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Toronto FC can’t afford to lose composure again in Sisyphean playoff push

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TFC have been their own worst enemy on far too many occasions.

MLS: New York City FC at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday morning, Toronto FC were unbeaten in six games, with the whole squad returning to fitness and genuine optimism in the air. Today, that unbeaten streak — and a lot of the optimism — is gone. Not for the first time this season, the Reds have seen their hard-won momentum crushed in a single game, on this occasion by a frustrating 3-2 loss to New York City FC.

Now, before we get all negative, let me first say: I honestly thought TFC’s 10 men played well for much of the game yesterday. They held their own and equalized twice (with two brilliant goals) against a team that can spread you out even if you have 11 on the pitch. Alex Bono said after the match that his side might’ve deserved a point for their performance; indeed, if they’d had 11 for 90 minutes, that game was extremely winnable.

But. None of that is what shows up on the scoresheet, or in the league table. All that effort, for naught. If you’re into pretentious philosophy references, you might call it Sisyphean: the Reds hadn’t quite reached the top of the mountain, but the boulder they’re pushing up that slope just rolled back down a hundred feet — as it’s done over and over again this year.

Often, this season, the setbacks have been outside of TFC’s control, primarily in the form of injuries — whenever one player has come back into the lineup, it’s seemed like another two have taken his place on the sidelines. Again: Sisyphus FC pushes the boulder up the hill, someone pulls a hamstring, and back to the bottom it goes.

It hasn’t always been out of TFC’s control, though.

“When you look at the season as a whole we’ve killed ourselves in too many moments,” said captain Michael Bradley of Sunday’s performance. He pointed out that, as usual, TFC fought hard to give themselves a chance, and blew it with a couple of soft goals. That’s definitely happened plenty of times (even last Wednesday; both the penalty and Erik Hurtado’s goal for Vancouver were avoidable). TFC have shot themselves in the foot over and over again.

This takes us to the most obvious avoidable setback.

This was, unequivocally, a red card-worthy offence, as was Chris Mavinga’s slap to the face of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in Atlanta last week. Boneheaded, off-the-ball, unnecessary acts, the both of them. Now, two very important players are suspended for next weekend’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes.

And yes, maybe Jozy Altidore was fouled seconds before his kick on Alex Callens; Bradley said as much after the game. The captain was adamant that the play should never have gotten that far, but he conceded definitively that Jozy deserved to see red.

It wasn’t just Altidore’s sending off that put TFC’s composure and discipline into question on Sunday. Jonathan Osorio and Bradley both picked up yellow cards in that first half, and by that point most of us expected TFC to finish the match with nine men at most. The Reds were visibly rattled, and not at all for the first time this year. They were lucky to escape the first 45 down by just one.

In that first frame, both the players and crowd became more and more agitated, as call after call went against them. You can probably debate some of referee Hilario Grajeda’s decisions, but from up in the press box none of them seemed like any great injustice, really. And besides, seeing the way TFC’s players berated him after every call, it’s not surprising he would (even subconsciously) lean the other way. Ultimately, NYCFC were in Toronto FC’s heads.

Having cooled off a bit, TFC came out for the second half much more organized and disciplined, and it paid off with Victor Vazquez’s goal just a few minutes in. That’s the team we’re used to seeing, when they’re able to keep their heads.

MLS: New York City FC at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Vanney admitted that it’s frustrating to see his team’s progress throttled by moments like that, where composure disappears.

“It’s a concern for me generally when guys are getting caught up in things that don’t matter, because we don’t have time for things that don’t matter,” he said. “It’s across the board for everybody. It’s just unnecessary, and all it does is undo our ability to take steps forward. We were on six unbeaten, and going in a good direction, and [Altidore’s red card] is not the moment we needed in this type of situation.”

The type of situation Vanney’s referring to is an absurd and inexplicable one. How has TFC’s defence become so disjointed in 2018? Why is the team that received the fewest yellow (and red) cards in MLS last season suddenly losing its cool all over the place? For God’s sake, how can this many players get injured in one year?

Yeah, all of those questions have a myriad of possible answers — a revolving door of a lineup, schedule congestion to start the year, etc. But if you’d told a TFC fan in December 2017 that those things would happen, it’d be hard to explain definitively.

Before he was sent off on Sunday, there was another weird Jozy Altidore moment that struck me. A TFC midfielder lobbed a long ball way over the top of everyone while Altidore was retreating from miles offside. It fell toward Jozy, who — despite the chasm of space between himself and the last NYCFC defender, and the fact that Osorio was running onto the pass — headed the ball sideways out of touch. It achieved nothing; NYCFC got a free kick for the offside, rather than having the ball bounce down toward the keeper.

The only reason I bring this up is the absurdity of it. Although less impactful, I was asking the same question then as I was five minutes later: Why would Jozy do that?

That’s a question we’ve probably asked of pretty much every TFC player this year.

Anyway, as Michael Bradley said on Sunday, the margin of error is incredibly small now for TFC. Seven points back of a playoff spot with 11 games to go, and things look pretty grim. At this point, the Reds really can’t afford to lose focus again, or drop any more points at home.

In order to keep up the kind of form they need, they’ll have to understand that other teams will have seen what happened on Sunday. The strategy of getting under TFC’s skin seems to work; it’s now up to the Reds to stop letting that happen. Starting games in the right mindset, playing to the whistle, and avoiding any off-the-ball shenanigans can go a long way to helping this team get back to the clinical, disciplined game they perfected in 2017. We’ve seen it this year; we saw it at times on Sunday. But we haven’t seen enough of it.

Of course, in the Sisyphean metaphor, we’re supposed to imagine the hero happy with his life of futile effort. Maybe applying it to sports needs to be more general — “we like watching our team through all the ups and downs,” or whatever.

But in this particular case, Camus can stuff it. Toronto FC won’t be happy unless they get that boulder to the top of the mountain, and keep it there long enough to get into the playoffs.

And that starts with composure.