While Michael Bradley speaks, people listen – even if they are his bosses.
So the Toronto FC brain trust was both diplomatic and attentive Tuesday when asked about their captain’s pointed weekend comments that the under-performing club had come up short — from top to bottom — in understanding the challenges of its 2018 post-championship campaign.
General manager Tim Bezbatchenko called his captain’s comments an “honest assessment from his point of view.”
“As Michael said, from top down there are certainly things that we could have done better and we need to do better,” Bezbatchenko said. “I think Michael’s right. And I think (coach) Greg (Vanney), myself and (team president) Bill (Manning) and the whole team will examine our operations to see how we can manage multiple competitions.”
Saturday’s 4-2 loss to visiting Los Angeles FC left ninth-place Toronto nine points out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with seven games remaining. At the same time last season, TFC was 16-3-8 and had 56 points. Today it is 7-14-6 with 27 points.
After the latest setback, a measured Bradley questioned the mentality of a team that has failed to perform with a target on its back this season. And he doubled-down Tuesday, shaking his head at the team’s league-worst 0-13-1 record when giving up the first goal.
“That’s ridiculous and it speaks to a mentality that in too many cases is too fragile,” he said.
Without directly disputing his skipper’s weekend take, Vanney seemed less convinced.
“First off I would say Michael is entitled to his opinion and sharing it with you,” he said. “However, what I would say is we’ve learned a lot of things through the course of this season ... From me and everybody I spoke to, we knew this season was going to be everybody gunning for us and it was going to be a real challenge.
“So I think that’s up for you to ask Michael if he wants to be more specific. But other than that, for me, I think we obviously haven’t met the challenges ... what those shortcomings were I think is for us to really look into the mirror as each of us — and try to be better for it as we move forward.”
Vanney said TFC proved it can rise to the occasion in turning the franchise from league doormat to record-breaking champion.
“This year was a new set of challenges and we’re going to learn a lot from them and we’ll be better for it when we move into next year.”
Both Vanney and Bezbatchenko pointed to the long list of injuries that followed the gruelling eight-game CONCACAF Champions League campaign right out of the gate.
“It’s easier to be mentally strong when you can put out your best 11 players ... It’s easier when you know a player is returning next game and not 10 games from now,” Bezbatchenko said.
“I think mental strength is something that we need to certainly improve and figure out whether or not it’s the character of the guys or something that we believe you can learn how to be mentally strong. But it’s also the situation you put people in. And if for a prolonged period of time you’re without the players that can be difference-makers, then that’s going to wear on you mentally.”
Vanney said the team’s crowded game and travel schedule has meant some 60 to 70 fewer training sessions to date this season. The physical demands on the players this season are part of the reason the team has conceded more goals late in the game, he added.
“We as a group are definitely not as durable right now at this point this year as we were last year,” Vanney said.
“I really think we got off to a really challenging start and have been trying to manage our way back into it since,” he added. “That’s the fact of the situation. Again lessons learned. No excuses. We need as a sports science department, as a coaching staff, as a club to understand what those things are and try to be better at them in the future.”
One thing that should improve is the playing surface.
Bezbatchenko says, when the calendar permits, the club plans to re-sod the playing surface with a hybrid surface that has natural grass attached to some artificial roots. While more expensive, the hybrid surface is said to be sturdier.
Due to an international break, Toronto is off until Sept. 15 when it hosts the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Bradley suggested the time for introspection was done.
“We’ve done an awful lot of talking this year among ourselves,” he said. “So at this point there isn’t anything that hasn’t been said. Everybody knows the situation were in. Everybody knows that our margin for error is gone. We’ve got to run the table here.”