TORONTO -- In just a few weeks the agony will end for Toronto FC and their supporters -- at least those who haven't tuned out already.
Just three league games remain in what has been a miserable season that started with nine straight losses under former coach Aron Winter. The team improved a little with new coach Paul Mariner, but nowhere near enough to get into the playoff picture.
Toronto hosts DC United at BMO Field on Saturday, and with just a few games left it's almost the time for decisions to be made about who comes back next season and who gets their marching orders.
"I want to see that they want to be here next year. It's very, very simple," said Mariner after the team trained at BMO Field on Friday.
"And that's what everybody in the stands wants to see. They want to see that the players are working hard for the club, for the shirt. That's all you want."
DC has won both of the meetings between the two clubs this season, outscoring Toronto 5-1.
A loss Saturday would make Toronto just the third non-expansion team in MLS history to lose 20 games since the league stopped using shootouts to decide games in 1999.
"There's no hiding from the fact that it's been a long slog this year," said midfielder Terry Dunfield, who will join up with the Canadian squad after Saturday's game. "It's important we just limp over the finish line with some pride and give the fans some belief in us for next season."
For Dunfield, Saturday's game is one final chance to impress on the club level in advance of one of the biggest weeks of his international career. Canada's fate in World Cup qualifying will be determined against Cuba next Friday and Honduras the following Tuesday.
"I'd be lying if my mind hasn't drifted away at night thinking about it," said Dunfield.
"Going in needing three points against Cuba and hopefully getting the job done and maybe we'll take it from there."
Toronto's support was once amongst the strongest in the league, but dissatisfaction with the team's performance has seen average attendance drop almost 10 per cent from last season. At many games, the number of fans in the stands falls well below what is announced.
Mariner thinks fans want some optimism before they get back fully behind the team.
"We've got to put on a performance tomorrow," he said. "The crowd will get behind us if we do it and the crowd will get us going."
DC would clinch a playoff spot with a win, and there's incentive for Toronto to play spoiler.
As a team that has failed to make the playoffs in their six years of existence, it would be an insult for TFC to see another team clinching a playoff berth on their pitch before Toronto's had a chance to celebrate one at all.
"I think we just want to win in front of our home fans and put up a good performance in front of our Toronto fans and that's the main thing," said forward Ryan Johnson.
"Obviously I want to see the season come to an end so we can start fresh but we definitely can get something out of the rest of the games."
Toronto has caught a break in that last season's league MVP, Canadian Dwayne De Rosario, is still recovering from a knee injury sustained last month in international duty. But it's scant consolation for a team that has injury woes of their own.
Toronto has been without designated players Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans and Eric Hassli as well as goalkeeper Stefan Frei with a variety of injuries.
"To be fair to them they've got a few injuries, we've got a few injuries so that might level the playing field up a little bit," Mariner said.
"We have millions of dollars on the sideline which doesn't really please me too much but there's nothing I can do on that."