sporting Kansas City, LA Galaxy, the New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution, have been tough competition, as they all have the ability to win games when it matters down the stretch.
But let’s not forget, this is Major League Soccer, a league with parity and opportunity for just about anyone to find their form and make a late-season run to create a surprise ending.
This time last year, Toronto FC was a team that was in a state of collapse heading down the stretch. Ryan Nelsen was unable to organize and motivate the group and the incoming Greg Vanney provided no solution. This season’s edition may be underachieving on the scoreline, but they are nowhere near the same in terms of low motivation and resilience.
Against Seattle, Vanney returned to a 3 – 5 – 3 formation with quick transitioning fullbacks on each flank, working back to make a line of five. Most of the time, it worked and allowed the attack to flourish. Holding off Dempsey and Martins was not easy, but with the exception of one very unlucky bounce off goaltender Chris Konopka, Toronto would have held the Sounders to a 1 – 1 draw instead of the 2 – 1 loss.
At home against New England this past Sunday, the individual errors told the tale. Damien Perquis gifted the Revs an own goal. A lapse in coverage allowed Diego Fagundez time and space to blast the eventual winner from the top of the box. Michael Bradley didn’t demonstrate the most sensible clearing approach as he hung on too long and coughed up the ball for Kelyn Rowe to score New England’s third goal. This one sealed it as Toronto was on the comeback, by virtue of a nicely headed goal from the surging Robbie Findley.
In all other aspects, this was a match Toronto FC owned. With 21 shots (to seven) and 60 percent possession, Toronto FC has rarely dominated and set the tempo in a fashion quite like this, even at home. New England deserves credit and showed their own resilience, playing on the back foot for most of the match, they found a way to win.
It’s easy to forget that Toronto FC began the season with horrible starts in their early outings this season, a seven game road swing. Vanney tried a similar formation with some very high offensive lines and it almost became his undoing. Toronto FC recovered though and started getting the job done, playing responsibly and taking no one for granted. An identity began to emerge as Giovinco started to shine and Bradley and Altidore showed flashes of dominance.
Inconsistency has been the order of the day for Toronto FC. The additions of Ahmed Kantari and Josh Williams to the back line has failed to produce immediate results, though Williams seems to have earned a regular spot. Kantari, like Damien Perquis, has been stalled by injury and at times been erratic in his adjustment to the physicality of the league. Eriq Zavaleta has shown some good while Justin Morrow and Ashtone Morgan have done well as fullbacks. Clement Simonen has been a pleasant surprise but has seen little action due to injury. The same could be said of Nick Hagglund.
Vanney has tried to get a consistent back four but it’s been a challenge. He may have to simply go with health and fitness and hope for the best. In due time, this group will gel. It may be a question of time to fully adjust. One may wonder if that time is really available with seven regular season games remaining.
If indeed there is, and like the attack, the group finds its form, Toronto FC will become increasingly difficult to play against. Vanney has put some nice ingredients together but the finished product is yet to be achieved. To his credit, he has shown great patience in that regard and has always highlighted the positive, even when others would rather focus on the negative. As a supporter of his players, Vanney has taken the right road and no doubt, cultivates a strong mentality that would have otherwise tanked weeks ago.
If a more complete team is the norm going into these last few games, the majority of those outings will produce good results. They are mostly at home and against lower ranked competition and will offer Toronto FC a reasonable chance of making the postseason for the very first time. Once that occurs, an established back line and a potent offense might just turn some heads. Though the results have yet to arrive, they are not far off. Could Toronto FC develop as a playoff dark horse? Time will tell.
Let’s see what happens.