This wasn’t in the script.
Back in January, when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke took the microphone at Toronto’s Real Sports Bar and Grill after unveiling Toronto FC signings Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, he openly asked, “Why can’t we be great?”
On the first Saturday in May, as TFC blundered its way to a 2-1 home defeat against the New England Revolution to fall to 3-4-0 on the season and tumble to seventh in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, the reasons why seem to be piling up.
No question, those high-priced acquisitions, along with that of Brazilian national team goalkeeper Julio Cesar and fellow countryman Gilberto, have raised the profile of the club, both domestically and abroad, but have they done enough to irrevocably change what for so long has been a losing culture within the dressing room?
Saturday’s loss felt like so many other TFC games in years past, with a familiar pattern of failing to convert chances being punished late on as tactical naïveté and technical inadequacies allowed the visitors to skip town with all three points.
After sitting out all of April with an injured hamstring, Defoe understandably looked a little off the pace in his first game back, and while strike partner Gilberto led the way with four of TFC’s 15 attempts on goal – hitting the post twice – both he and the fans are growing more than a little impatient waiting for his first goal in TFC colours.
Even after missing three games, Defoe still leads the team with three goals this season – a fair ways off former Tottenham Hotspur teammate Clint Dempsey, who has eight for Seattle – but as head coach Ryan Nelsen readily admitted after the game, “He’s not going to score a hat trick every single game.”
With just seven goals through seven games, Toronto’s scoring output is joint-last in MLS alongside the Los Angeles Galaxy and Montreal Impact. At 31 years old, Defoe’s potential for injury down the road is always a concern, although as a teetotaler and someone who looks after his health he does his best to mitigate that worry. He could also feature in Roy Hodgson’s England squad at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, further hampering Toronto’s ability to score goals. Finding a reliable secondary scoring source is a must if this team is going to make the playoffs for the very first time.
Saturday’s loss also highlighted Toronto’s deficiencies at the back, with 20-year-old centre back Doneil Henry receiving the lion’s share of the blame for his role in New England’s equalizer before his hand ball with eight minutes remaining gifted Lee Nguyen the chance to seal victory from the spot.
While Henry refused to shy away from his mistakes, this season wasn’t supposed to be about learning on the job. With millions committed to the likes of Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto, that investment is in jeopardy if Toronto can’t shore up its back line, something that too often has been its Achilles heel in years past.
“It’s an experience thing,” said Steven Caldwell, who played alongside Henry at the back. “It’s knowing when to pass it and limiting your mistakes to try and not make the major mistakes is very difficult.
“We’re the second-last line of defence and it’s worse for goalkeepers. That’s why you find that the majority of quality centre halves and goalkeepers are older guys.”
One older option would be veteran utility defender Bradley Orr, who filled in admirably for Henry while the youngster missed games in April through injury, but Nelsen played down recalling Henry to the side on Saturday, saying that he “didn’t think that was our problem to tell you the truth.”
Nelsen is surprised at his team’s inability to win games at home – after winning the home opener TFC has now dropped the past two – but his players aren’t about to start to panic just because they’re now in a three-game losing streak just seven games into the season.
“I don’t think this is pressure,” midfielder Kyle Bekker said. “If this is pressure we all need to get out now and stop.
“But we just have to deal with it, we just have to find ways to get it done and right now we’re not getting it done. We started off well and it almost seems like those first few results were enough but it’s a long season and it’s just not good enough right now.”