Toronto FC never thought a post-Concacaf Champions League slump was inevitable.
That’s why, just three days after their dramatic run through the tournament ended with a heartbreaking loss to Chivas de Guadalajara in the final, TFC used their first-choice squad for an MLS match against Chicago. Ten of the 11 players who started for the Reds in Guadalajara were in the lineup again for their home match against the Fire on April 28, with the injured Jozy Altidore coming off for Ager Aketxe in the only change to the XI.
The idea was to capitalize on the momentum they felt they’d built in CCL and get back on track in MLS, where they'd gotten off to a 1-4-0 start. Through 93 minutes, everything was going according to plan. TFC took an early 2-0 lead and, though Chicago pulled one back in the 70th, it looked like Toronto would take all three points. Then, seconds before the final whistle, Alan Gordon equalized for the Fire, bringing a dispiriting week to a depressing end for TFC.
Their hangover had officially begun. The draw kicked off a brutal 3-7-4 stretch that left Toronto in last in the East in points per game heading into last weekend’s match at Chicago.
“It has been strange. Each time we feel like we’re coming out of it, something else happens, whether that’s with an injury or something in a game and that’s just the way the sport goes sometimes,” TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com. “Everything went our way in 2017 and this year we’re just having to earn it all. That’s OK, but at some point, we need to break out of this and really kind of show our true colors.”
They may have started that process on Saturday. TFC didn’t play their best match, but they gutted out a 2-1 win at Toyota Park, getting goals from Sebastian Giovinco and Jonathan Osorio to nab a measure of revenge on the Fire. Just as importantly, they got a few of their key players back from injury. Altidore started and went 80 minutes in his first appearance since the Champions League final, center back Chris Mavinga played the full 90 in his first match since May 25 and midfielder Victor Vazquez had a cameo off the bench in his first action since June 24.
Toronto has been riddled with injuries throughout their season-long malaise, but the extended absences of Altidore, Mavinga, Vazquez and center back Drew Moor – who have combined to miss 56 league matches this year – have been one of the drivers of the club’s poor form.
Getting them healthy will be huge for Toronto, with Bezbatchenko saying that their returns will effectively serve as TFC’s big acquisitions in the Secondary Transfer Window. That strategy is partially due to TFC’s faith in those players and partially due to a lack of roster flexibility. Toronto tore through a large chunk of Targeted Allocation Money and budget space as they geared up for a run at CCL this winter and spring. The additions of Aketxe and Gregory van der Wiel and new contracts for Vazquez, Mavinga, Moor, Justin Morrow and Eriq Zavaleta and, in June, Alex Bono left them with little room to maneuver this summer.
According to Bezbatchenko, Aketxe’s loan to Spanish club Cadiz freed up a prorated amount of TAM but didn’t give Toronto any budget relief. Last Friday’s trade of Nicolas Hasler to Chicago in exchange for Jon Bakero and $50,000 in General Allocation Money opened a little space on the cap. Still, it’s not much for a team that basically maxed themselves out in the early stages of the season. Bezbatchenko hinted that they’ll still look to make moves this summer and said that they could look for a more physical version of a player with Aketxe’s skill in the midfield, but summer additions will likely have to be smaller in nature.
“We have the amount that we need to do the level of changing that we want,” said Bezbatchenko. “For us, the return of our injured players represents the summer signings. I think that’s very clear in terms of how we see our roster. We don’t feel like this team needs an overhaul or any significant changes. I think we need to look internally and look at ourselves and collectively reset our goals about how we’re going to go about our season and how we’re going to improve and get better.”
Regardless of how the rest of this season goes, expect TFC to take a bit of a different approach this winter. Toronto understandably prioritized continuity this winter as they prepared for their shot at the CCL. That resulted in a somewhat older roster, with many of TFC’s key players, including Giovinco, Moor, Morrow, van der Wiel, Vazquez and Michael Bradley all at least 30.
“I think that’ll be the push into next year, focusing on getting younger, for sure,” said Bezbatchenko. “I think there’s certain areas of the roster where we want to get younger and we have a number of players coming up through our academy that we’re excited about, so that’ll be a push, but I think that’s one factor as we’re looking to evolve the roster over the next year or so that we’re looking at closely.”
That’s a long way off, however. For now, TFC – who Bezbatchenko said would have to be blown away to even consider moving Altidore, Bradley or Giovinco this summer, despite recurring rumors – are focused on getting healthy, fighting for the playoffs and, three months after a tough result against Chicago helped put them in a tailspin, turning last weekend’s win at the Fire into a different type of turning point.