Exhibition games against Europe's biggest clubs are all well and good for putting Toronto FC on the world soccer map, but they do little to improve its standing on the domestic front.
Sitting dead last in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, Toronto remains 12 points out of a playoff spot, and though Saturday's 1-1 draw with 18-time English champion Liverpool represented something of a respite from a league campaign that was essentially over at the end of May – courtesy of a 0-9 start – it also couldn't have come at a worse time.
After three consecutive MLS wins – for the first time since April of 2008 – Toronto is building up a head of steam under new coach Paul Mariner, who is gradually crafting a team in his own image.
A no-nonsense centre forward in his playing days, Mariner has taken that attitude into the dugout, and with just two defeats in his 10 games in charge, Toronto has remodelled itself as a newly galvanized club, casting aside the shackles of the ill-advised 4-3-3 system employed by former coach Aron Winter in favour of a simpler, more direct 4-4-2.
The results are plain to see, with the club scoring 16 league goals in Mariner's 10 games at the helm, compared to just eight in the same span under Winter this season. Still defensively suspect – the search continues for an experienced centre back from Europe – Toronto is a long way from a finished product, but Mariner finally did what his predecessors either couldn't or wouldn't, removing the unsettling presence of Julian de Guzman from the dressing room and allowing team chemistry to flourish for perhaps the first time in franchise history.
The playoffs may be out of reach this season, but it won't be for lack of trying. The loss of leading scorer Danny Koevermans – who was thriving in the 4-4-2 system – to a torn anterior cruciate ligament this month was a huge blow, but rather than simply using that as another excuse to throw in the towel, Mariner rolled the dice last Friday and acquired the bustling presence of Eric Hassli to lead the line in the Dutchman's stead.
The former Vancouver Whitecaps forward represents something of a gamble – Forrest Gump's box of chocolates analogy springs to mind – but when he is on song the Frenchman can be a real force at MLS level.
"When he has the right players around him and is fully motivated, he's not far off a [UEFA] Champions League player; I truly believe that," TFC midfielder Terry Dunfield told the Vancouver Province, having been a teammate of Hassli's in Vancouver last season.
"Paul will make Eric feel wanted and Eric will be able to do what he can do."
Though Hassli will be given free rein to impose himself as the team's big man up top, Mariner has also given himself options in that area of late, particularly off the bench. Young forwards Andrew Wiedeman, acquired from FC Dallas for de Guzman, and Quincy Amarikwa, picked up on Saturday for a conditional draft pick, are projects, but come with little risk. Though Wiedeman is making $123,000 (all currency U.S.) this year, as a Generation adidas player his salary does not count against the cap of $2.81-million, while Amarikwa is making just $44,100.
Both have already given solid returns on those investments, with Wiedeman scoring the winner against the Colorado Rapids last weekend, while Amarikwa showed his eye for goal in giving Toronto the lead against Liverpool mere hours after joining the club.
Bolstering a defence that has conceded an average of 1.8 goals a game will be the next port of call, but a move for former Swedish national team captain Olof Mellberg is all but dead, with MLS head office, which has to approve all deals, unhappy with the proposed designated-player contract.
Having come off a gruelling stretch of 11 games in 36 days, Toronto will now rest up for the week before trying to extend its winning streak to a franchise-record four games next Saturday at home to the Houston Dynamo, which is fresh off a 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact last Saturday. Macoumba Kandji scored twice in the victory, which pushed the Impact down to seventh in the Eastern Conference, five points clear of last-place Toronto.
The Whitecaps fared much better a day later, getting goals from newcomers Dane Richards and Barry Robson to beat the league-leading San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 and move up into third place in the Western Conference.