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Toronto FC’s schedule nightmare is behind them - now we’ll find out how good they really are

Unfortunately, they couldn’t end the tough stretch by grinding out another win.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Beyond the time-wasting and theatrics that infuriated the BMO Field crowd on Saturday, Toronto FC’s draw with the Colorado Rapids carried the extra sting of a missed opportunity.

Having ground out four points that easily could have been six through their most difficult three-game stretch of the season, the visit of the Rapids - who had not played for 18 days - on the back of a gruelling effort in New York City required Toronto to produce one last push before they could put their scheduling nightmare behind them.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

The Rapids, with their 0-7-0 road record, did not appear to be particularly daunting opposition but Greg Vanney’s deepest team in MLS history finally looked jaded, disjointed and in need of the key players it was missing.

From this point on, there will be no more fixture pile-ups or extended stints on the road and only one more long Western Conference trip - to the LA Galaxy, the worst home team in MLS, on a full week’s rest. The two remaining international windows are catered for by gaps in the schedule.

But instead of putting the congestion and enforced rotation behind them five points clear at the top of the table, the Reds are once again at risk of losing top spot if the Chicago Fire win their game in hand (though in practice, that will not be played for a few weeks).

Perhaps we would be asking too much to expect more. It would certainly be no disaster, looking at their respective schedules and circumstances up to and from this point, if Toronto were five points or so back of the Fire.

It is incredible how infrequently we have seen Toronto’s best players on the pitch at the same time this season. The 2-0 win over D.C. United in June is probably the closest they have got to full strength, and even then they had Nick Hagglund out injured and Tosaint Ricketts missing from the bench.

Now, thankfully, they have a chance to change that. Whether or not Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow will be fresh enough to start against New York City next weekend after the Gold Cup final remains to be seen, but they should all be involved in some capacity. From there, Toronto will finally be able to put their stars to work with a semblance of consistency.

That’s important, because the kind of form needed to win an MLS Cup doesn’t suddenly fall into place on the eve of the playoffs every year.

“I just think that up until the final - if you make it to the final - it’s all about improving,” assistant coach Robin Fraser, who stood in for the suspended Greg Vanney, said after the Colorado draw. “In the final, you don’t care as long as you win. [Outside of the final] you look at every week as an opportunity to improve on how you’re playing and it was disappointing that we weren’t quite as sharp today as we have been.”

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

There is still some of that improving to do and things to figure out. Toronto need to get Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco feeding off of each other as we know they can - and with the added infusion of Victor Vazquez’s creativity. In defence, four players good enough to start are competing for three spots and though it is hoped Steven Beitashour will be back in September, Toronto need to find out if Nicolas Hasler is an adequate replacement for him at right-back.

While less rotation may be good for the team, however, it will not be good for all of the players.

The Tsubasa Endoh experiment at wing-back, for example, has probably now run its course (for this season, at least) and Ashtone Morgan will face a fight for minutes when Morrow returns just as his season looked to be getting started. Jay Chapman and Jordan Hamilton have played well, but will need to be especially good in limited playing time in the coming weeks to convince Vanney they are options he can and should turn to in a playoff game.

Throughout this 2017 season, Toronto have been lauded for their ability to get results just about anywhere - they are still the only team to have won in Seattle - despite injuries, international call-ups and fatigue. While that has been important for their Supporters’ Shield bid, though, it does not necessarily say much about what kind of playoff team they will be, when clubs lean on a core of their best 13 or 14 players.

We should get a better idea over the next couple of months of exactly how good Toronto might be when it really matters.

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