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Toronto FC Month Four In Review: Was June A Step Forward Or Was It All A Mirage?

Another month has passed and looking at the standings you'd be hard pressed to show that TFC have taken even the smallest of steps forward. But do the lack of points mask a club that is oh so slowly coming together?

Yes Danny, we do want you to finish putting away those chairs. Saviour or no, please just finish.
Yes Danny, we do want you to finish putting away those chairs. Saviour or no, please just finish.

I realize that everyone's attention has been turned to the Forlan (is he, isn't he) and Luis Silva dramas and that I'm treading dangerously close to a "Month and a Half Review" as this is a touch late, but I'm going to try and colour within the lines and stick with the month of June.

June was a frustrating month for both fans of Toronto FC and the team itself; and for the same reasons. A somewhat decent run of form (1-1-2) - OK decent for TFC - is completely wiped away by the lack of goals and a complete 90 minute effort from our Reds. But still, those tantalizing bits of improvement - are they for real or is it wishful thinking?

Over the course of the month a number of players were let go as Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen continue to slowly makeover the roster. The ending of Hogan Ephraim's loan didn't upset anyone, saying farewell to Logan Emory wasn't really that difficult, but for some the release of Terry Dunfield rankles - especially with the recent signing of Michael Thomas. However, it is clear that Payne and Co. are determined to be somewhat ruthless in their overhaul of the team, and whether it's an underperforming loanee or a hard-working, good old Canadian boy they're definitely making changes that - for good or for ill - they think will improve the club in the long haul.

So June - a month in which Toronto masqueraded as an almost competent team - saw our Reds show some signs of improvement. While at the same time illustrating exactly how starved for talent they truly are. The away win in DC and the scoreless draw in Houston were the highlights of a month that was bookended by a frustrating draw against Philadelphia and an even more depressing loss to RSL.

So are they really improving?

Forwards: This continues to be Toronto's weakest area - they simply cannot score to save their lives. I could make all sorts of jokes about barns and their inability to score in a....well you know what I mean. Two goals, TWO - that's all TFC managed to put past opposition keepers in the month of June. Number of those goals scored by Robert Earnshaw? One. So, yay for progress? Not really.

Gifted with more chances than I can count, Earnshaw has yet to fully rediscover his scoring touch from earlier in the season. He has started to look more lively and shown some of his trademark hustle but again - no goals. His injury late in the month - a calf strain - caused him to miss the game against RSL which paved the way for the debut of everyone's favourite shambling Dutchman, Danny Koevermans.

Koef was clearly a last second choice in that game as Nelsen has been easing the big man into games throughout the month. But with close to zero bonafide MLS scoring options on the squad he didn't have much choice. Koef looked like his always does in the first games he plays each season - you can see the potential in how he holds up the ball and so forth - but boy is he rusty. Koef doesn't round into game shape right away - don't expect him to light up the league anytime before August, if at all.

Simply put, the (pretty much non-existent) TFC attack - including Jeremy Brockie who most of us would love to keep in red - is still not good enough. With better chances provided each game - even some nice crosses whipped in - the inability to convert more than two of those chances? More than maddening - it's enough already - score or sit down.

Rating: 4.5/10

Midfield: The area of greatest improvement yet still showing a telling weakness on the wings and in the attacking third, the midfield has begun to be a bit of a revelation. And by revelation I am of course referring to Matias Laba. I realize that I gush about this kid a lot but I've good reason.

As the month progressed and as Laba continues to get more and more comfortable not just with his teammates but with MLS's style of play, he just keeps improving. Showing a deft touch and ability to pass like we've pretty much never seen before here in Toronto Laba's marshalling of the midfield has kept Toronto in games and made them look more than the sum of their parts. While not the fastest his field sense allows him to be where he needs to be - which is usually disrupting the opposition attack and getting the ball out to the wings. He is TFC's best player at the moment and if future signings are of a similar calibre than the team should fare well.

As for the rest of the midfield: well, they're trying. Bobby Convey is starting to do some decent things out on the wing and Jonathan Osorio continues to impress. But really other than Osorio the rest are still looking just average. Jeremy Hall as Laba's partner had an average month - but as Laba improves Hall's limitations have begun to show - hopefully he will learn from his younger, more talented partner and the two will be a solid pairing going into the summer.

Osorio continues to get better and earned a call-up to the CMNT for the Gold Cup for his efforts over the season but certainly his play throughout the month of June. In fact Osorio scored one of TFC's two goals in June and has been a danger in the attacking third almost every time he steps on the pitch.

Whereas Luis Silva - I know, I know but he was still with the team in June! - has again just been mostly frustrating. Showing flashes of the talent that we witnessed through much of last season, Silva has continued to look tentative on the ball and has been very reluctant to shoot the ball even when presented with clear chances. While played out of position for much of the season he did find success playing up top last year so this cannot be the only reason for the drop in play.

As for the rest? Reggie Lambe is really the only one worth noting - not that there's much to note. He's energetic enough but still makes silly mistakes and misses out on opportunities to get the ball to his teammates. There's a reason that he barely played in the month of June and did anyone miss him? Not really.

