There haven't been very many games played at BMO Field that felt like playoff games, probably because there has only been one playoff game ever played at BMO, and it didn't even involve Toronto FC. Tonight's match, however, a 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City, had all of the elements: emotion, quality play and, most of all, controversy. But accompanying all this were two things far too familiar for TFC: frustration and disappointment.
The first half of the match was arguably the best of the season for the club. One of the only drawbacks being that they were not able to make more than a lone Jackson goal show up on the scoreboard. But that was all undone in the space of 35 minutes in the second half as Graham Zusi and then Jacob Peterson struck to turn what should have been a win for Toronto into a stunning loss.
"It should have been over at halftime," said Ryan Nelsen. "If it were a boxing match it would have been ended, the referee would have stepped in. Well, the referee did step in actually. In a way that was very interesting, very confusing."
Considering how big of a storyline the referee was in the match, better to get it out of the way at the start. To say the least, there were several puzzling decisions that left Nelsen and Bradley synchronized screaming at the fourth official and referee respectively. The end result was five yellow cards for Toronto FC, four of which came before halftime.
"The referee was absolutely awful," steamed Michael Bradley. "The people at the MLS office want to talk about improving the league, the first thing that needs to be talked about is improving the refereeing. Bottom line... it was bad for both teams."
However, to say that Toronto FC lost because of the officiating is utterly wrong, nor did Bradley insinuate that. At worst, the club gave poor officiating the opportunity to decide a game that they should have taken care of themselves. They are not going to get anywhere by pinning this loss on anything but their own performances.
There are two key areas that lost Toronto this game. The first was the backline, where pedestrian defending once again ruled the day. Recently, the team has given up a lot of soft goals that have ultimately cost them what could turn out to be crucial points. Missing Mark Bloom and Steven Caldwell doesn't help, but the defensive display has not been good enough as of late. Things only get worse, as Doneil Henry will be suspended for the next match due to yellow card accumulation.
"There were some guys who were spectating," Nelsen said of his frustration with his defence, "and getting into nice comfortable positions that weren't influencing the game. They weren't helping out their teammates. You should never be left alone as a defender one on one."
The onus does not fall completely on the backline, though. While both Jackson and Dominic Oduro were crucial to the attack on this night, they were also almost equally detrimental to the defense. Far too often, the wings were left open to be exploited by Kansas.
Offensively, the team's creativity and dismantling of Kansas' backline was matched only by their inability to finish. Without Jermain Defoe, who was suspended, the majority of the opportunities fell to the feet of Jackson. After finishing the first in brilliant fashion, the Brazilian turned what could have been a career night for himself into a disaster as he squandered chance after chance.
On the bright side, Oduro was absolutely everywhere in attack. His play was key to Toronto giving Kansas all kinds of fits defensively as he showed the full scope of his pace on the wing. Gilberto was also integral to the attack, as he and Oduro combined expertly. If anyone was truly hard done by the officiating it was him. Several opportunities that he created were halted by vicious tackles with no repercussions.
"Maybe it's because they want me to learn how to play in the MLS," said a visibly frustrated Gilberto, "and how the style of the league is here. However, I want to let them know that I'm not going to just roll over. That I'm going to play my game and I'm going to play strong and I'm going to play hard. I'm not somebody who is going to be a pushover."
Tonight, Toronto FC got a taste of what the MLS Playoffs might be like, their ultimate goal. But if they want a more authentic dish, they would be best served to learn from their mistakes quickly. This is the time of year for them where fixtures come fast and furious and a dip in form can mean a dip out of a playoff position. There is no change in quality either, Wednesday's game comes against the 2nd place team in the East: DC United.
"You've just got to keep your head up and look forward to the next game," said Oduro. "Right now what we've got to do is just be positive and try to change it on Wednesday. We've got to go to DC on Wednesday and [give a similar performance]."