TORONTO – The 2011 season was supposed to be the one in which Toronto FC finally made it into the MLS Cup playoffs. But for the fifth time in their five-year existence, the Reds will miss out on the big dance.
While most teams would take it a little easier through the final stretch of games, choosing to focus on the next season instead, TFC head coach and technical director Aron Winter isn’t about to do just that – the season’s not over, and neither is the team’s work.
“First of all, I don’t want to think next season because I’ve got three other games, including the CONCACAF game, which is also important,” Winter said after last Saturday’s 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls officially ended Toronto’s playoff chances. “We want to be focused first on those three games and after the last game, then we can think about next season.”
Toronto have two league games left – on Oct. 15 at Philadelphia and Oct. 22 at home against New England – but the biggest match will be their CCL tilt at FC Dallas on Oct. 18, the final Group C match of the tournament. A win against their MLS counterparts would see the Reds through to the knockout stages.
While Winter feels the team has improved after the overhaul that began in July that included the addition of two new Designated Players, forward Danny Koevermans and midfielder/sweeper Torsten Frings, he admits there's still work to be done.
“Three months ago, we brought in a lot of players and from that moment the improvement has been very good,” Winter said. “We are playing decent games and we are on the right track. The way we are playing soccer, I’m satisfied. We have to be much better, but those are the things we are working for.”
Defending on restarts is one thing that needs perfecting.
Thierry Henry scored a magical goal to tie the game on Saturday in the 88th minute, but it irked Winter that it came off a set piece. It was the eighth goal this season Toronto have allowed off a corner kick in league play, while they've only scored twice off corners themselves.
Goals off restarts have also been TFC’s Achilles heel in CCL games. In their most recent match – a 1-1 draw with Pumas UNAM on Sept. 27 – the Reds gave up an equalizer off a second-half corner kick to walk away with just one point.
“It’s not only the last couple of games that we’ve played, but also in the past,” Winter said.
He could have been thinking of a Champions League fixture against FC Dallas on Aug. 25, when FCD scored after a throw-in late in the first half at BMO Field to win 1-0. Or Maybe Winter was referring to their league match against the San Jose Earthquakes two days later, when the Quakes equalized in the 87th minute, also after a throw-in.
“You can practice it,” Winter said. “But if at a certain moment you’re always making the same mistakes, I think that it is a lack of quality.”