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With 14 games left in Major League Soccer’s 34-game regular season, Toronto FC finds itself on a tightrope with a wobbly balancing pole.

The three-game winning streak (including Canadian Championship games) that TFC is carrying into Saturday’s MLS game at BMO Field against the Chicago Fire is its most positive sign this season. But TFC cannot afford any missteps even if it does have games in hand on all but one team ahead of it in the standings. No one has to tell the Reds what sort of margin of error they face.

“It’s minimal,” TFC head coach Greg Vanney told reporters after Friday’s practice. “I don’t think we want to be in position where we’re trying to rely too heavily on the results of everybody else.

“We need to take care of our business, and if we do so, we’ll be okay. If we can come up with nine wins out of the 14, we’ll probably be in a good position.”

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Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney directs his team in a game earlier this season.David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

Going into the Chicago game, which finishes a home-and-home series against the Fire in which TFC won 2-1 last week, the Reds sit 10th in the MLS Eastern Division. TFC sports a 5-11-4 record with 19 points, nine points out of the sixth and final playoff spot, currently held by the New England Revolution.

How TFC fell this low, after the greatest season in MLS history – it became the first league team to win the Supporters’ Shield for finishing first in the 2017 regular season with a record 69 points, it won the Canadian Championship and it won the MLS Cup – has been a debate all season. The most basic answer is injuries, a nightmarish string that began in late winter with the CONCACAF Champions League campaign and only now, nearly two-thirds of the way through the season, is easing off.

However, while the injuries are the root of the TFC problems, it was the web of cracks that sprang from them that exacerbated the issue. It wasn’t just how many players were injured, but who they were – several of TFC’s most important players were lost or had to be used sparingly for extended periods.

The trouble started almost from the day training camp opened a mere six weeks after the Reds won their first MLS Cup last Dec. 9. The club’s mantra for the past two years has been it wants to win every championship available. Since the Canadian club championship meant TFC was in the CONCACAF Champions League, which was played from February through April, the Reds hit the ground running while most of their MLS peers were easing their way into the season.

By the time TFC lost the Champions League final to Mexican side Guadalajara on penalty kicks and staggered into the MLS season, both the front and back lines were torn apart with injuries. Defenders lost for various lengths of time were Drew Moor, who remains out, Chris Mavinga, Eriq Zavaleta, Gregory van der Wiel, Jason Hernandez, Justin Morrow, Nick Hagglund and Auro.

This forced Vanney into shuffling players out of position to fill the holes on the back line. The worst part of this was moving midfielder Michael Bradley into the centre back spot. This meant instead of being the focal point of the game, where he could control the tempo, Bradley was just another fish out of water.

Up front, the loss of Jose Altidore and the limited availability of Victor Vazquez, who quickly established himself in 2017 as a crackerjack playmaker, blunted the Reds attack.

As the stumbles continued, it quickly became apparent the TFC backline was a mess and opponents put the pressure on it. The Reds fell into a pattern of surrendering early goals through defensive mistakes and their offence did not have enough spark to make up for it.

By mid-June, after TFC coughed up three goals to D.C. United in the first half, fought back to lead in the second but could not hold it and had to settle for a 4-4 draw, the frustration was showing. Bradley, who weighs each word he speaks to the media carefully, admitted after the game things were piling up.

“So many games, so many emotions, so many injuries, so many makeshift lineups, so many days when you’re just trying to scrounge things together to come away with points,” he said. “That wears on you, in a big way.”

The absences of Altidore and Drew Moor were especially felt because both veterans are a positive presence in the dressing room as well as the field. Moor was the key piece on the back line because he would direct the coverage. Without Altidore, TFC star Sebastian Giovinco grew less effective with each game.

By late June it seemed not all was sweetness and light in the dressing room. It was reported that expensive newcomer Ager Aketxe, who was making almost US$1.3-million this season, fourth-highest on the team, got into a heated argument with Bradley in one game because of his inability to adjust to the TFC system.

Vanney admitted Aketxe was not an easy fit with his new teammates. By mid-July, Aketxe was gone, sent back to his native Spain on loan to second-division team Cadiz.

“I think there were a lot of variables and a lot of things go hand-in-hand,” Hernandez said when asked to sum up his team’s woes. “As a team that is very, very focused on winning trophies we made a decision to go all in on Champions League to try and win a trophy and do something no one had ever done in this league. When you push yourself to do that you have to deal with the consequences of that.

“Unfortunately, we had guys that really pushed themselves to the limit and picked up some injuries and were kind of back and forth and in and out of the lineup. I think if you were to sit down and look at our team we have several impactful players on attack and impact players on defence. When those guys aren’t around you’re going to feel that.”

Hernandez also conceded jumping into such an intense competition as the Champions League at the start of the MLS regular season was a mental drain as well as physical. No MLS team has won the title since CONCACAF switched to the Champions League format in 2008 and only three of the league’s teams made the final.

“I think I’d never gone to a Champions League final so it was my first time experiencing it and I would imagine for a lot of the guys in the locker room it was their first time,” he said. “And definitely you expend a lot of energy just physically and emotionally but I think the leadership from the staff down to the older players on the team and the guys with voices in the locker room really did a good job of trying to just keeps us focused on the week to week.

“In that regard, I think we did a really good job of being focused and concentrated. Whether we came up short just because we had inconsistent performances or the ball didn’t bounce our way, that’s one thing, but I think the mentality and the ideas were all in the right place to get the most out of every week.”

All insist that now, with all of the regulars except Moor back in the lineup, although Vazquez is still playing limited minutes because of a knee problem, TFC at least has the opportunity to stage a late run at the playoffs.

Vanney feels the injuries to key players and the resulting pressure on other players who were forced out of their comfort zone put the Reds “on the other side of momentum.” He does not think morale ever became a problem.

“[Frustration] comes out in a lot of ways,” Vanney said. “I don’t think it became an issue with our group. I think it becomes something where, to be honest, on a given day it might be a little more difficult to be positive than you might have been on a previous day.

“To me, it didn’t translate into anything negative with the group. I really feel with each new game the group felt like that was the game they were going to turn things around. It was just a matter of getting on the right side of results. Not giving up goals [early] was a big thing. Once we stabilized some things on the defensive side, a lot of those things came around.”

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