On first viewing, the opening goal conceded by Toronto FC in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Los Angeles FC seemed typical of an MLS campaign gone awry.
Diego Rossi’s speculative shot from outside the penalty box hit defender Justin Morrow’s leg and then LAFC forward Carlos Vela’s arm before eluding a diving Clint Irwin. Another bad break for the star-crossed MLS champions.
But watch the goal closer and its reflection on a dismal 7-14-6 league campaign runs even deeper.
An aimless goal kick by Irwin. First, Marky Delgado and then Eriq Zavaleta are beaten to headers by LAFC players. Captain Michael Bradley is too slow off the mark to catch Rossi.
It is a 14-second sequence of ineptitude — 14 seconds of another team wanting it more.
After the game, a measured Bradley unloaded on a season that has seen his side go from record-breaking champions to disappointing also-rans.
Like a bridge collapse
Rather than point his finger, the captain wielded a wide-ranging brush.
“[CONCACAF] Champions League aside this year, we have not had enough people in this club from the top all the way down to the bottom — and everybody’s included — we have not had enough people who have understood how hard it was going to be, what it was going to take to navigate through another season where we had to play every week like our lives depended on it,” he said.
“Last year, that was the mentality. Last year, that was what we were able to do. But when you win, 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. And through 27 league games this year, it’s not even been close. Not even close.”
Observing Toronto FC this year has been like watching a bridge collapse. There has been a new crack every week.
In 2017, when TFC won the treble of Supporters’ Shield, Canadian Championship and MLS Cup, Bradley said the team was “relentless” from start to finish.
“We weren’t going to let anything stop us. And we knew it was going to be hard, but we were ready to be harder. And this year … you have to know that the next year it’s going to be exponentially more difficult. And across the board every single person, every single person in this club has come up short in understanding what those challenges were going to be. So that part is disappointing.”
It was a scathing indictment of a franchise that, thanks to deep-pocketed owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, wants for nothing.
Failure to launch
The team reached the CONCACAF Champions League final and won the Canadian Championship. But over the long MLS season, it has failed to deliver the goods.
Bradley’s words should not come as a surprise to his teammates. They have seen the same message on the wall outside their north Toronto training centre locker-room every day.
Underneath a giant photo of the team celebrating its 2017 MLS Cup win is a quote from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Winning takes talent. Repeating takes character.”
The injury hangover of the gruelling Champions League campaign was brutal, with a subsequent toll on the healthy forced to pick up the slack. A grafter like Brazilian wingback Auro has been badly missed.
“Maybe that has an impact on our continuity over 90 minutes,” coach Greg Vanney said of the constant lineup changes. “But for me it still comes down to us just making mistakes that we shouldn’t make as professional players.”
And that has led to signs of strife in a team once known for its unified front.
Selfishness running amok
Take the decisive goal in a June loss at New York City FC. After an eight-pass buildup, Delgado’s attempt to get the ball to Victor Vazquez instead went to a NYCFC defender at the edge of the penalty box. Four passes later, New York scored at the other end.
The giveaway stranded five irritated Toronto teammates looking to continue the attack. After the errant Delgado pass. Sebastian Giovinco threw his arms up in frustration. Vazquez and the now-departed Nico Hasler hunched over.
So much for TFC’s All for One motto.
Later in the season, indiscipline by defender Chris Mavinga and striker Jozy Altidore led to costly two-game bans. Such selfish attempts at retribution also run counter to the team ethos.
The 52 goals conceded this season tell another unflattering story. TFC gave up just 37 in its entire 20-5-9 championship season.
“Too many times now I feel like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, myself included,” said Altidore. “I think everybody’s had a turn, so to speak.”
Toronto is a league-worst 0-13-1 when conceding the first goal, hardly the mark of a battle-tested team. At times when it has fought back, a soft goal conceded has sealed the deal.
This year, Toronto has given up 11 goals in the first 15 minutes of games and 13 in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Both are league worsts and are emblematic of a team that inexplicably is unprepared for battle.
No one works harder than the cerebral Vanney and the league’s reigning coach of the year has not grown stupid overnight. Players either stopped listening or thought they knew better.
Odds not in their favour
Instagram accounts have been better tended than the team’s penalty box this year.
Coupled with Montreal’s 3-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls, Toronto is now nine points out of the playoffs with seven games remaining.
Mathematically, the team is still alive but the odds don’t look good.
While Toronto stumbles to the finish line, the team it beat in last December’s MLS Cup is accelerating. The Seattle Sounders have won eight straight — a single-season record in the league’s post-shootout era.
Doing double duty with the CONCACAF Champions League, both teams got off to horrible league starts. Seattle opened with three straight losses and was 3-9-3 after 15 games while TFC lost four of its first five and was 4-8-3 over the same period.
Seattle has gone 9-0-2 since, however, compared to 3-6-3 for Toronto. The Sounders (12-9-5) stand fifth in the West, five points out of second place, while Toronto occupies ninth in the East, 27 points out of second.
TFC, a rare MLSE winner of late, has proved adept at celebrations this year as witnessed by the team’s signature wines and the 795 championship rings ordered — with the players’ bling-filled model worth the equivalent of a modest economy car.
On the field, meanwhile, the team is sputtering to a forgettable finale.