TORONTO – It started as a “bloody big deal” but ended yet again in disappointment.
And it left members of Toronto FC contemplating what went wrong in a season that kicked off with such promise with three high-profile signings but ended short of the MLS Cup Playoffs for the eighth straight time.
“There’s no denying we’re all disappointed,” TFC captain Steven Caldwell said Tuesday, addressing the media during the team’s locker-room clear outs. “We felt the playoffs were a very important goal of ours. We felt it was achievable, and we have failed. What we have to do is focus on the positives. Hopefully during the offseason, with some bits of business, we’ll improve again.”
Despite the acquisitions of US international Michael Bradley, former English international Jermain Defoe and Brazilian striker Gilberto, TFC finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, eight points shy of the fifth and final playoff spot. And while there was plenty of star power in the team, Caldwell said injuries, lack of depth and experience in key positions led to inconsistency.
“I felt that injuries to key players at key times, Jermain, myself, a few others, meant we never had that continuity and consistency at the right times,” Caldwell said. “We started off hot and cold, and we won a few, lost a couple, but never really went on that run that teams need to do to make the playoffs.”
At the start of the season, TFC looked comfortable, sitting third in the East, poised with games in hand to make a charge at the top spot. And Defoe, who memorably burst onto the scene with a brace in an opening-week victory over eventual Supporters’ Shield winners Seattle Sounders, had 11 goals by mid-July. That, unfortunately for TFC, would be the number he finished with.
The slide started in earnest after the World Cup. Injuries to Defoe and Caldwell left the team shorthanded in critical areas. A 3-0 loss to the New England Revolution on Aug. 30 at BMO Field signaled the end of Ryan Nelsen’s tenure as head coach.
With Greg Vanney in Nelsen’s place, Toronto won just twice in their final 10 games and were eliminated following a 1-1 draw against the Montreal Impact on the second-to-last week of the season.
Fullback Justin Morrow said the season wasn’t necessarily won or lost in those final games.
He pointed to a 2-2 draw against the New York Red Bulls on June 27 when they squandered a goal lead with a minute remaining, a 2-1 home loss to 10-men Sporting Kansas City on July 26 and a 2-2 draw at home against the struggling Chicago Fire on Aug. 23 as missed opportunities.
“It’s little things like that where I think just a little more veteran team, you grind out the points and you’re in the playoffs,” Morrow said.
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Midfielder Jonathan Osorio said the arrival of Bradley, Defoe and Gilberto, heralded by the club as a “bloody big deal,” might have had an effect.
“I wouldn’t say it hurt the team,” Osorio said. “Maybe it put a little more pressure on us, a pressure that maybe was not needed. But, at the same time, when you look at the beginning of the season, everybody did think the same thing. We looked around the change room and said, ‘OK, this is a team that can go really far. People expect us to go really far.’
“We just forgot that it was a totally different team, and it takes time for a team to really start gelling and to start having good chemistry in order to become a championship team or a playoff contending team.”