Toronto FC looks to climb out of early-season MLS hole as injury list lessens
Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley reacts following his team's 2-1 loss to Chivas de Guadalajara in CONCACAF Champions League final first leg action in Toronto on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Toronto FC's list of walking wounded is beginning to thin. And not a moment too soon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, May 17, 2018 12:54PM EDT
Toronto FC's list of walking wounded is beginning to thin. And not a moment too soon.
A quarter of the way through the regular season and the MLS champions are second-last in the standings at 2-6-1. Injuries have forced coach Greg Vanney to use 14 different players including captain Michael Bradley, a holding midfielder by trade, in the backline.
TFC has already lost one more game than it did all of last season when it led the league at 20-5-9.
Toronto has given up five goals in the first 15 minutes of a game, tied with New York City FC for worst in league. Given TFC actually conceded those goals in the first seven minutes of the game, it can probably claim the record.
Toronto has also yielded five goals in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Only Vancouver had been scored on more during the same period.
But knowing the class of his squad, Vanney sees brighter days ahead.
He should be able to draw from defenders Chris Mavinga, Gregory van der Wiel, Jason Hernandez and Eriq Zavaleta on Friday against visiting Orlando (6-3-1), meaning Bradley can revert to his normal midfield perch.
Mavinga (hamstring) and Zavaleta (quad) are returning from injury. Van der Wiel has been playing through an ongoing Achilles issue while Hernandez, who rejoined the team in late March, has been working himself back into shape.
On the minus side, Toronto will be without its US$12-million strike tandem with the suspended Sebastian Giovinco joining the injured Jozy Altidore (foot) on the sideline.
Nico Hasler (quad), Justin Morrow (calf) and Drew Moor (quad) remain out. Defender Nick Hagglund (hamstring) trained by himself Wednesday and will likely need a little more time.
The lengthy injury list has been a concern. So is the extra work load on the remaining healthy players.
"As long as we can stop the bleeding, we'll start to pull the group together, little by little," said Vanney.
Toronto faces a challenging stretch, starting with Orlando whose six-game winning streak was snapped in a 2-1 loss by league-leading Atlanta on Sunday. FC Dallas (4-1-4) visits BMO Field next week before TFC heads to Columbus (6-3-3).
"We know we have a good team but it does us no good to be sitting in here after every game talking about the same things," a stone-faced Bradley said after last Saturday's 3-2 loss at New England.
"We've got to find the right ways to play ourselves back into things and regain the momentum that we've had for the better part of a year and a half or two," he added.
A gruelling CONCACAF Champions League schedule, not to mention back-to-back MLS Cup appearances, has meant that Toronto has had next to no down time.
TFC poured all its resources into the Champions League run, looking to fill the last remaining empty trophy case at its training centre. A win and the MLS club would have headed to the FIFA Club World Cup, with prestige and dollars on the line. FIFA says prize money will range from US$5 million to the winner to $500,000 for the seventh-place team.
Thanks to the Champions League demands this season, Vanney says the team travelled more than 32,000 kilometres through April -- making more long trips than an entire MLS season usually brings.
It didn't help that after the heart-breaking penalty shootout loss to Chivas Guadalajara in the Champions League final, Toronto was thrown right back into the MLS regular-season grind.
Orlando is Toronto's fifth game in 20 days.
"It's been a challenge," Vanney said diplomatically. "And that's why, we believe, we are where we are."
Playing at altitude has taken a toll. As has a long Toronto winter and poor spring, which forced TFC players to train on artificial turf and then play on a soft grass surface at BMO Field (a new surface is in the works).
Practice has been cut back to allow players more time to recover.
Vanney saw the 2018 Champions League campaign as a sort of continuation of the 2017 MLS championship season. But refocusing on league play after the frustration of losing in Mexico has been hampered by the decimated roster.
Add to that some poor on-field decision-making and -- in Toronto's eyes -- questionable video review incidents and it has made for "paper cuts that are frustrating," according to Vanney.
On the plus side, Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio has been in fine form and Bradley remains the team's glue.
"Michael's been what he is, which is extraordinarily professional," said Vanney.
Brazilian newcomer Auro has also been a rock, doing whatever has been asked.
"Just a warrior. He shows up every single day. Loves to play soccer," said Vanney, who nevertheless worries about the workload the 22-year-old has had to carry.
And van der Wiel, who had been seen as a right-sided outside back, has been a revelation at centre back.
It has been a slower start for Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe.
Vanney says that's partially due to the fact that Champions League games were not the place to learn how to fit in. And when Aketxe did play, he was not always surrounded by the right blend of players due to the injuries.
"He's not really a runner so it's important that he has runners around him," said Vanney.
Still he says the Spaniard has shown flashes of his skill and passing ability.
The Champions League hangover remains -- Vanney admits to revisiting the final game in his mind.
"I think it's something that will never really disappear," he said. "Obviously it will get farther in our memory the farther we go ... but for sure I think we're feeling it still a little bit."
The more immediate concern is getting people healthy.
"Given the way the season has started, the sooner the better just so we can find that foundation and solid footing," said Vanney. "Because I do believe that when we do, we'll get on a very good run of results."