After a weekend blow-up, forward Ryan Johnson wasn’t talking Tuesday. Neither was goalie Milos Kocic.
Julian de Guzman didn’t send his regrets. The combination of his post-practice shower and a looming video session meant the Toronto FC million-dollar-plus midfielder was unlikely to share his insight, suggested a club official.
But Toronto players were more forthcoming in a team meeting Monday in the wake of a league-record eighth straight loss to open the season, said forward Eric Avila.
A team in a tailspin is attempting to regain control.
“We’re fighting for the shirt. This is who we are,” Avila said. “We’ve got to be proud of what we’re fighting for.”
Manager Aron Winter, trying to keep a spring in his step but looking a little more beaten down each week, promised his team would “surprise” against the Montreal Impact (3-5-2) on Wednesday.
The teams meet in the second leg of their Amway Canadian Championship semi-final. Last week’s opener ended in a drab 0-0 tie thanks to Toronto’s focus on defence.
Player-only meetings are not unusual for Toronto, but Avila says the gatherings have gone up a notch in the wake of the latest loss.
He described Monday’s session as a “really serious sit-down, full-on” meeting with players and coaches.
“Before the season started, we had some sort of identity where we wanted to go,” he explained. “And when the season started, I think we kind of lost it just a little.
“The meeting helps us out in a way, where we’re back on track of who we are. We just have to forget about everything else. This is how we’re going to play, this is what we’re going to do.”
Avila said he expects a new-look team in action Wednesday.
“It could be too late, it could be not too late but the thing is that we’re trying to do it for ourselves right now and we need results.”
There was good news for Toronto (0-8-0) in that captain Torsten Frings, who left Saturday’s game with an injured shoulder, was listed as a “maybe” for Wednesday.
While Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has given no indication that Winter is in the firing line – privately there has been some sympathy for both manager and players given the injuries and cruel fate that have befallen them – a loss to Montreal could represent a tipping point if that belief wavers.
Barring a miraculous rally, the league season seems to have gone by the boards for Toronto at zero points with almost a quarter of the schedule done. Exiting the Canadian championship would give TFC little to play for.
The Impact, an expansion team, have already beaten Toronto in league play this season and are 11 points ahead of Winter’s squad in the standing. That points bulge has been achieved despite playing seven games away from home to Toronto’s three.
Toronto has lost to all-comers, giving away points at home like Halloween candy.
Road victories, meanwhile, are like lottery wins for Toronto. Now in its sixth season, the franchise has just 10.
In his second season at the helm, Winter has won just once away from home in his 42 games in charge. Jesse Marsch, who has been at the Montreal helm for just 10 games, got his first road win on the weekend when the Impact upset league powerhouse Sporting Kansas City 2-0.
While Toronto chops and changes its porous defence, Montreal was able to start Colombian international Nelson Rivas on the weekend and then replace him with former Italian international Matteo Ferrari en route to a clean sheet.
Winter’s choice of a conservative five-man backline at home on the weekend drew boos from the fans, and criticism and bewilderment from some players.
Johnson called the tactics embarrassing. De Guzman said the team was walking on eggshells.
Winter said he disagreed with Johnson’s comments and had spoken to him about it. But he also said he understood the player was speaking out of emotion.
“About the tactics and those things, he’s not right,” the coach added.
Players talked Tuesday of not letting the Impact get too comfortable in their home. With an 0-5-0 record in MLS play at BMO Field this season, it’s been a sore spot.
Both Avila and defender Adrian Cann promised a different approach from the defensive shell the team took up in Montreal last week.
“It’s going to be a totally different story, we’re going to go at them,” Cann said.
Added Avila: “We’ve got to pick our moments [to attack]but usually at home we can’t be sitting back as we did last time.”
Kocic hasn’t been talking. And while he has played well, it’s easy to see why.
The emotional Serb has picked the ball out of his net 28 times in all competitions this season.
After yielding a league-worst 59 goals last season, when he shared duties with Stefan Frei, Toronto and Kocic are on pace to give up a league-record 76 goals over 34 games this season. The current record is 69 by Colorado over 32 games in 1998.
Toronto’s record in all competition this season is 1-9-3, with the lone win coming March 14. Even for a franchise with a career league mark of 40-75-47, it is abysmal.
Having lost eight in a row, Toronto’s next goal is to avoid the league record for consecutive losses of 12 set by the MetroStars in 1999.
Avila said, in the wake of Monday’s meeting, players are stepping forward.
“In the field everyone’s talking and screaming at each other. Not really pointing fingers but honestly doing their job.”
Assistant coach Bob De Klerk, no shrinking violet at the best of times, was certainly vocal during practice Tuesday.
Winter had a backline of Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry, Cann and Jeremy Hall in front of Kocic in training. De Guzman and Terry Dunfield were the holding midfielders with Avila in the pocket behind a strike force of Joao Plata, Johnson and Reggie Lambe.
Nick Soolsma, returning from a hamstring injury, trained with the reserves while fellow forward Danny Koevermans (groin) was not involved in the part of the session open to reporters.