Toronto FC looks to tighten up its defence as it heads south for games Wednesday against the Philadelphia Union and Saturday against D.C. United.

After conceding 14 goals in its first 11 league games, Toronto (7-7-1) has leaked 10 in its last four outings (1-0-3). That has dropped John Herdman's defence to 21st in the league, conceding 1.60 goals a game.

Herdman said the matter was raised in a team meeting Monday.

"It's not numbers (of defenders) because we seem to get good numbers in and around the ball," he said. "It tends to be some decision-making elements. The players are assigned responsibilities."

And some are not fulfilling them. On one goal in Saturday's 4-3 loss to visiting FC Cincinnati, a defender was three metres out of position, he said.

"It's that level of concentration, that level of discipline that championship teams are able to bring to games," Herdman said.

"Knowing your job and delivering your job in high-pressure moments where you stay concentrated for long periods of time … that was the message today," he added. "I think collectively as a group they recognized it. And they welcomed it.

"They know we're growing. They know we're on a bit of a journey."

Herdman noted the back-and-forth contest with Cincinnati (10-2-3) which the visitors won with a 93rd-minute strike, has been described in some quarters as two heavyweights trading punches. Cincinnati won the Supporters' Shield last season and arrived at BMO Field in second place overall. 

"It was a good compliment to the lads but as I said to the players today, we got knocked out. And that doesn't help us on our quest to achieve our goals. We've got to be able to evade those little knockout punches that top teams can muster up."

Toronto goes into mid-week play in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, two places and four points ahead of Philadelphia (4-4-6). 

Despite recent bumps in the road, TFC has won seven of its last 10 matches in all competitions (7-3-0).

"A much improved team," said Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin. "Really well organized, really well coached. A dangerous team."

After going unbeaten in the first seven league games (3-0-4) of the season, the Union have just one win in their last seven outings (1-4-2).

But Philadelphia has shored up its backline of late.

Coming off a scoreless draw in Charlotte, the Union have conceded just two goals in its last three games (1-1-1) with two shutouts. Its defence is tied for 16th in the league, averaging 1.50 goals allowed per game.

Losing Andre Blake has not helped the Philadelphia cause. The three-time MLS goalkeeper of the year, who has not played since April 30, will be out another four to six weeks after a minor knee procedure.

Oliver Semmle has been subbing for Blake.

Surprisingly, Philadelphia has done better on the road (3-0-5, 14 points) than at home (1-4-1, four points). It was 10-1-6 at Subaru Park last season.

The Union attack is tied for seventh in the league, averaging 1.79 goals a game while Toronto is 10th at 1.60.

"They're a really tough team for us," said Herdman, pointing to "quality" attackers like Argentina's Julián Carranza and Hungary's Dániel Gazdag. "But it will be a good matchup. We need this type of game. We've been playing against teams that like to really dominate the ball and dominate the pitch, teams like New York (City FC) and Cincinnati.

"But this team, for me, are very pragmatic. They can go front to back very quickly and make it a very physical game. So we're getting ready for that and looking forward to it."

Toronto will be boosted by the return of Italian star Federico Bernardeschi from a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation. Bernardeschi has been involved in 11 goals (seven goals and four assists) in his last six matches across all competitions.

Fellow Italian Lorenzo Insigne, finding his form after an injury absence, was a force to be reckoned with against Cincinnati. He scored from the penalty spot, had another goal waved off for offside and hit the woodwork with a spectacular swerving shot from distance.

"That shot against the crossbar, maybe only (Lionel) Messi could do something like that in this league. That was magic," Herdman said after the game.

Centre back Kevin Long, who came off the bench in the second half Saturday after missing three games due to injury and suspension, is also likely to see more minutes.

But German forward Prince Owusu, whose six goals are tied for the team lead with Bernardeschi, is out with a calf issue. Fullback/wingback Richie Laryea, who has not played since the Feb. 25 season opener due to a hamstring injury, is listed as questionable but is not expected to see action until the weekend.

Toronto has two welcome weeks off after the games in Philadelphia and D.C. The congested May schedule saw the club play eight games in all competitions.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2024.