The last month or so has not been kind to Toronto FC.
Flashing back to September, TFC responded to that dispiriting home loss to Montreal that closed August with a fine road performance in Chicago that saw them surge to the top of the Eastern Conference, putting them in pole position not only for a first round bye, but also with a shot at the Supporters’ Shield.
Though many considered TFC favourites, given the strength of their schedule and the number of home games remaining, it was not to be. Instead of taking the chance, they would collect just three of twelve possible points from a run of four home matches that culminated in a loss to D.C. United, while more points were dropped this past weekend with a draw in Montreal.
And now, heading into the last weekend of the season, Toronto find themselves with their fate no longer in their own hands. Yes, the side has already secured a playoff berth, but the tantalizing prospect of skipping the knockout round and maintaining some semblance of home-field advantage will depend on how New York City FC fares on Sunday.
The Red Bulls have all but secured first-place in the East, while NYCFC has a one-point advantage over TFC. Should Toronto win and NYC lose or draw, TFC will move into second, thus securing the bye. Were NYC to win, it matters not what Toronto gets up to on Sunday against the Chicago Fire.
The only way the tie-breaking procedures come into play would be if NYC were to lose and TFC to draw, leaving both sides with 51 points. In that case, NYC would own the first tie-breaker – wins – with 14 to TFC's 13.
All that to say, it is easy to see how the last five matches have played out as a disappointment.
But - and there's always a but - there is another way to interpret these entrails.
Since that July loss in San Jose, TFC has lost just twice, a period that encompasses 14 matches. In their last five road matches since that San Jose debacle, the club is unbeaten, having collected 11 of 15 points.
Furthermore, there has not been a single match where they have been outclassed.
Consider the two losses over this spell.
They dominated much of the Montreal game, only succumbing to their Achilles Heel – the man advantage – and a moment of pure class from Ignacio Piatti, a TFC killer, that decided the outcome.
The same was true against D.C., where large stretches of the match saw TFC putting United to the sword, only to get bitten twice by Lamar Neagle goals very much against the run of play.
The same goes for the draws against Orlando City and Montreal – on another day, TFC comes out of those first halves with a multi-goal lead. They had at least four strong chances against the Impact.
And in the matches where the opponent did take the lead, TFC has fought back admirably.
The Red Bulls grabbed a pair of early goals with a sluggish Toronto start, but Michael Bradley pulled one back before half-time and despite conceding again at the start of the second half, a pair from Jozy Altidore was enough for a 3-3 draw.
Philadelphia scored first, but Toronto responded. And the same goes for the draw in Montreal – twice the Impact went ahead and twice TFC came back.
Fighting back from conceding and never conceding defeat are quality assets to lean upon when the games matter most.
All these various points have been running themes on these pages this season – the tenacity, the willingness to fight back, the never being out of games, and the belief in the side.
Above all, this TFC is vastly different from those of the past.
All that said, there is a lot of truth to the notion that the team that wins the MLS Cup is the one that comes into the playoffs in the best form, rather than those who have shown their qualities over the course of the entire season.
In that spirit, there are several contenders emerging. D.C. has won their last four matches, are unbeaten in six, and have just one loss in their last 13 matches. The Red Bulls have won their last three, riding an unbeaten run of some 15 matches. And Seattle has just two losses in their last 13, resurrecting a season that looked lost.
But right up there is TFC, those two losses in 14 matches placing them firmly in the same class.
And there are two other factors that must be considered.
The first: that the side is finally getting healthy. Sebastian Giovinco made his long-awaited return and barely missed a beat. Clint Irwin is back and has some games under his belt. Jay Chapman adds another element in the midfield, though he has yet to see the field since injury. The only players currently unavailable are Will Johnson and Ashtone Morgan.
With Giovinco back, Altidore firing, Tosaint Ricketts chipping in and Armando Cooper adding a different dimension, it is possible that the best that this team can offer has yet to be seen.
The second: that adversity hardens a team.
The last month will have shown Toronto that more will be required to achieve the lofty goals the team has set for themselves.
There is no side that will be looking forward to facing TFC come playoff time. Now, it's just about getting the job done.
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