TORONTO, Canada—With five points from their first seven Major League Soccer (MLS) matches, sitting in 13th place in the Eastern Conference behind only the Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati, Toronto FC are off to their worst start to an MLS campaign since 2012.
Toronto FC finished with just five wins and franchise-low 23 points in 2012, so it’ll be pretty hard to compete with just how poor the team was that season, but simply put, it hasn’t been good enough for a club with championship aspirations after finishing second in the Supporters’ Shield race a season ago—and for a club who may just spend the most on their roster in MLS. I’m sure they would be the first to raise their hand and tell you that.
With a new head coach entering the fray for the first time since 2014, especially one that was hoping to implement a new system—coupled with the obstacles the team has to navigate through as a result of the global pandemic—we knew there would be growing pains. But with most of the roster returning, the same roster that had to play most of last season away from home, I don’t think anyone was expecting such a slow start out of the gate from a team who has been so dominant over the course of the past half-decade.
“We have had a lot of bad situations, a lot of important players on the team including (Chirs) Mavinga with injuries, now Yeferson (Soteldo) has come with injury,” said reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo, who made his season debut on Saturday against the Columbus Crew, playing 35 minutes.
Absences from key players have been the biggest concern for this club early on. Pozuelo was forced to miss two months after suffering a thigh injury in preseason, Mavinga missed the start of the year with an ankle injury, Jonathan Osorio has only played in 84 minutes in MLS this season, Jozy Altidore has missed time for various reasons—including a recent rift with Armas that has his future with the club in jeopardy—and the team’s newest designated player Yeferson Soteldo, who didn’t join the club until early May, is also now sidelined with a thigh injury.
In fact, Toronto FC have yet to dress all three designated players for a match this season.
Beyond the injury concerns, even though the team is insistent on not making excuses, the reality is that Toronto FC are (once again) fighting a bit of an uphill battle in comparison to the rest of the league.
“These guys have been dealt a difficult hand,” Armas told media on April 27 following the team’s exit from the CONCACAF Champions League. “No home field, away from their families, tough stretch back in Canada, our DPs are not healthy at the moment, really difficult draw in the Champions League, hot days for games midday, short rest, and these guys—not once did they make one excuse, but it’s important to be said that this team sticks together.”
“The situation we had, we come to Toronto where we have to be quarantine after start training and we come to Orlando, different weather, hot,” added Pozuelo. “A lot of difficult situations for the team, and we need to keep going... now we have more of the players ready and these three weeks free is very important us to get the players ready for the next part of the season.”
In my opinion, the team is not as bad as their 1-2-4 record suggests, especially when you consider some of the hardships they have had to endure early in the year and the absences of key players. But there’s also reason for concern, especially when issues start to become a pattern, like the team’s difficulties defending set pieces or getting beat with one pass far too easily and far too often.
“We created chances. We didn’t finish. That’s a part of the game,” said newcomer and MLS veteran Kemar Lawrence following the team’s 1-0 loss to Orlando City. “I know that will come with the quality we have and the depth we have. But for me it’s like we’ve got to be tighter in the back line in our field. That’s one of the hardest things with any team and that doesn’t come overnight. We have to be like really hard to play against, not give away any chances.”
As Lawrence mentions, solutions to problems like that don’t come overnight. Developing that on-field cohesion, especially while trying to adjust to a new style of play, takes time.
So while we can give them the benefit of the doubt that they will come around on that front, there are still other more-pressing (no pun intended) questions that need to be asked, like is this team being set up in the best possible way for success?
We’ll start with the situation in goal. Aside from Alex Bono’s blunder against New York City FC, he hasn’t been the issue for this team. But when you have the clearcut No. 1 goalkeeper for the past two seasons in Quentin Westberg sitting on the bench for the first 11 matches of the season, you have to ask: is Bono really the best option in net to give this team the best chance of winning?
Another area of concern has been the recent usage of Auro Jr.. When Auro, a natural right-back (who prefers right-back) and hasn’t played central midfield since his days in Sao Paulo’s academy, was forced to play in the centre of the park against New York City FC after injuries to Osorio, Pozuelo, and Mark Delgado, you can understand and even applaud Armas’ unconventional approach, since it’s out of necessity.
But when he appears there in two subsequent matches, ahead of players like Ralph Priso, Noble Okello, and Delgado—in the position where TFC arguably have the most depth even after loaning out Liam Fraser— you once again have to ask: is this team really being set up for success?
Here’s the head coach’s full answer when I asked him about that following last match, by the way.
I asked Chris Armas about the team's decision to play Auro Jr. at CM for the third straight match. Here's what he had to say: pic.twitter.com/V5SzDwS2xQ— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) May 29, 2021
Or how about Delgado, one of the mainstays in the centre of the park for Toronto FC since he joined the club in 2015. According to transfermarkt, Delgado has lined up through the middle 126 times in his career, but has played right-midfield 55 times. That’s actually more than I expected, however, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t played as a right-midfielder more than 10 times in a season since 2016, and that was when TFC played a more narrow diamond under Greg Vanney.
