Toronto FC Tries to Avoid Another Late Season August Meltdown

TFC-OrlandoIf you look back to this time last year, the soccer club was in a solid playoff position, yet they still missed the post-season, again.

It was the defensive lapses that became costly for Toronto FC, and lost them games in March and April of this year. Many tried to dismiss them as early-season glitches by a team still learning to play together and trying to find a groove.

But now, in early August, defensive breakdowns continue to haunt the squad. So far, Toronto has surrendered 16 goals in its last five league matches, which included three given up last Saturday in New England. September is not far and the playoff race is heating up, TFC head coach Greg Vanney isn’t ready to freak out yet over their defensive miscues, but told media that he and the players agree it’s time to get real, and bring that intensity to the pitch. Right now!

“That’s exactly the meeting we had yesterday, the conversation: ‘Don’t leave it ’til the end,’” Vanney said Tuesday. “This latter part of the season tends to go by very fast . . . Our push for the playoffs has to start now.”

He sounded optimistic in June. After TFC had visited DC United and broke that club’s 20-game home unbeaten streak, then going home two weeks later and registering a 3-1 win over the Montreal Impact, allowed TFC to go from sixth to fourth in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Most notably though, they had games in hand. BMO Field’s ongoing renovation gave TFC a spring schedule loaded with bye weeks and road games, and happily a second half stuffed with home field matches, where they thought they could gain ground on their conference rivals. But they were oh so wrong.

Since that Montreal win, TFC has won just one more time, a 2-1 decision over the lowly and last-place Philadephia squad. Inbetween the Gold Cup, injuries and red cards, the club’s Top Three — Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore — haven’t started a game together since June 27. Vanney says Bradley’s calf injury will likely sideline him Wednesday, in tonight’s game against Orlando. The midfielder is thought to be returning instead this Saturday against Kansas City. Altidore, will also sit out Wednesday after getting a red card this past Saturday for kicking New England’s Jose Goncalves.

The whole they leave on the roster means TFC’s goal-scoring burden will shift heavily on Giovinco who has 13 goals this season. And any other player who wants to prove his mettle and share the load. “I guess we can look to (Giovinco). He’s always been a fantastic player,” said midfielder Collen Warner to media. “There’s been a lot of people who have stepped up and got some goals lately, myself (included) . . . It’s not just going to be the big three who that are going to be required to step up in these games.”

last year, TFC faced an eerily similar situation: their win at Columbus put them in third in the conference, with a game or two in hand against the rest of the MLS East. Things looked bright, the franchise’s first playoff appearance seemed to be a given. But instead TFC managed to squander their advantage and went 2-8-3 from there on, painfully missing the post-season.

This year TFC will go into the first full week in August with 28 points from 20 games. There are four teams ahead of TFC in the East, and three have already played at least 23 games, giving Toronto a lot of opportunity to close the gap and make their run. TFC’s remaining opponents have earned an average of only 1.12 points a game, which gives the Reds the league’s easiest schedule by far.

But actually taking advantage of that schedule means they will have to get more discipline and tighten up defensively. “Conceding goals, it doesn’t matter if we’re at home or away. We need to stop it,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio told local media. “We’re definitely not happy about it . . . We know if we stop these goals we’re going to be a contender.”

Our pick: Toronto gets serious tonight and wins 1-0 over Orlando