Reigning MLS Cup champions Toronto FC may have had a brutal start to the season, but the team is now healthy and ready to make a late playoff push.
As the MLS season rolls into the month of August, fans and analysts begin to figure out who are some of the favorites to lift the MLS Cup at the end of the year.
Atlanta United sit in first place in the Supporters’ Shield race, and are led by Josef Martinez, who is on course to break the MLS single-season goalscoring record. NYCFC aren’t too far behind, and have been dealing with constant injuries to captain David Villa but continually earning victories in his absence. Meanwhile, out West, FC Dallas lead the way, while both teams in LA have high hopes of making a deep run in the playoffs.
But amid all this, there’s a dark horse contender that currently sit out of the playoff picture.
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Toronto FC enter this weekend in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. It seems weird to say that a team so low down the standings could be considered as playoff contenders. However, they are only six points behind 5th and 6th place, the final two playoff spots. It’s a ridiculously tight contest in the East with six teams fight for the last two spots. And as time goes on, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Toronto will be able to sneak in before the end of the season.
The reigning MLS Cup champions endured a brutal start to the season. Their focus was on continental competition, as the club prioritized the CONCACAF Champions League, making it all the way to the final, but slipped up at the final hurdle, losing to Chivas on penalties, the long flights and grueling away fixtures tired out the team, and their league form struggled as a result.
Injuries have also played a big part in their current problems. Jozy Altidore was injured during the CONCACAF Champions League final and missed many months of the season. Victor Vazquez has dealt with nagging injuries throughout the year and has had troubles playing a consistent run of games. At one point, Toronto had such a lengthy injury list that Michael Bradley was forced to play center-back.
The Canadian side are finally back to full health, which is bad news for the rest of the league. Altidore made his return to the team two weeks ago when Toronto traveled to face the Chicago Fire, and the offense instantly improved. With the American back in the team, Toronto had a target man to aim for and someone to help open up space for Sebastian Giovinco. He ended up scoring a week later and looks set to go on a tear.
Vazquez came back to the team one week later, when Toronto hosted Chicago. With him in the midfield, the Canadian side controlled the match. The Spaniard rediscovered his chemistry with Michael Bradley in no time and the Fire were left chasing shadows. With back-to-back wins over the Fire, and consecutive victories over the Ottawa Fury in the Canadian Championship, Toronto have already found themselves in good form.
Now, the real tests begin. Their next game is one of the biggest of the MLS season as they travel to face first-place Atlanta United. The sides drew both of their matchups last season and it’s the first time they’ll play this year. Atlanta have only improved in their sophomore season, becoming more stable at the back and even more explosive going forward. Josef Martinez leads the Golden Boot race by a country mile, and is flanked by Miguel Almiron and Ezequiel Barco, who have meshed very well already. It will certainly be a tight game that will be decided by a few moments of magic.
The run of games doesn’t get much easier for Toronto afterwards, either. They first host NYCFC, which is guaranteed to be a barn burner of a matchup. They do then travel to face last-place San Jose, but then have to head back home to face bitter rivals Montréal. Toronto then travels to a streaking Portland Timbers side, before hosting both Los Angeles teams in consecutive weeks.
If Toronto want to sneak into the playoffs, they are going to have earn points in tough conditions. However, they have the talent and experience to do so. If they do get into the playoffs and are in good form going into the postseason, then they will be a dangerous matchup for anyone else in the league. At the end of the day, Toronto FC might win consecutive titles in extraordinary fashion.