Toronto FC opened the season with two impressive victories over the Seattle Sounders and DC United, dropping a hint that "bloody big deal" might actually have some substance. Then everything was given a reality check in a 3-0 loss at the hands of Real Salt Lake. It took a little while, but Toronto eventually found their footing again after that loss. Between May 7 and August 16 the team only lost three times in MLS play. Then came a 4-1 thumping at the hands of Sporting Kansas City and Toronto failed to win in its next five matches, dropping them out of a playoff spot.
Tonight it was the LA Galaxy's turn to play the MLS elite side that steps in and reminds Toronto FC of their place within the league by ending a good run of form. This time, it came after Toronto had inched their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race with a pair of big home victories against the Portland Timbers and Chivas USA.
The 3-0 scoreline was perhaps not as demoralizing as it could been, or as some predicted, but it definitely still did the trick in terms of showing Toronto FC how far they are away from being an actual contender. There were stages this season where they resembled the part, but the sum of play makes their position nothing if not fair: fighting for their first ever playoff spot till the last.
There was some fight tonight, even if it never really became tangible. The midfield had flashes of brilliance that resulted in more than one fluent movement and some nice bouts of possession. Most of this came in the second half, where it seemed for a brief little while like Toronto might just be able to pull off last week's trick a second time.
But to call Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio or Kyle Bekker's performances good in this match would be overstating the facts. Bradley was probably the best of the three, and played several quality balls that ultimately should have been better received. Osorio continues to look very shifty in the centre of the park but needs some work on his game in the final third. Bekker had a forgettable first half, but picked up the pieces and put together a decent second.
Defensively, the bulk of play was also not terrible. Nick Hagglund had a far better defensive game than last week, making several plays that stopped the LA Galaxy from increasing their lead. The same can be said for Warren Creavalle, who had his best stretch of play in a TFC uniform. Creavalle was impressive against Landon Donovan on more than one occasion, and was hardly victimized in Mark Bloom's absence.
Two major errors, however, really cost Toronto. Both saw Robbie Keane left completely open inside the box. The Irishman finished well on both occasions, but will hardly complain about the little extra room he had to maneuver. As per usual, the TFC defense were caught ball watching on both occasions.
Offensively, the return of Jermain Defoe did little to spark a corps of strikers that has been less than impressive lately. As previously mentioned in last week's column, six goals in two games were hardly the product of great play up front. Instead, while Luke Moore looked good at times his goalscoring woes continued, denied by Jaime Penedo and then the post on his 2 best opportunities. Beside him, Dominic Oduro also had his flashes, as he always does, but a number of brutal plays hurt the team, as always happens. There was a reason Toronto never got going in the final third.
Defoe, for his part, didn't look particularly inspiring. This was never really going to be the case considering how long he had been off, and the quality of opponent and service he was receiving. But it is still very hard to tell whether or not he will be able to give the team the boost they require him to give them as they wind down the season. That is slightly concerning as it really does have to come soon, very soon, to be at all meaningful.
Now comes the question, what does this mean to the team's playoff situation. Thankfully, the results trended in the team's favour this week so there is not really too much of a difference from where they were before: 3 points out, 1 game in hand. However, now there are only four games left.
That likely means the team need three wins against Houston, New York, Montreal and New England. But it's also going to be incredibly difficult for a team who has very rarely won three out of four this season.
The good news is that Defoe is the last piece that the team needed back before they could once again be essentially fully healthy. With Bloom looking like he is ready to return, Toronto could have a first choice lineup for their final games. The importance of this cannot be understated, as they have barely ever had it since the start of this rollercoaster season.
While this game was an "expected" loss if there ever was one, the fact that it fulfilled that purpose makes things difficult for Toronto. All of the sudden there is essentially no wiggle room for Toronto. They may have been once again brought back to their level by a top MLS side, but they still have a chance to prove that their level includes playoffs.