TORONTO -- The playoffs are as far out of reach as they've ever been. Same goes for a first winning season.
But as Toronto FC embarks on the final quarter of the 2013 Major League Soccer campaign, the players and their head coach insist a lot is at stake, from pride to jobs to momentum for next season.
"If you think there's only nine games left and you have to pick yourself up and get motivated, then you shouldn't be playing," striker Robert Earnshaw said Thursday after the Reds completed their final training session ahead of Friday's match at BMO Field against the visiting New England Revolution.
"There's always something to play for."
Toronto (4-12-9) begins the weekend 15 points adrift of the Revolution (10-9-6), who are tied with the Houston Dynamo for the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. As has so often been the case over their seven years in existence, talk as the Reds head into autumn is about next season.
And, after a relatively decent run of form over the past six matches (2-2-2), players believe they are now developing a cohesion following another season of tremendous roster turnover. Performances have improved and become more consistent. Players say more positive results will come over the final nine matches if that trend continues, offering supporters proof better days are ahead.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the year," said striker Andrew Wiedeman. "All the players, all the coaches, all the staff, we know it, we see it every day out here in training.
"But it would be nice to get some wins and show the fans as well, and carry some momentum into next year."
Captain Steven Caldwell said despite the fact it's all but a mathematical certainty Toronto will miss the post-season for a seventh straight year, there's no shortage of motivation down the stretch.
"Maybe we can't make the playoffs but we really want to finish the season on a high," the defender said. "We're trying to build something here, so when you're building anything, you need momentum.
"We're working extremely hard on achieving consistency and that (improved) level of performance and these nine games are crucially important to letting everyone know where this team is going."
In New England, Toronto faces a team rounding into form at the right time. Back-to-back home victories over Chicago and Philadelphia have put the Revolution into the thick of the playoff race. If they make it three straight wins Friday, they would move, at least temporarily, into a second place tie in the East.
Midfielder Kelyn Rowe, who had a pair of goals in last week's 5-1 thrashing of Philadelphia to earn MLS player of the week honours, and striker Juan Agudelo, who also notched a brace in that match, each have three goals in the last two games. New England's attack also features Diego Fagundez, the club's leading scorer with eight goals and six assists.
This is the rubber match of the season series between the clubs after they split two games in Foxborough, Mass. Fagundez and Agudelo scored in a 2-0 New England win in May with Toronto avenging that with a 1-0 result earlier this month on an early strike by the now-injured Matias Laba.
Toronto head coach Ryan Nelsen said in New England he sees a lot of positive signs for his club.
"They've had their pains of a couple of years and I think they're just starting to blossom," Nelsen said of a Revolution side which last made the playoffs in 2009. "The young boys are just starting to mature, they've got a lot of games under their belt now and you're starting to see the best of them.
"It's very similar to where we are. We've got a good set of young guys and very soon they'll become hardened MLS pros."
Among those prospective stars of the future for Toronto is hometown midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who is expected to start Friday despite being substituted out after 34 minutes with a sore ankle in last Saturday's 1-1 draw against D.C. United in Washington.
"We're looking to finish strong. We're looking at it as a nine-game season," said Osorio, who has five goals in 22 matches and is in the conversation for MLS rookie of the year. "If we can bring momentum from the end of the season we can start next pre-season knowing we can be really good in this league."