On a fall Friday with brilliant sunshine and nary a breath of wind, a day’s work as a pro soccer player seemed hard to beat.
Even if it was with Toronto FC.
Spirits seemed high as manager Paul Mariner puts his 5-18-7 squad through its paces prior to leaving for the New York metropolitan area and Saturday’s game with the 14-8-8 New York Red Bulls.
On the plus side, Toronto has survived a road trip that saw the team go to the West Coast and Central America. And Mariner’s side is coming of a rare win, 3-0 over El Salvador’s CD Aguila in CONCACAF Champions League play.
“It’s massive,” defender Darren O’Dea said of the victory. “Today, you can just feel it. We still need to improve massively but it is a small weight lifted off and you can see in training there’s a bit more bite to it and people are a tiny bit more enthusiastic.
“It breeds confidence — winning. But we need to try to make it into a habit rather than a once-off.”
“A win’s a win,” added Mariner. “Everybody’s been very critical of the (El Salvador) team, but you can only play the team you’re put in front of. I’d have liked more goals but it’s a good confidence boost for the players.”
The sight of O’Dea and Richard Eckersley, both of whom missed the El Salvador game through injury, training Friday was another reason of encouragement.
Eckersley was cleared of a concussion after a heavy collision last weekend in Los Angeles temporarily left him unable to see out of his left eye. And Ireland’s O’Dea has been feeling the effects of a busy club and international schedule.
O’Dea, who signed with the team Aug. 3, has yet to be part of a win. Toronto has not won in the league since a 2-1 victory over Colorado on July 18 — an 0-7-3 run.
“The team hasn’t done anywhere near good enough this year, which is fairly obvious to anyone” said the straight-shooting Irishman. “So yeah, I’m obviously desperate to win but I’m sure it will come.
“Certainly there’s not a lot more to play (for) within the league this year except for pride and I’m sure it’ll be a busy off-season for the staff. Next year I think we’ll be in a lot stronger position.”
After Saturday, Toronto has four games remaining — three in the league and one in the CONCACAF Champions League.
While others then turn their attentions to the playoffs, Toronto will be rebuilding again. Mariner, who took over from Aron Winter in early June, says he wants to keep going at the helm.
“As far as I know, I just keep going on until they tell me to stop,” said the former England international who started the season at Toronto’s director of player development. “I love this job.”
Mariner is not shying away from the team’s woeful’s record. But he points to an overflowing trainer’s room.
“There’s nobody wants to win more than we do,” he said. “Look, the vision of the football team hasn’t changed at all. If you want to be hyper-critical, then be hyper-critical, but we’ve probably got about 70 per cent of our salary cap on the treatment table which is never a good thing.
“We’re still very competitive,” he added. “You can see that we’ve still got a lot of fight in us.”
Goalkeeper Milos Kocic trained Friday but will not travel with the team, so he can stay with his wife and newborn triplets. And striker Eric Hassli, still troubled by an ankle injury, trained on his own Friday and is not expected back for several weeks.
Hassli is the team’s third designated player out injured. Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans remain long-term absences.
Mariner said the long list of walking wounded has meant the team has never had a chance to grow or play together.
“We’ve constantly been hampered by injury,” said Mariner. “We’ve constantly been hampered by not much training because of the travel schedule.”
In essence, Mariner is trying to do the best with what he’s got.
“You can only play a certain way with the players you’ve got for selection,” he said. “We’re trying to put formations in that we can be competitive and get results.
“The beautiful game at the present moment is a vision. But our vision, the club’s vision, hasn’t changed.”
Asked for the positives from such a season, Mariner said it had shown people’s character in his squad.
O’Dea, the acting captain in Frings’s absence, sees quality around him.
“Probably the most frustrating thing is the talent’s there, the ability, it’s all there. It’s just becoming a team that can win games even when you’re not playing too well. It doesn’t help when you have your three DPs sitting injured.”
Midfielder Terry Dunfield is one who has risen to the challenge, with three goals in his last two games and a never-say-die attitude.
“He’s fantastic — off the field, on the field,” said Mariner. “You name it, whether he’s in the (starting) 11, whether he’s in a support role, he’s just a consummate pro. He’s a fantastic professional footballer.”
The Red Bulls will be without the injury Mexican international Rafa Marquez and suspended fullback Connor Lade.
But Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Sebastien Le Toux and Dax McCarty will keep the New York engine humming.
“For them it’s trying to get that momentum going into the playoffs,” said defender Jeremy Hall, a former Red Bull. “Us, we’re just trying to close the season out strong.”
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