Toronto FC have been good enough this season for us to occasionally give them the benefit of the doubt.
They had it when they lost consecutive games against the Montreal Impact and New England Revolution, which it seemed reasonable to attribute to the combination of a tight run of games and a few key absences.
And we gave it to them again before the international break against the New York Red Bulls. The performance was messy and imperfect, sure, but hey - they still scored four goals against a good team, and the first win after a couple of defeats isn’t always pretty.
But with every match of that type - and the return of Montreal to BMO Field on Sunday was another one - the anxious fan waiting for the TFC of late summer to switch it back on gets a little more concerned.
With the Impact out of the playoff race, Ignacio Piatti missing and Sebastian Giovinco back, the hope was that the Reds could make a statement in their final derby of the year and get back on track going into the regular-season closer against Atlanta United.
They won, but it was all a bit hairy again.
That did not seem to surprise Greg Vanney. “I knew some of that [lack of sharpness] was real possible, given that we haven’t really been together as a group for a long time,” he said afterwards.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back from different places, whether it’s international duty or injury or different things. That’s why I always said these two games [against Montreal and Atlanta] are going to be very important and these next two or three weeks are going to be important, because it’s about establishing that continuity again and linking up some of the timing of things.
“We were just off a little bit.”
When he talks about timing, I would imagine Vanney is referring at least in part to the difficulty his team had in playing out from the back.
It’s important to understand that when Toronto build attacks from their own half, the passes they play and the moves they make are usually rehearsed on the training pitch. They’re not just taking whatever the opponent gives them or trying to find any route they can upfield.
Their ability to map out a way to get the ball through their midfield is essential, because getting it wrong is a double-edged sword: not only are TFC’s best players starved of possession, their opponents are gaining it in more dangerous positions closer to Toronto’s goal.
“The game is continuous,” Vanney said. “If you’re bad with the ball, you’re going to expose yourself defensively because you try to open up to give yourself the spacing and the shape and all that to be able to play with the ball.
“Today, we weren’t sharp with the ball and a lot of our turnovers led to some of our challenges on the defensive side.”
Like this one.
Chris Mavinga’s poor pass is a symptom, not the cause of the problem: the key issue is the lack of forward options Justin Morrow has when he receives the ball, giving Montreal the chance to push Toronto back towards their own goal.
Toronto’s passing in these situations has to be more structured, with more support for the player in possession. This is what it should look like, and an example of how they can cause teams that press them heavily big problems if they’re in tune.
I have a theory that one of the reasons - aside from the randomness of it all - that the Supporters’ Shield winner does not win the MLS Cup with any regularity is that the playoffs often reward teams that play a low-risk game and do not make many mistakes.
That’s not to say that approaching the playoffs with that attitude increases your chances of winning, because you’re essentially just one of a number of teams buying a raffle ticket and hoping to get the right bounces at the right time. Quite often, one of those teams does.
But if you’re a Shield winner like Toronto that insists on playing on its own terms and pushing the envelope - which, when done well, is rewarded over the longer-term of the regular season - you are by definition taking more risks in a high-stakes, high-intensity environment.
If you can execute that brand of football on the big stage, you’ve got a much better chance of winning a trophy than any of those teams simply trying to make the fewest errors.
But if, as Vanney put it, the “timing of things” is not quite there, you’re more vulnerable than anyone to seeing it all go wrong.
“The most important thing as you go into the playoffs is that you just can’t make mistakes,” Vanney explained.
“That was one of the great things about our group last year that we have to remind ourselves, is you need to be a little bit risk-averse when you go into the playoffs or be smart about that and make good choices.”
(Part of that is adjusting to the changing conditions at this time of year, as Alex Bono found out on Sunday when trying to wire multiple difficult passes into a strong headwind.)
As Vanney mentioned, the 14 or 15 days Toronto have now between the Montreal game and the first leg of the Eastern Conference semi-final are absolutely crucial.
With only one game to play in that span, the coach has a chance to repeat and repeat and repeat those passing patterns that are the basis of TFC’s approach without any injuries - touch wood - or international call-ups interrupting him.
Toronto worked through the same kinks in their build-up play that we’re seeing now in the first few games of the season, and were compromised by player absences as they have been of late during the Gold Cup.
Immediately after both of those two periods, they put together six-game winning streaks. This time, once the regular-season finale is out of the way, just five would do.