On the eve of perhaps its biggest game of the season, Toronto FC appears in disarray. Or, at the very least, out of answers.
Dismal defending. Misfiring on attack. A cheerful coach seemingly leading his frustrated MLS team further into the abyss.
“I believe in it,” manager Aron Winter said Tuesday. “We are going to fix it.”
Winter, a thoroughly likable man, has been saying the same for weeks.
The Toronto season could be on the line Wednesday when it hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps in the second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship final.
Toronto (0-9-0) has yet to collect a point in the league this season.
Cup play is about all it has to look forward to.
At this stage, TFC probably needs the Hubble Telescope to even catch a glimpse of the playoffs. Or maybe just a TV remote.
“So to make something out of this season, we have to win [Wednesday]” said Toronto striker Danny Koevermans. “Because then you’ve got some nice games coming up in say August [in the CONCACAF Champions League]until November.”
Toronto has a slight edge going into the game, having tied 1-1 in Vancouver in the opening leg. That means it has an away goal and will advance if it wins or the game ends in a 0-0 draw.
Winter’s team has already set an MLS record for worst start to a season (surpassing the seven straight losses by the 1999 Kansas City Wizards). Next up in the record book is the 12-game losing streak of the 1999 MetroStars.
If Toronto cannot beat visiting Philadelphia (2-6-2) on Saturday, away games in Kansas City (7-3-1) and Houston (whose 3-3-4 record is misleading due to eight away games in the leadup to its new stadium opening) do not bode well.
Bear in mind this is a franchise that has gone though six coaches in six years and has never been to the playoffs. Its all-time MLS record is 40-76-47.
Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment brought Winter in prior to last season to turn around that atrocious record. So far, the move has not paid off.
You can count Winter’s MLS wins on two hands and still have four fingers left over.
Worse, the team still seems to be lurching out of control.
Asked about Toronto’s tendency to go one step forward, two steps back this season, Kocic said the problem goes deeper than just this campaign.
“I think it’s been like that since I came here — three years ago.”
But if ownership were to jettison Winter now, it would not only be rejecting a coach. It would be admitting that his vision — 4-3-3 formation, playing “Total Football” from tyke to top pro — was misguided.
The truth is probably more complicated.
Winter, an MLS novice when he arrived in January 2011, doesn’t have the horses to run his style of race. His team has been hamstrung by some untimely injuries. The talent pool is shallow, the offence unreliable (seven goals in nine games) and the defence porous.
Milos Kocic, who has played well despite retrieving a league-high 21 balls out of his goal this season, says now is not the time for finger-pointing.
“We need each other now, all of us,” said the Serb, one of the team’s leaders. “We need coaches, we need players, we need staff, we need everybody if we want to get out of here.
“Because this is like a nightmare that you can’t get out of. But we have to get out. We have to be strong enough. You can’t quit.”
Team unity was not helped by Koevermans’ raw comments following Saturday’s ugly 3-1 loss at D.C. United — a defeat that quickly eclipsed memories of the semifinal series win over Montreal in Canadian championship play.
“We’re setting a record for the worst team in the world, man, and it’s painful,” Koevermans said at the time. “What can I say more? It’s just the worst ever.”
The big Dutchman, who calls this the most frustrating time of his career, did not back down an inch Tuesday.
“Name me one team in the whole world who is 0-9?” he challenged reporters.
Winter seemed unaware of the comment, carried in a video on his own team’s website.
“Who said that?” he said when asked Tuesday about the quote.
“I think that is not true ... and I think he has to be smart to not say those things,” he added.
Kocic, a friend of Koevermans, chose to back the entire squad.
“That’s his opinion. I have a different opinion. I think my team is the best of the world.”
Toronto defender Adrian Cann was slightly more pointed in his reaction.
“It kind of bothers me ... personally I think actions speak louder than words. If you’re going to say something like that, do something about it.”
Cann said his words were not intended as “a slap at Danny.” But they were hardly a ringing endorsement of team unity.
Koevermans is no troublemaker. And at 33, he has been around the soccer block.
If he is in the mood, he just speaks his mind. And shares his simple philosophy on the game of soccer.
“Every goal that is made is a mistake from the other team ... Only until now, we’ve made more mistakes than the opponent.”
“We miss our [scoring]chances. Crazy, stupid goals, we give them away too easy,” he added.
On that, he is in agreement with Winter.
“If you don’t score and you’re making those small, in the end big, mistakes, then you’re never going to win a game,” the manager said.
While some of his players seem befuddled, Winter said it comes down to players doing their job.
“When you go on the pitch, know your responsibilities,” he said in what seemed to be a clear reference to TFC’s continued inability to defend set plays.
Kocic, urging his teammates to take pride in their work, is on the same page.
“It’s been happening for the last couple of years. We don’t defend set pieces properly, we don’t track the man.”
American defender Jeremy Hall insists Toronto team morale is “still good.”
“I mean we have a chance to win the Canadian Cup and be the best 0-9 team in Canada.”
Hall, a well-spoken player who had earlier talked of the team wish to do something for its fans, was serious when he said it.
While it has yet to open its league win account this season, Toronto is 2-1-4 in combined CONCACAF Champions league and Canadian Championship play.
“When it comes to the Canada Cup for some reason, I think, we put our head down and work hard for one another,” said Cann.
So why isn’t that happening in the league?
“No idea,” said Hall.
“I don’t know why,” added Cann.
“It’s strange for me,” offered Winter.
Winter says the team prepares the same for both league and cup competitions but seems to make more mistakes in MLS play.
Kocic’s theory is perhaps players — mistakenly — believe they have more time in MLS to catch up over the season, whereas a cup game is do or die.
“I think we’re a very tough team when we play cup games. I think we’re conceding goals in MLS too easy,” said the goalie.
For his part, Cann says the team is suffering from complacency in the league.
“It’s just like ‘Another loss. Oh well. Add to the tally.”’
The lack of explanation for the league-cup disconnect is frightening.
Defence remains Toronto’s most pressing need.
Toronto, which gave up a league-worst 59-goals last year, is on pace for a league-record 79 goals against over the 34-game campaign.
The league single-season record is 69, conceded by the 1998 Colorado Rapids in 32 games.
In Ashtone Morgan, Cann, Doneil Henry and Hall, Winter is fielding a backline that features a 19-year-old (Henry), 21-year-old (Morgan) and two players returning from injury (Cann, knee, and Hall, sports hernia).
Fellow defenders Miguel Aceval, Ty Harden and Richard Eckersley have been tried and consigned to the reserve ranks at various times this season.
Asked if he has the defenders he needs to compete in MLS, Winter offered a less than resounding endorsement of the status quo.
“I think that for this moment we have to do it with the resources we have,” he said. “Of course, we are still looking to make our team stronger.”
While winless in their last two league games, the Whitecaps (5-3-3) have taken 10 of the last 15 points on offer.
NOTES — Former Portugal international Luis Boa Morte is on trial with Toronto ... Toronto captain Torsten Frings is fit to play Wednesday.