Toronto FC’s defense of the MLS Cup is turning into a bit of a mess. After 15 games, the Reds have 15 points and are six points back of the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, albeit with a game in hand.
On the back of Sunday’s 2-1 loss at New York City FC — which leaves Toronto with just one win in its past five games — Pro Soccer USA takes a look at the biggest surprises of TFC’s season so far.
1. The Champions League hangover
Of the 29 men currently on Toronto FC’s roster, 14 have missed time at some point this season due to an injury. Right back Auro, who was forced off at halftime against NYCFC, may become the 15th player on that list when TFC takes on the New York Red Bulls Sunday. That does not include the matches Alex Bono (international duty), Sebastian Giovinco (suspension) and Jason Hernandez (match fitness) sat out.
Toronto’s injury crisis brought the momentum the club built up during the 2017 season to a complete halt. It can be attributed to the effects of a short offseason and an overwhelming start to the year between MLS play and a run to the final of the Concacaf Champions League.
Multiple players, including Jozy Altidore, Chris Mavinga and Victor Vázquez, came into the season managing issues that had been bothering them for some time. Others strained and tore muscles after starting the campaign in 3 °F (-16 °C) weather in Colorado, making three trips to Mexico and laboring on difficult pitches, including BMO Field’s torn-up grass and the dreadful artificial turf at Montreal’s Stade Olympique.
That TFC has had to deal with a Champions League hangover has not been a surprise, but the extent to which it has — perhaps irreparably — set them back has been.
2. A lack of attacking punch
Toronto scored 10 goals in its past four games despite playing three on the road, which would appear to suggest its attack is getting back on track.
But despite the goals, the Reds’ woes at the other end of the pitch come back to what they do when they have the ball. With Altidore sidelined and Justin Morrow — a left back who plays more like a winger — having only recently returned, TFC lacked players capable of stretching defenses and breaking lines. That has resulted in a lot of passing without purpose and has allowed opponents to maintain a high line and press aggressively without much fear of being burned. More turnovers — and, thus, more counterattacks — have been the end result.
“Being stingier defensively as a group, also aware in how we lose possessions, is really important,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said before the loss at NYCFC. “We’ve been losing possessions in bad areas and putting ourselves in tough situations.”
Toronto hoped they added a young, dynamic attacking midfielder in Ager Aketxe, who arrived from Athletic Club in the offseason, but his technical gifts have not translated much in the way of production so far. Up front, neither Tosaint Ricketts nor Jordan Hamilton has done enough to earn a run of starts in Altidore’s usual spot.
Few expected a lack of offensive variety to be an issue for Toronto given its huge payroll and league-leading 74 goals in the regular season last year, but at times Vanney’s men have looked inefficient and unbalanced going forwards.
3. Vanney’s tactical tinkering
Toronto became so well known for its 3-5-2 formation last season that it was considered a major surprise when Vanney rolled out a 4-4-2 diamond for the MLS Cup final.
The coach had turned to a three-man defence on the eve of the 2016 playoffs in what proved to be a masterstroke, sparking a run of form that saw TFC go all the way to its first final. The setup made a lot of sense: it allowed Toronto to bolster its back line while retaining the Altidore-Giovinco partnership that had been its biggest weapon.
In 2018, though, MLS opponents have barely seen Toronto in a 3-5-2. Vanney leaned on it regularly in the Champions League, but has deployed it only twice — losing on both occasions — as his starting formation since that competition ended.
In its place has been 4-4-2s, 4-1-4-1s and 4-4-1-1s, to name just a few of the variations. Vanney likes to emphasize his belief in principles rather than systems, and the importance of adaptability. But while he will often make mid-game tweaks, he has generally looked to provide his team with the familiarity of a consistent starting shape.
The lack of one for much of this season has been partially forced but unusual all the same, and TFC is yet to re-establish the clear sense of identity that has been present in its play over the past two campaigns.
4. Osorio’s 12-month transformation
Toronto’s season has not been devoid of any positives. The play of newcomers Auro and Gregory van der Wiel has been worthy of praise, but the biggest plus has been in the transformation of midfielder Jonathan Osorio.
Osorio had a rotten time in front of goal at the start of the 2017 season, missing several chances in a 0-0 tie against Sporting Kansas City that seemed to result in the Canadian suffering a crisis of confidence. He ended up logging just 1,059 minutes during the regular season — a total he has already surpassed this year.
Towards the end of the campaign, though, Osorio began to play his way back into form. His gradual improvement earned him a starting berth in the MLS Cup final win over Seattle, where he turned in arguably the best performance of his career to date. And he has not slowed down since.
Osorio’s nine goals in all competitions lead the team and have frequently been crucial: he won the first leg of the Champions League tie against Tigres in the dying seconds, and scored the away goal at Estadio Azteca that all but buried Club America. In MLS, Toronto would be in a far deeper hole without his game-winning double in Philadelphia, or his contribution to the comeback from 3-0 down against D.C. United.
From TFC’s perspective, there is just one problem: Osorio is in a contract year. If he keeps this up, he will have every right to demand the kind of raise to his current $209,825 deal that could present general manager Tim Bezbatchenko with a cap-related headache.