It only took four days for Toronto FC to go from ‘best MLS team ever’ to ‘not so hot without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore’.
Let’s nip that one in the bud: this is still the first team to put together two six-match winning streaks in a single MLS season over the past decade, and the one that remains 10 points ahead of the rest of the league even after two consecutive defeats.
The points record is still there for the taking (or, at least, matching). The Supporters’ Shield is a matter of time. The Canadian Championship is in the cabinet.
It’s been an extraordinary season already by any measure and TFC’s place in the all-time conversation is secure, but the biggest challenge - the silverware they really want - still lies ahead.
And the first back-to-back defeats of the year, coming as they did with the playoffs on the horizon, naturally set alarm bells ringing.
The truth is that Toronto took a calculated risk last week, and ended up paying the price. But if Greg Vanney had the chance to do it all over again, I don’t think he’d do much differently.
There may be individual selection decisions or substitutions he would change with the benefit of hindsight, but Altidore and Giovinco would still sit. So would Victor Vazquez on Wednesday and Chris Mavinga, Eriq Zavaleta and Alex Bono on Saturday.
Vanney is not naive; he will have known that resting all of those players would likely result in the end of Toronto’s winning streak.
He rotated his team anyway because a trip to Los Angeles last weekend, a midweek derby and then a flight out to Boston a day later made it necessary in order to keep his best players fresh for the games Toronto have left that really matter.
Those are the ones that start in late October.
The secret to Toronto’s most impressive run of form of the season was simple: after dealing with a busy schedule, injuries and international absences for months, they finally got their best players on the field week in, week out.
RE: squad rotation - Atlanta's top 9 most-played players have logged ~82% of the team's minutes since August. Next highest is Toronto on 74% pic.twitter.com/MXaQQnDuET— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) September 24, 2017
That was a rewarding stretch but there comes a point when if you don’t put the brakes on, you start playing with fire.
The good news is that the need for rotation should now be over.
As long as the muscular tightness that has kept Giovinco and Altidore out is just TFC treating them ultra-conservatively - and I’m almost certain it is - Vanney should be able to name whatever team he likes from here on in (though I’d still like to see Michael Bradley get a game off assuming Benoit Cheyrou is back before the regular season ends).
Toronto have two weekend home games either side of the international break and another full week off before a relatively short trip to Atlanta United. There will then be eight or nine days between that game and the first leg of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Atlanta play on turf, but you can’t have it all.
There is a red board posted within Toronto’s Kia Training Ground on which a number of season objectives are listed. It is divided into three sections: at the top are a number of general targets such as having the best goals-against average in the league and keeping 12 clean sheets, and at the bottom are the three trophies up for grabs (the Voyageurs Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup).
The middle section encompasses three specific stretches of the regular season. The final one starts this week, and the objective is to win or draw every game from this point onwards leading into the playoffs. There is some extra small print underneath, too, about having a positive goal differential in the final 15 minutes of those games.
Last week, and all the weeks before it, were mapped out carefully. Not every one of them has gone perfectly to plan, but as Toronto enter the final three games of the regular season they are in a comfortable place in terms of the exertion of their core players despite the way they have leaned on them since the beginning of August.
Here's the table for the full season. Note Toronto hanging around at the bottom, near the teams whose seasons are over pic.twitter.com/Reg57O4cgd— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) September 24, 2017
After Giovinco’s nightmare in last year’s MLS Cup final, Toronto fans should know as well as anyone how important that is. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater because the cost in the short term is one bad week.
Taking your chances on the road
An aside: Toronto were far from perfect against the New England Revolution on Saturday, but they weren’t terrible either.
Let’s not forget that with the win, the Revs are up to 35 points at Gillette Stadium this year. Toronto have collected a league-leading 36 at BMO Field.
New England are evidence, though, that just being good at home isn’t enough in MLS these days. Toronto have been the league’s best road team, too, and currently to the tune of eight points over their closest rival in that regard (New York City FC, though they have played a couple of games fewer). Remarkably, the same gap exists between Toronto and the 14th-best team (Real Salt Lake) in the home table.
Toronto have been so good both home and away because they not only control games more than any other team in the league but also take their chances as clinically as just about anyone - thanks largely, of course, to the quality of their forwards.
For those more statistically inclined, they have the league’s best expected goals numbers but also outperform their expected goals more than anyone else except Atlanta United.
Saturday’s game was a relatively even one, with both teams exchanging chances, until the final 15 minutes or so.
On another day, if Giovinco or Altidore had been in the lineup (or Tosaint Ricketts had not just strayed offside), Toronto might have grabbed that decisive first goal and taken the game on a different course without their actual performance as a whole being much better.
As it was, New England were able to bring Lee Nguyen off the bench while Toronto’s attacking stars watched from home and the playmaker produced a goal and an assist to earn his team the points.