Toronto FC coach Paul Mariner ready to rebuild

TORONTO — The Canadian Press

Toronto FC fans wear paper bags as a protest against the team's performance during their 1-0 defeat to D.C. United in MLS action in Toronto on Saturday, October 6, 2012.

(The Canadian Press)

The last weekend of the MLS regular season can’t come quickly enough for Toronto FC.

A campaign that opened with a league-record nine-game losing streak is ending with a winless string that could stretch to 14 if Toronto (5-20-8) stumbles Sunday in Columbus.

In a season that started March 17, TFC did not win until May 26. And it has not recorded a league victory since July 18.

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That’s a lot of futility.

Paul Mariner, who took over as manager in June after Aron Winter’s departure, is ready to rebuild.

“Absolutely,” the former England international said after practice Friday. “We’ve asked too much of the young players, to learn on the job. Then when we started to get it by so many key injuries to key players, it’s very very hard for them to continue.”

Mariner singles out defender Richard Eckersley, midfielder Terry Dunfield and forward Ryan Johnson as the iron men of the season.

The fact that Dunfield is the team’s fifth captain of the season speaks volumes about the revolving door to TFC’s infirmary.

Designated players Torsten Frings (hip) and Danny Koevermans (knee) and goalie Stefan Frei (leg, ankle) are long-term injury concerns. Striker Eric Hassli, a third designated player, has been in and out of the lineup since joining the club in July from Vancouver.

“When you lose all your heavy hitters, it’s tough,” said Mariner. “Especially in MLS.”

The list of players unavailable this week includes influential defender Darren O’Dea. Reserve forwards Quincy Amarikwa and Keith Makubuya trained separately from the team Friday.

Hassli missed Wednesday’s 1-0 CONCACAF Champions League loss against Santos Laguna after his wife gave birth. He’s questionable for Sunday with a nagging back injury.

Mariner, who says he knows the missing pieces on his roster, has struggled to fill his bench some weeks.

The good news is defender Logan Emory (shoulder) has been cleared to travel.

There isn’t much to play for against the Crew on Sunday, other than to avoid a franchise-worst five-win season. Toronto finished with six wins in both its inaugural 2007 season and last year.

The league record for fewest regular season wins is four — a dubious mark that belongs to both the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny (4-21-2) and 2005 Chivas USA (4-22-6). Four other teams have had five-win seasons.

Toronto’s numbers this season are shocking — 35 goals scored and 60 conceded.

Toronto has given up 16 goals in the final 15 minutes — tied with Montreal for worst in the league.

“I’ve never had a season like this,” said midfielder Eric Avila, who has struggled to make his mark as a starter and been given little chance to shine recently.

“I’ve learned a lot, though,” he added.

Avila, like his teammates, expects wholesale personnel changes in the off-season.

“Of course. It’s on everyone’s mind. Who stays, who goes. Things have to change obviously.”

It’s been a tough season for everyone including Mariner, who lost his father earlier this month. There was a 4-1-4 stretch in June-July that saw him able to pick essentially the same team but injuries and lack of squad depth took their toll after that.

“There’s a lot of lot of chapters in our season,” said 21-year-old fullback Ashtone Morgan, one of the few bright spots to the year.

Mariner has constantly preached to his players the need to dedicate themselves to their sport and their club, and to be ready to step up when called upon. One feels that he has not got the response he wanted.

“Five wins is not great reading,” he said.

“It never goes out of my mind,” he added. “I’m quite a sociable person but I just go back to my apartment downtown. I don’t really go out much because, as I’ve said before, I want to walk around the town with my head held high. I don’t feel as though I can do that because I hate getting beat. I’m not used to getting beat.”

He sees positives in that his team has created scoring chances, if more often than not failing to capitalize on them as in Wednesday’s 1-0 CONCACAF Champions League loss to Santos Laguna in Mexico.

However, Mariner still sees something to play for Sunday against Columbus (14-12-7).

“We need to play for our pride.”

Toronto’s all-time record against the Crew is 1-5-7.

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