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‘You run out of things to say’: 2017 mentality has been absent from Toronto FC

Both the coach and captain spoke frankly after TFC’s tough loss to LAFC.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Fifty-six points. That’s how many Toronto FC had through 27 games last season. A year later, they have just 27. Instead of watching the entire league disappear in the rear-view mirror, 2018 has been a slow process of watching the playoffs disappear over the horizon.

The facts are simple, and well-publicized: The Reds are nine points back of the Montreal Impact, with just seven games left to go. Hope isn’t gone, but it’s damn feeble. TFC have games left against a number of teams directly above them in the standings, giving them a small modicum of control over their own destiny. That said, it’s control akin to taking a turn in Jenga with the tower about to fall.

“You run out of things to say,” admitted Michael Bradley on Saturday night.

It was a very introspective group that faced the media after TFC’s 4-2 loss to Los Angeles Football Club. The coaches and players have conceded (rightly, perhaps) that the time for making excuses is long gone.

“The continuity from minute one to minute 90 has been lacking,” said coach Greg Vanney, shrugging off excuses that may have flown two months ago. “It still comes down to us. We’re making mistakes that as professional players we shouldn’t make.”

Mistakes certainly have been the difference. The same story has played out over and over: TFC play decently, dictate the flow of the game, but fail to score and take a lead. Then, in the blink of an eye, the ball’s in their own net after some defensive miscue – often well against the run of play.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Bradley, face of the players, hadn’t quite run out of things to say. He sounded off on the mentality at the club this season, recalling how, in 2017, TFC had been relentless every night – hard to play against, win or lose. Bradley suggested that the same drive has been absent at times this year.

“When you win everything in the way that we did last year, you have to know that the next year it’s gonna be exponentially more difficult,” he said. “Across the board, every single person – every single person – in this club has come up short in understanding what those challenges were gonna be.”

The captain was adamant that the blame should be spread evenly. Twice he mentioned that everyone at TFC — “from the top all the way down to the bottom” — underestimated the realities of a season after a championship.

“When you win everything like we did, then you have to understand that to come back and do it again it’s going to be even harder,” he said.

“Through 27 league games this year it’s not even been close. Not even close.”

It does seem like TFC have been missing some of the focus they had last season. It would be hard to expect the Reds to still be quite as dominant as they were then, but certain trends stick out this year. In 2017, they made mistakes. Some losses shook people’s faith. But Toronto FC always returned stronger or with more fire after they screwed up.

This time around, it seems that mistakes are just breeding more mistakes. The defensive holes have never been fixed — I mean, there’s never been a consistent backline, but still. It’s like the same game, on loop.

“Too many times now, I feel like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, myself included,” said Jozy Altidore. “I think everybody’s had a turn so to speak, but as the games wind down here, we know how big these games are here at home.”

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Why, though, is this happening? How could a team that was so focused one year struggle so mightily with the same thing in the very next season? Complacency? Perhaps underestimating the competition in MLS?

Those options seem a little far-fetched — at the very least, they’re certainly not fair accusations to make with so little knowledge of what really happens behind the scenes.

This season has been tumultuous, surely it’s taken a serious toll (in more ways than one) on this team. Can you really recover fully when your club’s highest emotional climax comes in April, with 29 games left to play in the MLS schedule? It wouldn’t be surprising if that CONCACAF Champions League loss made it a little harder to dig in for a long regular season campaign.

Plus, the Reds have played a lot of football over the past few years. Eight extra games in the Champions League, plus four each year in the Canadian Championship, and a combined total of 11 MLS playoff games from 2016 and 2017? It adds up.

I’m not trying to make excuses either. Falling so far short this year is no less than embarrassing for a team that’s achieved what this one has. It’s just so confusing, though. Even when they field an almost full-strength starting XI, it’s the same issues.

You’d hardly expect them to say anything different, but TFC haven’t thrown in the towel. Pretty much every game, it seems they show flashes of the quality that won them every trophy in 2017; it’s always been a matter of keeping that together for 90 minutes — or less, even, if they can finish some chances earlier in the game.

To begin the true homestretch of the season, they’ve got an international break, followed by seven do-or-die matches, with three against teams they’re in direct competition with.

“We’ve got two weeks now to see if we can regroup — regroup for the hundredth time this year — and try to go after seven more games,” said Bradley. “See if we can really tilt the bar in our favour. See if in a moment where everything seems lost, and everybody thinks we’re dead, [we can] win another game, create a little bit of momentum.”

The captain’s not wrong in saying everybody thinks they’re dead. Most TFC fans and writers — myself included, frankly — heard funeral bells when Carlos Vela scored his injury time goal on Saturday.

“We’ve got to keep going,” said Altidore, rather emphatically. “That’s all we can do, we’ve got to keep going. We owe it to ourselves, to the fans.”

They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is now. Well, the best time for Toronto FC to start winning was 20 games ago. The only option they have left is to start now.