Toronto FC capped off their four-game homestand Saturday night with a frustrating 2-1 defeat at the hands of DC United. The stretch ends with three draws and now a loss, with nine points of a possible twelve left on the table, and all but eliminating TFC from contention for the Supporters' Shield.
That's not to say all is lost for the Reds. The entire home stand was played without superstar Sebastian Giovinco, who is slated to return soon. Even without him, they were never really dominated, either. Against DC on Saturday, the home team were actually the far more aggressive and attacking side. Far more time was spent in the offensive third of the field for Toronto.
"If we weren't creating chances, then I would be a little more concerned," said TFC coach Greg Vanney, "because we would be saying that we're relying on [Giovinco] to come back and create chances and score goals. I think we're getting into good spots, we're creating chances; the finishing touch needs to be cleaner."
As Vanney said, the issue in this game wasn't a lack of chances. Vanney pointed out after the game that his team had 15 attempts at goal, but just 6 of them went on target. DC keeper Bill Hamid wasn't overly troubled by Toronto's late attempts at a goal, with most shots ending up well over the crossbar.
TFC had so many shots, just had no accuracy. From MLSsoccer.com:
"The game can look nice," said Vanney, "you can dominate it, you can have possession, you can do all that stuff, but ultimately it comes down to the two 18-yard boxes at the end of the day."
Toronto certainly weren't good enough in the offensive box, failing to win aerial duels or put shots on net.
The goals against (both of which by Lamar Neagle) were also troublesome. The first came from a DC United corner, which they won after an egregious backheel that led to a turnover from TFC. The second was scored on a break by Neagle who connected with a perfect through ball by Lloyd Sam, but the fact that he managed to get behind Toronto's defence irritated Vanney.
Neagle managed to sneak behind Justin Morrow, Drew Moor, and Eriq Zavaleta, all of whom failed to fall back and mark him when he cut into the box.
"I saw it coming," said Vanney, calling out his defenders. "I'm not sure why our back line is not dropping in that situation. It's something we've talked about on a few occasions this year, if we keep teams in front of us in those situations, very rarely has a team ever scored on us."
The back line was not strong, despite not having much of a workload on Saturday. Eriq Zavaleta hasn't looked good the past few games and is likely in danger of losing his spot to Nick Hagglund. In attack, with a lot of squad rotation there were some glaring weak points in the formation.
Mo Babouli, although he arguably works off of Altidore better than Jordan Hamilton, was unable to keep up with the rest of the team and hindered their attacking drives. Dan Lovitz, starting over Marky Delgado, was well off the mark with a lot of his attempted passes.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Reds. The linkup play between Jozy Altidore and Armando Cooper was excellent, and shows a lot of potential for a strong attacking formation when Giovinco returns to the lineup.
Cooper was named man of the match for TFC, easily the brightest spot on the pitch for them. He showed a lot of individual skill, playing well under pressure and making many key plays in midfield. He led the team in both touches and successful passes, and was the catalyst for Jozy Altidore's goal with a well-played ball.
"[Cooper]'s able to eliminate the first defender, get balls moving forward, so I think he's done well since he's got in," Vanney said in praise of his midfielder. "Sometime's Armando's a little bit higher than I want him to be; I want him to drop a little bit deeper so he doesn't close in on the space that the forwards want to use."
For the next game, it would be interesting to see Vanney try putting Cooper in at CAM, instead of Jonathan Osorio. Cooper would be able to push up further there, and would replace Osorio who has been a hindrance to the team these past few games.
In spite of the positives, though, TFC could really do with a win. They've now dropped to third in the Eastern Conference, and although they technically clinched a home playoff game with Philadelphia's loss, they're falling out of contention for a coveted first-round bye.
Vanney used the words "angry" and "disappointed" to describe the mood of his team. When asked if blood was boiling on the sidelines, he hinted at outbursts of frustration in the locker room. Toronto FC now have no momentum at all with just two games left before the playoffs, and have not been good enough in the building that was a fortress for most of the season.
The Reds have not won at home since August 6. There will be little point to securing a home playoff date if they're failing to use the advantage it gives them.
Perhaps fortunately, there's an international break before TFC travel to Montreal for their final road game of the season. That'll not only allow Giovinco to return to the squad, who apparently was very close to returning on Saturday, but it'll give Vanney some time to work with his team on areas that are lacking - for him, defending and finishing.
"We have two games to tighten up some details before we go into the playoffs," said Vanney, "and the way we look at these games are they're important results, and we're gonna play them like they're playoff games. We're going to scratch, claw, and bite for every point that's available in these two games."