Even when they were winning matches and writing positive headlines earlier in the season, Toronto FC always seemed to have an asterisks next to their name. While the media in general tends to be hypercritical, especially of a team who have had a lot to criticise since their inception, the underlying problems were essentially the same match to match. But the positive results continued to take place, because the 100 million dollars did buy something: a mask for this team's deeper problems.
But tonight's 3-0 loss against DC United revealed a fact even more concerning: that mask is slowly starting to peel away and the underlying problems are being brought more and more to the surface. From Eddie Johnson's goal, through to Chris Rolfe and finally culminating in Nick Hagglund's almost cinematic own goal, it continuously became clearer: DC United didn't earn a 3-0 result, Toronto FC simply gave it to them.
The most recent facet of Toronto FC that has gone to the wayside is the one that, even when all has failed, has truly bailed them out this season. That was their ability to finish chances. Even when they couldn't hold possession, when they look disengaged in the early stages of matches, when Nelsen's tactics were out of shape and when the backline was poor, for the first time ever, Toronto FC were able to score their way out of it all.
But teams have quickly realised the source of all of this: Jermain Defoe. As a result, they have been trying more and more adamantly to take Toronto's best player out of the match. Now he receives even less service than he did earlier in the season, and when he delegates his chances through quality balls others have been unable to step up to the plate.
Another element of Toronto's offense that has been brought into the light recently has been their play on the wings. Both Jackson and Dominic Oduro have been highlighted as players who have been very dangerous. But don't confuse dangerous with lethal, Toronto need lethal. Far too few of the pair's chances end up in the back of the net, and end up going wasted.
Then there is Michael Bradley, who looked positive in the first half of the match against DC in a way similar to the first half of the season, where he was consistently a dominant presence for Toronto. But he seemed to realise none of the chances he created were actually getting converted, and got frustrated.
In the end for Toronto there is no two ways around the fact that chances absolutely have to start being converted. The more and more these chances go begging, the smaller Toronto's chances at their first ever playoff appearance will become.
The element of Toronto's mask that disappeared even before the attack did is their defending, which has also gone missing. A large part of this is down to the injuries and suspensions that has left the backline weakened. Without Mark Bloom, Steven Caldwell and on this night Doneil Henry, the defense has been disorganised and disengaged. The phrase "soft goal" has been used far too often as of late.
As for the reoccurring issues that the aforementioned have masked, the club's ability to hold the ball has to be chief among them. Tonight against DC, and throughout the season, the team has given up possession far too cheaply. At first, this was attributed to a fairly effective counter attacking style. But lately Toronto have tried to play more of a possession based game and it has not translated well.
The second is Ryan Nelsen's game management, consistently called into question throughout the season. Nelsen is not the horrible manager that some believe him to be. He has been able to get the most out of a number of his players and seems to have created the healthiest environment the Toronto room has ever had. But while his man management off the field has been solid, his management on it has been quite the opposite.
Nelsen is consistently far too confident, or stubborn, with his pre-match tactics. Sometimes they work very well, and Toronto are able to respond positively. But if they do not, he often takes far too long to make the necessary changes to give his team a chance. He seems to have too much confidence in his halftime talks, and not enough in his bench of currently very capable substitutes. Earlier in the season his bench wasn't deep enough, that is no longer the case.
Now, at long last, a positive note to finish off this tirade of negativity. Despite the slip in form this is still a team with a nice cushion in terms of games in hand and points in the Eastern Conference playoff position. Their next few fixtures are less daunting: away to the lowly Montreal Impact before a crucial game against the team with whom they are currently tied on points: the Columbus Crew. Bright Dike is back in training, and if he sees the pitch will help the offense exponentially.
This is a team who still absolutely have their fate in their own very capable hands. But those hands have been faltering as of late, and the more they do so the more that fate slips from their grasp.