There’s two ways to look at Toronto FC’s first two games of the 2017 MLS season.
On the bright side, they have taken two points on the road at tough stadiums and are not even scratching the surface of their potential. Both matches have been plagued by difficult conditions, whether it be wind, cold, altitude or the pitch.
But at this early stage, performances are to be valued over results and Toronto have looked a far cry from the team that reached last year’s MLS Cup final. It's certainly too soon to start asking serious questions, but the fact is that Jozy Altidore is perhaps the only player who can pat himself on the back for 180 minutes well played thus far.
In the end, this road trip will be defined by next weekend’s game in Vancouver. Win, and it suddenly looks like a very good start through some rough circumstances. Draw, and it’s not an especially impressive beginning to the campaign but far from a disaster. Lose, and the pressure will be on to make a statement the following week at BMO Field.
It is hard not to feel that the two changes Greg Vanney made to Toronto’s starting XI did not help against the Philadelphia Union. One, of course, was enforced due to Steven Beitashour’s injury, but there were alternatives to throwing Tsubasa Endoh into the fray in a position he has never played a professional minute in. Victor Vazquez, meanwhile, ended the match better than he started it but still looks off the pace.
If either player is going to play a part in Toronto’s season they are going to have to come in at some point, but having battled to a point at Real Salt Lake last weekend this felt early. The safer moves would have been to keep Jonathan Osorio in midfield, have Marky Delgado fill in on the right and let last season’s XI, minus Beitashour, play its way into a groove before attempting to integrate the new players into a fully functioning unit.
Instead, Toronto spent most of the first half chasing their tails. Endoh was pinned back, where it was hardly his fault, at 5’ 7”, that he struggled to cope with the aerial bombardment that had clearly been encouraged by Union coach Jim Curtin. Later on Endoh would display some of the potential he has to raid down the right as an attacking threat but to begin with, the Union overloaded Justin Morrow and repeatedly threw crosses and long passes over to the opposite flank.
That meant Toronto had no width, and Vazquez was left with few options when the Reds managed to play out as far as him other than try to funnel balls through to the under-pressure Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Armando Cooper, who relishes the physical battle more and can carry the ball more effectively, fared a little better but generally had the same problem.
Perhaps the most difficult circumstance of all has been that Giovinco has just not played especially well so far, and it was no coincidence that Toronto improved with Tosaint Ricketts on the pitch. The Canadian does not have the skill of the Atomic Ant but gives the Reds an outlet on the counter-attack and generally uses the ball intelligently.
At his best, Giovinco keeps teams modest and either demands to be double or triple-marked, creating space for everyone else, or kills you. His main contribution before getting injured here was to slam a predictable free-kick into the wall.
He has too much quality for that not to change eventually, and the good news is the injury he suffered as a result of a seemingly innocuous challenge by Oguchi Onyewu does not seem to be serious. You get the feeling that when he turns the corner, this whole team might come along with him.