Toronto FC is down but not out. Making the playoffs is still a reality. And the team will turn things around.
A smiling Aron Winter was spreading the positives around Tuesday like an avid gardener with a fresh batch of manure.
The Dutch manager still insists his 0-6-0 MLS team is about to bloom.
While some see Toronto FC as one loss from tying the league record for worst start to a season, Winter sees it as one win away from starting something special.
“It's very important to get the first points. And the moment we get the first points, everything is going to turn,” the Dutch manager said.
“And I believe in it. We're going to fix it.”
Winter says he has the backing of ownership to do that, although there seemed to be a clock ticking to comments made Sunday to The Canadian Press by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment COO Tom Anselmi.
“They have to get this straightened out. Our fans deserve better,” said Anselmi.
Winter acknowledges the situation is difficult — “not nice” has been his familiar phrase — but his optimism was impressive Tuesday as reporters questioned his future.
Still things don't get any easier for TFC this week as it visits Real Salt Lake, which at 5-3-0 has 15 more points.
Real's league record at home is 33-5-13 since the start of the 2009 season. Toronto's away record over the same time is 6-29-14.
The one road win on Winter's TFC resume was a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Crew last September.
On the positive front, Chivas USA won at Rio Tinto Stadium this season and Toronto will have the advantage of rest since Real Salt Lake plays Wednesday at FC Dallas.
Job 1 for Toronto is to stop leaking goals. The team has conceded three or more in three of its six league losses.
“The first thing that we have to address is keeping the ball out of our own net,” said forward Ryan Johnson. “If we can do that, then anything can happen in Salt Lake.”
Not only on the scoreboard but for the fact that frailties in the backline have forced Winter to play midfielder Torsten Frings as a defensive stopper.
The pending return of Jamaican international Dicoy Williams and American Jeremy Hall from injury may give him more defensive options. A healthy Adrian Cann has already stepped right back into the lineup, although his and Frings' lack of pace was exposed by Chicago's speedy strike duo of Patrick Nyarko and Dominic Oduro in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the visiting Fire.
Winter would clearly like to deploy Frings in his preferred midfield position where the former German international can pull the strings and move forward as needed. But he hasn't felt confident enough to push Frings forward.
Winter's options outside the squad are limited other than MLS trades. And while he can tinker, he realizes that rearranging the lineup each week takes a toll on consistency and confidence.
But forward Ryan Johnson, for one, expects changes.
“I definitely think so. This is history that we're making — in the wrong direction. And I think you have to make some changes at some place, I don't know where. But some change needs to happen. Things can't just continue to go on the same way.”
Winter rarely shows his cards but has been more candid in recent days as his team swirled around the MLS drain.
On Saturday, in assessing his club's problems, he cited a lack of quality and need for better players in some positions.
Those comments raised the hackles of some players but Winter stood by his words Tuesday, saying simply “It's true.”
Winter rejected any suggestion that his formation, which has come under fire in some quarters, was at fault.
“My vision with three strikers — 4-3-3 — is going to stay always.”
He also pointed the finger at veteran leadership on the field in the absence of Frings, who returned on the weekend after five weeks away due to a hamstring strain.
“We need some more personalities on the pitch,” he said.
Asked to elaborate, Winter said: “We need players coaching (on the pitch).”
“It's strange because in the CONCACAF Champions League, that was a team that was coaching (itself) and at a certain moment it slipped away.”
Johnson gave his own vote thumbs up to Winter — “I believe in Aron. I have confidence in him ... For me and the players, we still believe in him. I'm going to continue to fight for him and my teammates.” — and agreed with his manager that the playoffs are still a possibility.
“It's still early and we're in the East (conference),” he said. “If we were in the West, I think it would be a different story to be realistic. Being in the East, we can expect a lot of teams to drop points.
“And if we do what we're supposed to do and start picking up some points sooner than later, it'll put us right back in that (playoff) hunt.”
Five teams make the playoffs from each conference. Toronto, in 10th spot in the weaker East, is currently eight points behind fifth-place Houston.
Winter's team has matched the 2001 D.C. United team for the second-worst start in league history.
The worst start belongs to the 1999 Kansas City Wizards.
if the losing streak continues, one wonders how much more time Winter has.
Asked if he feared for his manager's job, 21-year-old forward Reggie Lambe paused.
“I don't want to answer that question,” he eventually replied.
After Real Salt Lake, Toronto travels to Montreal for a midweek Amway Canadian Championship game with the Impact before returning to BMO Field to host D.C. United on May 5.
Notes — Forwards Danny Koevermans (groin) and Nick Soolsma (hamstring) trained separately from the main squad Tuesday.