From "six feet under" to playoff chasers: Toronto FC's Ryan Nelsen takes stock of Reds' rapid renovation

Ryan Nelsen in TFC's match against Chivas USA

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USA Today Sports

TORONTO – As Toronto FC enter the home stretch of a 2014 season marked by one of the most ambitious makeovers in MLS history, head coach Ryan Nelsen took some time to reflect on his playoff-chasing side’s recent form and addressed TFC's search for personal growth, balance, consistency and patience. 

The Reds return to BMO Field having picked up six points in their last four matches, an extended road swing against a string of Eastern Conference rivals. Nelsen said many coaches would probably take 1.5 points per match away from home but added that the method by which his team lost two of the four games did not sit well with him. In particular, Nelsen pointed to the number of open-play chances his side created, coupled with the soft goals his depleted back line conceded. 

However, the New Zealander says that losing matches, like last weekend's 4-1 loss to Sporting KC or the 3-0 loss to D.C. United on July 30, can serve as a learning opportunity just as valuable as the experience gained from winning matches. 

“It’s a good lesson for us, to tell you the truth,” Nelsen told reporters at training Tuesday. “If you switch off and make individual errors, this game punishes you. If we have to play these two teams again at their place [in the playoffs], we can’t make those mistakes because it’s lights-out time. We’re – in a sick, perverted way – enjoying these lessons that we’re getting taught, because it makes us stronger and makes us better.”

As his team continues down the final third of the season, Nelsen is also trying to strike a healthy equilibrium with his squad's mentality, offering that their style is like a “swinging pendulum,” one that saw his team playing “very tight and very solid” earlier in the year to a “kind of nice and open and attacking [style] now.”

“We’re just trying to find that balance of the two,” he explained. 

He also pointed to the timeline of his team’s turnaround, addressing the quickness of TFC's sweeping changes and the subsequent need for patience.

“It took [Sporting KC] three, four years to get them even close to where they are now, and we’re trying to do it in 18 months,” Nelsen said of the reigning MLS Cup champions. “We’re trying our hardest, trying as quick as we can, but I think we have to live through these bumpy roads. If, in four years, these guys are making those same mistakes and losing 4-1, I’d have a massive, massive, massive, massive problem.”

TFC are not the first team to undergo a sudden turnaround, after all. Consider the New York Red Bulls, last-place finishers in 2009 who leaped to the top of the Eastern Conference just one season later. Even this year, Toronto FC’s rebirth coincides with D.C. United’s dramatic resurgence, and the two teams will look to keep fighting it out for two of the top spots in the East as the season winds down.

Toronto finished ninth out of 10 teams in the conference in 2013; the team currently sit in third place and are still in the hunt for a franchise-first playoff appearance. This sudden turnaround is why Nelsen asks for patience. 

“When you start from the bottom – and when I mean bottom, I mean six feet under – to progress the team up, you have to take little steps.” Nelsen said. “Creating chances and keeping clean sheets and all that are what the very good teams do. It takes time to get those, even if you’re the bigger teams. It does take a bit of time to get that balance to know what your strengths and weaknesses are.”