3 straight games now, 4 out of 5, that Toronto FC have lost points with a late goal, generally it's injury time, though against New York it was in the 88th minute that Tim Calill knocked home Thierry Henry's cross. It's become absurd really, unbelievable in a totally believable way. Everyone knows it's going to happen, but we're all still stunned when it does, it's just preposterous that any club can do this so often.
If San Jose's equally ridiculous run of late goals last year (which they've continued into this one, TFC play them on May 8th, I wonder what's going to happen there!) eventually got it's own catchphrase - Goonies never die, then for TFC it's very convenient that they play in red as every good Trekkie knows what happens, Redshirts Always Die.
How to stop it is now the big question facing TFC. Clearly getting towards his wit's end, Ryan Nelsen on Saturday attributed the ongoing problem to character in his post game press conference.
It's not a jinx, not a hoax or anything like that. We need personalities to go and clear the ball or win the ball, Strong personalities that want it in the back. Every successful team in the world has had one or two defenders that the ball seems to go like a magnet to their head since they wanted to win it so much.
We don't seem to have that personality and character to go and put out the fire. Clear it into the stands or smash it miles away.
Someone has to do it. Whether it's Darren or Gale or Ashtone, someone has to take that mantle. That's what good teams, successful teams do. If they want to be good and want to go on, they need to take responsibility. Not talk about it, not gesture but actually do it through actions.
We've got really young guys, got some young guys playing at full back, a young centre back, and unfortunately, it shows there's a bit of inexperience and it shows in key matters, key plays, they've got to learn from it and address it.
Personality, character, responsibility, experience. Gravel in your guts and spit in your eye as Johnny Cash might say. Where might TFC find that? Let's go back through the archives and find some good quotes shall we?
"(He) is a proven defender in our league, and a player with a lot of character. Our defenders are young and we expect (him) to provide important leadership as we change the culture of our team" - Kevin Payne
"It was great to get somebody like (him) whose been around the block a few times to add a bit of experience and a bit of steel." - Ryan Nelsen
"A proven defender in our league, and a player with a lot of character." - Kevin Payne
We are of course talking about Danny Califf, the big off season re-entry draft acquisition, signed to bring some experience, toughness, leadership, all that stuff that can neatly be summed up with the term 'character'. He may not be the most skilled, or the most athletic, and he may not be exactly what TFC need, but the one thing that seems to be universally agreed on when it comes to his attributes is his character, his willingness to get stuck in, and determination to go for the difficult challenges and win the ball. Also his experience, he's 33, an MLS veteran who's been with his share of bad teams. As Califf himself might put it - this isn't his first rodeo.
It's that experience that would probably be the most valuable thing at this stage as TFC are very clearly a mentally fragile team. Injuries haven't helped, Ashtone Morgan is having a tough year and would probably be on the bench himself if other options were available. It was his botched clearance that set things in motion for New York's goal. Ryan Richter hasn't done all that badly, but New York were having a field day down their left hand side (to be fair to Richter, Thierry Henry has made much better players than him look silly, so that's forgiveable). Darren O'Dea, Paul Mariner's 'bossman at the back', the captain? His error led to Houston's tying goal, and he doesn't seem to have what it takes to marshall the defence or keep them organised at set pieces when the pressure's on.
The one player Califf would probably replace is quite possibly the one who least deserves it. Gale Agbossoumonde has done well and brings a different, more athletic and skilled type of game than Califf does. TFC might well be the place where his once promising career finally gets back on track, but right now another promising but raw youngster isn't what TFC need back there. The back 4 against New York had an average age of just over 23, with Darren O'Dea the oldest at 26. An experienced head is what's needed now when the last few minutes come along, when the pressure's really being applied, from the opposition, from a crowd that's expecting the worst, from the unwanted nagging memories in their own head of recent failures, causing them to tighten up and subconciously change their game. Someone who's been there before, who can keep the others organised, focused and in the moment.
And yet there he sits, on the bench for these last 3 games as the collapses happened. Of course, there's no guarantee he'd make things better, after all he was on the field for the first few games and of the 2 leads TFC took into the last minutes of those games, they gave up one to L.A and came very very close to giving up the other against Sporting Kansas City. But in Nelsen's lament for a certain type of player (I get the strong impression he's itching to put his boots on and go out there and do it himself at this stage), he was practically describing all of Califf's best attributes.
I understand the concept of keeping going with a player who came in and did well, as Agbossoumonde did, but it's time to bring Califf back into the team, even if only as a second half sub, fresh legs and an experienced head to help TFC hold on to what they have for once.