Rating: 5.5/10 - but 6.5/10 for Laba

Defense: A surprisingly solid part of this current Reds team with Steven Caldwell marshalling the backline and (now) former CB Darren O'Dea morphing into a pretty fair leftback and it looks as though the defensive spine for Toronto might be finally coming together. Except that other than those two there's not much to write home about.

Caldwell - now signed to a permanent deal; huzzah for stability - has clearly been the general at the back and has warred with Matias Laba (in my mind anyway) for MOTM honours throughout most of the games in June. Highly vocal and generally positionally sound he's kept the defense organized and saw the Reds only concede three goals in June - down six from the month of May (and April and March) - that is highlighted by his save on Will Bruin's shot in the Dynamo match. His presence and ability to defend set pieces has started to help make TFC actually hard to score against (remember, this is June we're talking about).

And captain Darren O'Dea has surprised playing out at leftback. He gets better every game and has started to work well with Bobby Convey on the left. Showing a decent ability to whip in a cross and adjusting to the two way nature of the position he may keep Ashtone Morgan off the pitch for some time.

And that's where the laudatory remarks end. It is still glaringly obvious that Ryan Richter is not an MLS starter. Still good for at least one defensive gaffe per game his real deficiency is when he goes forward. It's always an adventure and not in the "whee this is fun!" type, oh no it's the "dear gods he's got the ball" type most days. While he has improved defensively, he is clearly bench depth only and the sooner that Richard Eckersley is back, the better.

As for Doneil Henry - well that's an adventure of an entirely different sort. After being on the bench for much of the season he'd played himself back onto the first team back in May. Nelsen obviously wants him to learn from Caldwell and playing between Caldwell and O'Dea has to be good for him, right? Sure if only they could prevent him from what is now becoming the expected mental meltdown that saw him receive not one, but TWO red cards in the month of June. The most recent (in the RSL match) due to pure idiocy. Yes he's young, but if he doesn't show signs of maturing and soon, Gale Agbossoumonde is going to take back that starting role even when Doneil returns from Gold Cup play.

Rating: 5.5/10

Keeper: All Joe Bendik all the time. With Stefan Frei still only making cameos on the subs bench and Bendik proving quite capable between the posts, really what else is there to say? OK, I should say a bit more. Bendik had a solid month in June - he made some huge stops in the DC game - and cannot be discounted for his contribution to the drop in goals against.

Where he still lacks is in distribution; although there are signs of improvement there as well. Bendik's tendency to hoof the ball a mile (and boy can he kick that ball), but only to have it either go out or land at opposition feet has been a season long irritant for TFC fans. What I have seen throughout the month of June is Bendik actually making use of the short pass to his defense and letting the play build up from the back. This is a good sign, that not only are they more confident in building the play but that perhaps GK coach Kerr has had some nice long chats with Joe during training - use your hands Joe, short passes Joe!

Otherwise he continues to be a solid if not (too often) spectacular keeper. And that's what you want really - you don't want your keeper to have to make highlight reel saves every game. The real question is who's his backup when Stefan Frei is inevitably traded/released/etc. Quillan Roberts has yet to see a minute of MLS play and if he's going to develop further will need to loaned out to get the needed minutes as Reserve League play is likely not going to cut it. But as Frei is still a member of TFC we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Rating: 5.0/10

Coach/Management: There's not much to say about Ryan Nelsen and Kevin Payne that I've not said in previous months. I'm not going to discuss the friendly, I'm not going to mention the increasingly oft-putting special events (mostly because those aren't their doing) and as for the signings/releases? I'm pretty much OK with all of the recent moves - Thomas notwithstanding as he's yet to play.

I continue to find Nelsen to be an OK coach - he's not been spectacular but neither do I think he's completely over his head. I have wondered about a few of his lineup choices - although what choice does he really have most games? And his subbing on of Koef in the Philadelphia game for Jeremy Brockie - in what was still a winnable game - still makes me angry even a month later. But it's less the in game decisions that concern me and more so the post-game talk.

Even though he's been a little more plain talking about the lack of quality on his team - often noting this is not the team that they would have chosen, that they're hampered by the previous regimes (all of which is true) - there is still a rose coloured glasses aspect to his post-game pressers. And while I understand that this isn't the team he may have chosen just say that they're not very good and they're working to make them better. And personally, I wish all talk of still making the playoffs to stop - it is not happening, I don't expect it to happen, please let's just move on!

Now with the transfer window open all the hyperbole about 3 or 4 players from both men needs to come to fruition. This team is dying for a quality striker, a creative attacking midfielder and someone to play wing. If they can find young talent to go along with Laba and Osorio and actually start building that youthful core they keep talking about then maybe this team will actually be something to look forward to.

Rating: 5.0/10 - but treading close to 4.5/10 depending on the day.

Overall? Average - it was an average month. And if the months leading up to June had been better than an average month wouldn't be so bad. But they weren't and well this still isn't a very good team. But for me, they're a better team. Not much mind you, but I'll take the baby steps; for now. With missing players, injured players and unknown new players all very much a part of July it will be a small miracle if they don't regress - fingers crossed.