While he has been instructed to drift more centrally, through nine starts at right mid so far in 2021, from my perspective, it hasn’t been working out. He’s better suited, especially on this team, to play centrally, considering you have options like Richie Laryea, Nick DeLeon, Tsubasa Endoh, Jacob Shaffelburg, Jayden Nelson, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, who are all naturally better suited for the wing.
When the team finally made that adjustment 20 minutes into the match against Columbus down 2-0, pushing Laryea higher up the field, sliding Auro to right-back, and Delgado back to centre mid—like how the team lined up on several occasions in 2020 and 2019—things looked a lot better, setting the foundation for what was one of the best halves of football TFC played this season.
Armas, himself, mentioned after the match that they thought seeing Laryea higher up the field “was something interesting too,” perhaps alluding to the Reds being more willing to revert back to their ways last season.
Despite the team’s rough start through seven matches, there is reason for optimism coming out of this three-week international break, which couldn’t have come at a better time for this club by the way.
The team’s most important player, Pozuelo, who is expecting his third child either this week or next week, is back and healthy and will have the next few weeks to get himself back into tip-top game shape. He showed just how much of a difference he can make in his cameo appearance on the weekend.
Ayo Akinola, who was sidelined for the better part of four months this offseason and the start of the year, has looked sharper of late and got off the mark on Saturday, scoring his first goal of the season and going the full 90 for the first time in 2021.
The young guns, like Luke Singh, Jacob Shaffelburg, and Ralph Priso, have accumulated a ton of valuable minutes under their belt, which may benefit them (and the club) moving forward.
On the injury front, the team is getting healthier as well. Erickson Gallardo and Achara appear to be nearing a return. Omar Gonzalez and Dom Dwyer will have ample time to recover from what Armas described as minor injuries. Osorio appears to be fit enough to partake in Canada’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers, as does Mavinga for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Soteldo, meanwhile, who will be out for the next four-to-six weeks after picking up a thigh/hamstring injury, has shown that he possesses game-breaking quality and the potential of him lining up next to Pozuelo certainly has Toronto FC’s no. 10 excited.
“I want to play with good players, and he’s a good player,” said Pozuelo. “So I’m very, very happy to play with him because I know he can play. We can play together. He’s very smart player. He’s fast. He can play one-two with me or with Mike, with Marco. We have good team and we have good players and we need to look forward and we need to have personality and we need to keep working. The rest is coming.”
In a weird way, there’s also some value in getting some of these tough losses under their belt. In 2020, with Toronto FC in peak position to take home the Supporters’ Shield—with four matches left to play, FiveThirtyEight gave Toronto FC a 60 per cent chance at taking home the Shield—injuries began to pile up and so did the defeats, leading to a disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of expansion side Nashville SC.
As veteran fullback Lawrence puts it, this TFC team now knows what losing feels like.
“I just said to the guys, if we started off winning every game, winning every single game for the year, then when you lose one and close to the playoffs or stuff like that, it’s more difficult to deal with,” said Lawrence. “Whereas if you start off early, you learn from your mistakes right now. You build up the right way and you know what losing feels like and you know that hurts. You don’t want to go over it through it again and again. The players and coaches learn from it as well as the players and we progress as a team, not as individuals.”
So listen, I know things are tough right now Toronto FC fans, but if you take a step back, there does appear to be a light at the end of this very dark tunnel. With 27 matches still remaining, this team is far too talented (and proven) to continue trending down this path. And objectively speaking, aside from the match against New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC were in every single game—even without a lot of their star power.
Things are far, very far, from perfect right now and adjustments certainly need to happen to get this team back to playing Toronto FC footy. But on the bright side, perhaps glass-half-full, with the majority of their stars set to return shortly after the international break, this team will be in a better position, recharged and refueled, to compete after the three-week lapse than they were at the start of this year.
So on that note, I’ll leave you with these comments from Armas and the reigning MVP, on where the club is at mentally right now:
“But for sure, take a step back, reset things, recharge the batteries, and all of us, we come back with a vengeance,” said Armas. “No one is happy with a 1-4-2 start. There are some points we leave out there. But on the inside, things are strong. On the inside of these walls over here, things are getting stronger, and things haven’t been easy for this group. But we are going to come back and reload.”
“Now, we have like three weeks free to recover the people, to recover all the players, and we need to keep going,” wrapped up Pozuelo. “This is the mentality. We protect the coach. We know all the reasons we want this coach because he have good mentality and a good personality and he is very good guy, and personality, I protect him when he — if he stays here, because I like the style he plays. He wants to play, press higher, he wants to take the ball, and when he’s here, we need to protect him and all the players want him.
“So we need to keep going, recover all the players, and look forward.”
Toronto FC are back in action and will have their first chance at righting this ship on June 19 against Orlando City SC.
Do you have any hope right now that Toronto FC turns this ship around? Let us know in the comments.