On a warm Toronto evening, it was a single wink of the eye from a visiting assistant coach that told the story of Toronto FC’s struggles this season.
That little wink, followed by a high five and a hug for his boss, showed a content employee who had done his homework – seeing something develop before it actually happened on the pitch.
Visiting Toronto FC used to be an unpleasant experience for most teams – well, of course after the times it really was pleasant, back when former Toronto striker Danny Koevermans lumped them in with teams you’d close the curtains on if they were playing in your back garden.
We’re talking about what will now be known as the ‘Giovinco Era’ where the Italian sharp shooter was the most feared player in the league, assisted by Corporals Altidore and Vazquez, plus Captain Bradley.
Back then, one Eastern Conference head coach described his team’s plight at BMO Field as like turning up to a gun fight with a knife. In less than two years since, many an opponent has gotten stronger while Toronto FC has undoubtedly become a far weaker army.
Seconds prior to the wink and short embrace, the visitors’ bench at BMO Field had risen in unison to applaud another goal. Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg walked back into his own net to retrieve the ball, a familiar tale played out in front of the home fans as the disappointed players in red walked back to the centre circle to restart the match.
It was just one of the 24 goals Toronto FC has conceded in 15 MLS games at BMO Field this season and one of the 53 in 32 league games at their stadium since they lifted MLS Cup against Seattle Sounders back in December, 2017.
That was not only a night when they became champions, but a night when they had done so with arguably the finest collective performance in team history. They were so good it appeared Seattle hadn’t even bothered bringing a knife.
The mental reference points for most from that night will be Jozy Altidore finally beating Stefan Frei with a brilliant one-on-one finish and Victor Vazquez holding his shirt aloft after securing the club’s first-ever title.
Special memories for a team and its fan base, but only ones made possible by a complete team performance from start to finish – something the team hasn’t come close to repeating against MLS opponents in the 21 months since.
“A lot of people talk about how good a team we are. Listen, for a year and a half now we haven’t played well enough,” warned Altidore recently.
A lot has happened during that time. Not just to the club, but to the league. Major League Soccer is in a tremendous growth phase, highlighted by the fact that Toronto FC’s 2017 record points tally for a regular season was beaten in 2018 and will likely be overtaken again in 2019 by LAFC.
Quite simply, Toronto FC is no longer a powerhouse in MLS on the field.
Tell us something we don’t know, you may be saying. Okay, did you know that of the teams to play in MLS the last two seasons, only the Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo and Orlando City SC have gained fewer points since the start of last season? Or, to put it a different way, 17 other teams have claimed more points in MLS since Toronto FC lifted the cup. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC are tied on 74 points in 2018 and 2019.
There are many reasons for the decline of Toronto FC, but near the top has been a real lack of tactical balance leading to poor collective defending. They are 19th of 23 teams in total league goals conceded since winning MLS Cup.
Head Coach Greg Vanney highlighted this as his team’s biggest weakness in the off-season and the club reacted by signing Laurent Ciman. But after shipping 11 goals in their first five games, general manager Ali Curtis knew they needed better defenders, eventually securing the signature of Omar Gonzalez, who debuted in July.
Gonzalez joined Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo as three Target Allocation Money (TAM) signings in one summer window. This was unprecedented at Toronto FC and so rare in Major League Soccer that one rival evaluator described them as a “desperate team going all in to give their coach a chance to keep his job.”
Some closer to the situation would tell you it was the least Vanney deserved. He’d asked for some time for the club to find a leader in defence and wingers to help him play a favoured 4-3-3 style that can get the best out of all he has.
If you didn’t know Toronto FC ranked 18th or 19th in total points and goals conceded the past couple of seasons, you know Vanney did. With a leader in defence and width in attack, the club has shown a different look to their play in recent weeks. In the eight games Gonzalez has played, they have conceded one goal or less in six of them. They haven’t done that in an eight-game stretch since 2017.
As September begins, a look at the standings shows a team far from the potential expected given the amount of money being spent, but in the last few weeks they look like a much more connected team.
The recent high-profile dropping of star Designated Player Alejandro Pozuelo was bold by Vanney, but it’s a signal that the Spaniard has to work harder defensively if he wants to play in midfield alongside Marky Delgado, more of a runner than a technician, and Michael Bradley, who has been magnificent in the last two performances against Montreal Impact and New England Revolution.
Both would have been victories if Westberg hadn’t performed at Foxborough the way Peyton Manning used to, but there were still plenty of reasons for Vanney to smile.
Four of Toronto FC’s final six matches are away from home – including major tests at New York City FC and LAFC – as is a likely playoff date in October. Gone are the glory days of the past, but in recent weeks the content and happy opposing benches have also missing in action.
Toronto FC have a month to save their season but recent evidence has shown they are no longer trying to be what they once were, instead focusing on what they would want to be on the road in October.
Altidore set the tone publicly two weeks ago before the game against Montreal, saying: “It’s about showing up and everybody doing their job and collectively we will then thrive as a group. MLS is at a point now that if you’re not concentrating for 90 minutes you won’t be able to string a run of results together.”
Two games down, six to go to see if this version of Toronto FC can make the playoffs and arrive with more than simply a knife themselves.