Toronto FC are in deep trouble. They have 18 games to haul their way up the Eastern Conference and into the playoffs. But the warning signs have been there for a while. The time to panic was a while ago.
The CONCACAF Champions League was a rare opportunity for Toronto FC. They were not foolish in their desire to prioritise the competition. It was a unique chance for an MLS club to rival the Mexicans, it offered a passage in the Club World Cup, and it would have been a historic achievement, even more so than defending their MLS Cup.
But the risk backfired. They rotated their squad in the early part of the season, they didn’t provide a long enough period of rest during the offseason for many of their players, they sacrificed losses in the opening few months, suffered injuries, and now find themselves in an almighty hole that they will do well to get out of.
The size of the task ahead of them is substantial. Toronto currently sit second-last in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only DC United. They have won 0.94 points per game this season, which is better than only three MLS teams, and are now eight points off the playoff pace.
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The hole that they dug for themselves was only accentuated by the weekend’s loss to the New York Red Bulls. They were unlucky. In fact, they were the better team for much of the match and if Sebastian Giovinco had converted a penalty and some of the finishing was that bit better, they could have very easily been heading home with the three points in their back pockets. But they didn’t. They lost, and now they have lots of work to do to rescue their season.
Charlie Davies of mlssoccer.com has stated that it’s time for Toronto to ‘smash the panic button’. And I agree with him. But I would actually go a step further than that. The signs for panic have been there for some time. These are not new problems and, with a bit of foresight, it was not difficult to see Toronto slumping into the hole that they now find themselves in.
Defensively, for instance, the individual mistakes that Davies refers to have been occurring all season. They are not just turned off overnight like a light switch. The injuries that have substantially shaped the personnel that Greg Vanney has been able to utilise took their effect early also, with many of the absences not short-term ones. The over-reliance of Giovinco and his ability to create a moment of brilliance out of nothing has been an issue for the whole season.
Earlier in the year, it felt like these problems would just wash over as players returned and the experience of the team allowed them to settle back into the rhythm of a league that they have dominated in recent years. But that was a naive perspective. These problems are deeper-rooted than just temporary. They need genuine change to fix them.
The time to panic was a long time ago. Toronto can still make the playoffs. Toronto can miss the playoffs and still survive. They have done so many times before. But their level of performance has been troubling for some time, even if it’s only now that the national media is awakening to it.