It's a familiar story. A broken record. Once again Toronto FC's long suffering supporters were left to watch their side throw away points in the closing moments of a match as the players switched off rather than give everything they've got to defend their goal.
The saddest thing about the situation is that no one was even the least bit surprised. When Sheanon Williams scored the late equalizer for Philadelphia Union at BMO Field on Saturday, it was the 12th time Toronto FC had conceded in the final 15 minutes of matches this season. Letting in late goals has been a familiar theme in TFC's history, and shows no sign of going away.
Players can say the right things. They can talk about their desire to turn things around, but that has to be followed by actions, which includes putting your body on the line for your club and doing everything you possibly can to prevent the ball going in the goal. Too often, it has been too easy for the opposition. Toronto's tie against Philadelphia followed a home loss to Chicago where one of the goals scored by the Fire had a couple of TFC players jumping out of the way in the buildup to the goal. The desire/ability just wasn't there.
After the Chicago defeat, head coach Paul Mariner didn't hold back, lambasting his players for producing one of the "most embarrassing performances," he had ever been associated with. There was at least a response from the players against Philadelphia. They showed some pride in the shirt and battling qualities that hadn't been evident against the Fire.
The words from Mariner were strong, but unfortunately not unfamiliar to fans of Toronto FC. There have been many occasions over the six years of the franchise when coaches, players and front office staff have talked about sub-standard performances and the need to "get it right," but Toronto supporters are still waiting. Well, some of them are. Some appear to have already given up, as was evidenced by two of the lowest attended league matches in the club's history this week. Others want to see improvement rather than hearing about it before they decide to invest more money in the club.
What lies ahead is an off-season that will define the future success of the club. Get it right, and the stands could well be full again next season, but any more missteps could see Toronto's stadium attendances continue to slide - a gut-wrenching situation for everyone who wants to see soccer grow across this country.
First up are the business decisions. How the club handles season seat renewals this year is one of the biggest moments in its history. It will also be a massive indicator as to how much the organization appreciates the loyalty of those fans who have been standing by the team through six years of failure to make the post-season.
However, business decisions can only go so far. Toronto FC supporters want to see a winning team. It doesn't matter how low the prices are if the team serves up an unpalatable offering on the pitch.
Paul Mariner and Director of Team Operations Earl Cochrane have a massive task ahead of them to assemble a squad that can compete for a playoff spot next season. Cochrane joined us on our MLS on TSN broadcast from BMO Field on Saturday and shed some light on plans for the future. He believes they need four players who can come in and be starters through the spine of the team. If they get that right, they can then build around those players with other pieces.
It's much too early to be making judgements on Paul Mariner. He needs time to assemble his own squad to play his way. A promising start to his tenure as head coach has quickly taken a downward turn in both results and performances, but he can only be judged next season after he has had the winter to fix things. Toronto FC will have much more flexibility with the salary cap heading into next season, so Mariner and Cochrane should have the ability to bring in the players they believe will make the difference. By the time the 2013 season rolls around, this team will likely have a much different look once again as they attempt to finally "get things right."