Toronto FC President, Bill Manning

Ask Toronto FC president Bill Manning to identify the root of his club’s struggles this season, and he’ll give a quick and decisive answer.

“Injuries,” he told on Monday. “It’s injuries. Without a doubt.”

Manning knows that health problems aren’t the only reason the defending MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champions are currently in ninth in the East and look like they’ll miss the playoffs, but the numbers support his argument that they’re the main factor behind TFC’s poor 2018.

Starters Jozy Altidore, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow and Victor Vazquez have all missed at least 10 regular season matches this year. Altidore, Mavinga, Moor and Vazquez – one of the league’s best scorers, TFC’s top two center backs and a 2017 Best XI selection and MLS assist king, respectively – have played less than half of the available minutes in Toronto’s 40 games across all competitions.

When at least two of those four players start, Toronto have actually been quite good: 6-3-1 in 10 regular season matches and 11-5-2 in 18 matches in all competitions. When one or fewer is in the lineup, the record gets bleak: 2-11-5 in MLS action and 4-11-7 when including Concacaf Champions League and Canadian Championship play.

“The difference between having nine of our best players on the field versus eight is like falling off a cliff,” said Manning. “When you look at our season, we’ve been at our worst when we’ve been missing three or more of those guys.”

Toronto, who will host Liga MX club Tigres UANL in the inaugural Campeones Cup on Wednesday (8:15 pm ET; ESPN2, Univision, TSN, TVAS) may have been fine if the injuries were limited to the attack. Despite playing without Altidore and Vazquez for large chunks of the season, TFC, thanks largely to the work of Sebastian Giovinco and Jonathan Osorio, still rank seventh in MLS with 50 regular season goals. It’s in the back where they’ve been burned. After finishing second in the league with just 37 goals conceded in 2017, Toronto have given up 55 goals in 28 regular season matches this year, tied for fourth-most in MLS.

A huge reason for the defense’s poor form? The extended absences of Mavinga and Moor. Both rocks in the back for TFC last year, they’ve combined for just 19 starts in TFC’s 40 matches across all competitions this season. They’ve started just one match together, all the way back on March 7 in the first leg of TFC’s CCL quarterfinal series against Tigres. Moor has played just 31 percent of available minutes; Mavinga has only played 24 percent.

Still, even when one of them starts, TFC have been decent, allowing a respectable 25 goals in 19 matches. To contrast, in the 21 games that neither Mavinga nor Moor were in the XI, TFC have given up 43 goals. That’s a 2.05 goals-against average when neither starts compared to a 1.32 goals-against average when at least one does, a discrepancy so significant that Manning and others in the TFC front office have dubbed it “the Mavinga-Moor effect.”

Stejskal: TFC's Bill Manning reflects on down 2018 ahead of Campeones Cup -

Mavinga's injuries have had a big impact on TFC's 2018 season | USA Today Sports Images

“It’s staggering,” said Manning. “You’re not going to win, you’re just not going to win when you let up that many goals.”

They’re still fighting for a playoff spot, but the injury woes may well end up costing Toronto their season. The club is determined to not let them wreck their 2019, however. And while it’s unlikely that their roster will get much younger or less injury-prone this winter due to the vast majority of their big names remaining under contract, TFC have already made a move to help ensure better health in 2019.

The club recently hired sports analytics firm Kitman Labs to help provide a road map for when and how TFC should play, train and rest every player on their roster given their individual workload, injury history and the team’s schedule.

Manning said that Kitman, who worked with the Houston Dynamo last year and are partnered with teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, English Premier League and German Bundesliga, will put a finer point on the data that TFC director of sport science Jim Liston already collects. The main idea is to prevent the soft tissue injuries – the muscle tweaks, strains and pulls – that have sidelined Mavinga, Moor and Vazquez for extended periods this season from happening as frequently in 2019. That’ll be hugely important, as TFC, who only had six weeks off in each of the last two winters, will face yet another congested schedule of MLS, CCL and Canadian Championship matches next season.

“We’ve all come to this conclusion if we’re going to play and make runs in MLS every year and make Concacaf Champions League runs and play four games in the Canadian Championship, we have to do a better job of managing our team when it comes to the personnel that are on the field and in training,” said Manning. “What Kitman does is gives us a little bit of an insight into these three guys are at risk of injury at four times more than normal unless you adjust what you’re doing with them. Jim Liston, who’s our sports medicine director, is going to be in almost daily communication in terms of here’s where our guys are, Kitman will tell us where the risks are and now we have to assess those risks.”

Kitman’s analysis won’t be the only new thing at BMO Field next season: Manning said that TFC will switch from a natural grass surface to a hybrid grass-turf field after they wrap CCL play in 2019. Surface snobs can relax – this won’t be the same type of artificial turf used in other stadiums around MLS. The SIS Grass hybrid pitch that TFC will install next season is 95 percent grass and five percent synthetic fiber. The surface was used at six of 12 World Cup stadiums this summer, is used by several EPL teams and by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. According to Manning, it’ll play like grass, but hold up much better than the all-natural surface that TFC has had problems with this season.

Their sports science program will be beefed up and the pitch will be new, but the top-end of TFC’s roster will likely remain largely in place in 2019. Manning confirmed that the contracts of Designated Players Michael Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco all expire after the 2019 season. Mavinga, Morrow, Osorio, Vazquez, goalkeeper Alex Bono and defenders Gregory van der Wiel and Eriq Zavaleta are among the players that TFC have extended or acquired in 2018.

Midfielder Ager Aketxe was also signed this winter, but the Targeted Allocation Money-acquisition disappointed before being sent on loan to Spanish second-division club Cadiz in the summer. Manning said that his loan runs until the end of the European season. If everything goes well, he said, the clubs have an understanding that Cadiz will permanently acquire Aketxe next summer.

Manning added that, despite reports to the contrary earlier this year, Toronto were never contacted by Tigres about Giovinco or any of their other players. He said that the club will wait until after the season before opening talks about a potential new deal for Giovinco or any of their other Designated Players.

The general roster stability has Manning and TFC feeling like they’re in a good place heading into 2019, even if they don’t erase their nine-point deficit behind sixth-place Montreal to qualify for the playoffs this year. Not that they’re giving up hope. They’re planning on fighting until they’re mathematically eliminated, hoping to carry momentum from their 5-3 win against the LA Galaxy last weekend through Wednesday’s awkwardly-timed Campeones Cup against Tigres and into Saturday’s crucial match at the New York Red Bulls (5 pm ET | TSN — Full TV & streaming info).

“Realistically, no one thought we’d be in the position we’re in. Let’s be honest, no one thought that Toronto would be in this situation,” said Manning. “So we find ourselves saying, ‘Holy crap, I don’t want to win the game Wednesday and get beat Saturday in New York,’ but [head coach] Greg [Vanney] said it, he’s like, ‘Look, these guys want to play this game and they want to win this game.’ You’re playing a big opponent and you have a little bit of history with Concacaf Champions League and our guys want to play, so it’s a little bit of a good problem to have.”