Warshaw: Time for Toronto FC to face these crucial questions about 2018

Toronto FC lost again this week, falling 2-1 to Orlando, who ended a nine-game slide of their own. The defending MLS Cup champions are now bottom of the East in points per game (0.84).

Sitting on 16 points, Toronto – based on Montreal’s 6th-place pace and recent precedent – will likely need 45 points to make the playoffs, or 1.8 points per game from their remaining 15 games. Eight teams in the last 10 years have had a full season equal to or greater than 1.8 ppg, one of those elite teams being 2017 TFC (2.03 PPG).

As I see it, there are three questions for Toronto FC to address:

  1. Do they have to hit the Panic Button to salvage the 2018 season?
  2. What forms could the Panic Button take?
  3. Is it worth it for the long-term health of the club?

Charlie Davies recently wrote that Toronto definitely needs to hit the panic button.

There are ways to look at Toronto’s season - injuries, poor performance in front of goal, solid expected goals numbers - and argue patience is more valuable than urgency. When everyone gets healthy, the 2 PPG pace will return. Ergo, keep that Panic Button in the drawer.

That view is brave and intelligent, but perhaps overly optimistic: It’s unclear when Toronto will get their full roster healthy. Jozy Altidore returned to the bench this past weekend, but TFC haven’t released a timeline on Drew Moor or Chris Mavinga in a while, and Victor Vazquez has been touch-and-go all season. TFC might not get fully healthy for a while, and even when they do, who knows how long it will take them to really get to their best.

Toronto’s best XI can go on a tear, but the question is "When?" With every passing week, the target could shift and, at some point, move out of reach.

As such, if TFC hope to get to the playoffs this year, they need to keep the Panic Button within arm’s reach. When time and patience meet, time wins.

With an eye on making the 2018 playoffs, Toronto could consider:

  1. Changing the tactics
  2. Signing or trading for someone new
  3. Benching or transfering a Designated Player

CD9’s article presents the idea that Toronto should change their formation. He suggests that Toronto abandon the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 that has worked for them in the past and move to a single-striker system: “With the urgent need to shore up the backline, the most logical solution is to add a defender and take off a forward, resulting in a 4-5-1 formation. With his individual brilliance, [Sebastian] Giovinco will get his chances; he just needs to capitalize on them.”

Portland made a similar defensive-minded adjustment and have gone on a 12-game unbeaten run. I’d argue, though, that Portland’s resurgence - and the type of rebirth that Charlie is asking of Toronto - is about mindset as much as tactics. Portland has fully committed to their sit-and-counter style. They grind out wins and seem to relish it. When I watch Toronto, I don’t see the grit or perseverance needed to make the adjustments that Portland has harnessed. Leading us to Option No. 2...

A single midseason signing can reinvigorate a team. Jermaine Jones did it for the Revolution in 2014, Didier Drogba did it for the Impact in 2015, and Nico Lodeiro lifted the Sounders in 2016. They provide an injection of quality and, more so, hope.

The problem facing Toronto FC right now: Jones, Drogba, Lodeiro all signed as Designated Players. TFC are presently already using all three of their DP spots. The player TFC need might not come at a price point they can currently offer. Leading us to Option No. 3 …

Giovinco and Michael Bradley haven’t been their usual selves this year. If either were playing anywhere near their peak ability, Toronto wouldn’t be faced with such tough decisions. But they aren’t, so the club does.

Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco have struggled along with their Toronto FC teammates in 2018. | USA TODAY Sports Images

Reports surfaced in May that Toronto might already be exploring options for transferring Giovinco, with Liga MX as a potential destination. Ecuadorian international and former West Ham star Enner Valencia was rumored to potentially be Giovinco’s replacement. Valencia certainly has season-altering talent.

It's surreal to consider moving Bradley or Giovinco. They’ve given so much to the club — just four months ago we were talking about Toronto as the best team in MLS history — but if sports continue to remind us of anything, it’s that business is business. Maybe TFC need to accept it’s time to move on.

If Toronto doesn’t have any viable suitors on the trade or transfer market, coach Greg Vanney could bench either player. It’d be a statement more than a tactical move. They were both incredible in March, and Vanney has given each of them a couple months to get their mojo back. It hasn’t happened. The one thing every player fears and hates most is getting benched, so perhaps the anger would ignite something in them (and everyone around them). Benching a star is a risky proposition, but we are pondering the Panic Button, after all.

None of these "Panic Button" options come without risk. New signings usually take time to acclimate; stars may not take kindly to public embarrassment; and tactical adjustments are easier said than done. Each feels as risky as it does effective.

It brings us to the last, and ultimately most important, question TFC need to answer: What’s best for the club in the long term? Is there really a good solution to 2018? Or is it better at this point to accept deadweight loss and ensure the problems don’t compile?

It sucks to watch 2018 go down the toilet, especially when they seemed on the verge of dynastic greatness, but TFC reached that precipice through smart planning.

They built the roster over five years, using multiple avenues to find a variety of players. Nothing happened through a rushed process. They won’t — shouldn’t — hit a Panic Button to save one season if it risks more in the future.

Maybe there’s an answer for them to make the playoffs this year. But they shouldn’t overpay for it.

Promising TFC Homegrown Player Liam Fraser stands to benefit from addtional playing time. | USA TODAY Sports Images

Time spent saving the now could be time spent building for tomorrow: Homegrown 20-year-old Liam Fraser could get Bradley’s minutes; Jonathan Osorio, who’s been seeking a new contract, could get that raise if the team parts ways with a star; Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta could be sold high for a new Moor.

It’s incredible how quickly things have changed for TFC; it could be time to start over already. It's hard to see what other options they have.