TORONTO — Toronto FC knows it is on the clock.
The Reds are approximately a third of the way through the regular season and could be 10 points adrift of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot by the end of the weekend.
Injuries, participation in the Concacaf Champions League and individual errors have combined to ruin the beginning of Toronto’s MLS Cup defense. But it was not until Friday’s 1-0 loss to FC Dallas — TFC’s seventh of the year and third at home — that an acceptance that the situation is becoming urgent emerged in the home locker room at BMO Field.
After the final whistle, Toronto captain Michael Bradley sat at his stall engaged in a lengthy conversation with Justin Morrow, one of a number of key veterans currently sidelined.
Then he turned to the media, and it was evident that Bradley is no longer willing to focus on the positives and insist he is unconcerned by the club’s position in the standings.
“Almost impossible to think that we can’t find a goal,” Bradley said after TFC had failed to score on 23 shots. “But it’s also not the first time that we’ve had a night like this this season. We’ve got to look pretty closely at ourselves now and continue to understand where things need to improve, where we have to pick things up, because our margin for error is becoming slimmer and slimmer with every game.
“We still feel like we have a good team, we have a team that can win on a lot of days, but the reality right now is that we’re letting games slip away from us too consistently. Like I said, the margin for error is going with it.”
LISTEN: Greg Vanney’s postgame press conference in full
The only fact providing Bradley with a crumb of comfort was another telling giveaway of how aware TFC is of the mountain it has to climb.
“If there is one silver lining tonight, it’s that it’s points dropped against a Western Conference team,” he added. “Doesn’t make it feel any better. It’s not a positive in any way. But like I said, it’s the one sliver of a silver lining tonight.”
Compounding Toronto’s predicament is that it heads on the road for three of its next four games having played seven of 11 so far this season on home turf. Four of the Reds’ next five are against teams in their own conference, making for a crucial — and challenging — stretch.
“It could be,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said when asked if Friday’s defeat could be a costly one. “It’s tough to say right now.”
TFC’s injury problems get worse
With defenders Eriq Zavaleta, Chris Mavinga and Nick Hagglund back and left back Morrow seemingly not far away, Toronto appeared to be getting over its debilitating injury bug.
But managing players making their return to the team has been a problem. Often, they are thrust straight back into the lineup due to the lack of options TFC has available — particularly at the back.
Zavaleta got through 90 minutes in the win over Orlando City, but has now suffered a mild groin strain. Mavinga was brought off just before half time in this match with hamstring tightness. And off the field, Morrow’s recovery from a calf issue has been slow and Ashtone Morgan, Marky Delgado and Ager Aketxe have all been added to the list of absentees with fatigue-related ailments.
May 25, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco (10) takes a free kick as FC Dallas defenders form a wall at BMO Field. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
“Every time we bring somebody back, they’re out within the next two games,” Vanney bemoaned.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it,” Bradley said. “It hurts in a lot of ways. It hurts because we haven’t had any real consistency. We’ve played a lot of games this year, but in reality we’ve had no consistency in terms of who’s on the field and where. On a lot of days in training we don’t have huge numbers, so it’s not always easy to make sure we’re able to work on the things we need to and make sure the quality is what it should be. It hurts, just in terms of options for the game — who plays, who starts, who comes off the bench, who can make a difference for us when we need a change at some point during the game.
“It’s been a challenge but it’s not an excuse.”
A non-Giovinco threat needed
Dallas goalkeeper Jesse González had Sebastian Giovinco’s number in this game. The American celebrated his 23rd birthday by denying Giovinco from the penalty spot, and he had produced an even better save off a volley from TFC’s star man earlier on.
But while Giovinco mustered 12 shots in total, that volley was the sole quality chance he got on the end of from open play. Eight of his shots were from outside the penalty area and two of the four in the box were blocked before they reached González.
Giovinco saw six shots blocked overall, and no player lost possession more frequently than his 27 times. But those stats do not illustrate that he had a bad game so much as they show just how closely he was marked by the Dallas defense and how much of a burden he felt to make things happen alone.
The problem is that with Jozy Altidore out, none of Giovinco’s teammates are giving Toronto’s opponents reason to focus their attention elsewhere. Jordan Hamilton passed up a glaring opportunity early in last week’s win over Orlando City. Tosaint Ricketts was guilty of an even worse miss, yards out on a rebound, in this match.
It’s simple: if the price of doubling up on Giovinco is one good chance falling the way of another TFC player, it’s worth paying until someone in red proves otherwise.
“At the end of the day, it’s execution,” Vanney said. “We put together 621 passes to 272. We played three quarters of the game in their half of the field. We had 23 chances of goal… a lot of them good chances. We’ve got to execute. If you don’t execute, you don’t win games. It doesn’t matter how you play, doesn’t matter how many passes you put together.”