General manager Tim Bezbatchenko sent Toronto FC a blunt message Friday, saying it's time "to take it up a notch."
The revamped MLS team has had time to gel, he said. Now it has to fire on all cylinders.
"I think everyone would agree — the coaches, the players — that over the last 12 or so games, it hasn't been good enough, at least for making a run in MLS," Bezbatchenko told reporters.
Toronto (9-8-6) is 3-4-4 since the start of July, meaning it has dropped 20 of a possible 33 points over that stretch. But the team is also 2-1-1 in August, stands third in the Eastern Conference and has been dealing with a rash of injuries.
Bezbatchenko's somewhat out-of-the-blue challenge has been made more difficult with news that star striker Jermain Defoe has been sidelined once again with a lingering groin injury.
Defoe, who has been hampered by hamstring and groin problems, was substituted in the 77th minute last Saturday against Chicago, with manager Ryan Nelsen saying his movement was extremely limited. He has not trained since and is due to see a specialist.
"Fingers crossed it's short-term but we probably have to plan for a bit of longer-term," Nelsen said after practice Friday.
Defoe, who has 11 goals, has played in 16 of Toronto's 23 games. Nelsen says the injury is in the "sports hernia area" — something that sometimes fades with rest or maintenance.
"But it's not settling down so we have to see a specialist," said Nelsen. "We just await the results."
The hope is Defoe will be back for the Sept. 6 home game against Philadelphia but that seemed a best-case scenario with end of September more likely.
"The good news is it's not a season-ending injury," said Nelsen. "Hopefully sooner than later."
"If we go into October and he still has the issue, then I would be concerned," said Bezbatchenko.
The MLS season runs through the end of October, with playoffs to follow.
Nelsen said Defoe's injuries all seem related, after back-to-back seasons in England and North America.
Facing a key game Saturday against the visiting New England Revolution (just three points behind at 9-12-3), Toronto is also without defenders Steven Caldwell (quad) and Justin Morrow (hamstring), defender-midfielder Warren Creavalle (hamstring), and forward Andrew Wiedeman (back).
Fulback Mark Bloom is expected to be back after the birth of his first child — a baby girl.
Bezbatchenko's comments came in a talk with beat writers, a gathering that came at his behest.
It came one week after news that MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, a champion of the soccer team since taking over in April 2013, is leaving. Leiweke will remain at his post until June 30, 2015, or until a successor is appointed.
Bezbatchenko, who was hired by Leiweke, praised his boss's passion for soccer and his success in raising the profile of the sport. He suggested everyone may have to take up the slack in Leiweke's absence.
"I think there will be increased responsibilities but it's more to maintain the level of I'd say visibility in the marketplace. I think within MLSE, everyone's all in already so I don't think it's within the organization, I think it's more just in the visibility publicly.
"And I think I can do that and I think everyone here, it just takes a little bit more effort from everyone."
Does the manager needed to step up, he was asked?
"I think it's everyone at the club," he said. "I think it's myself included, whatever I can do to help the team. I think it's the fans ... I think they've responded really well."
While saying the team is "in a good position" in the standings, the GM talked of the need to show a "killer instinct" in the 11 remaining regular-season games.
"That means closing out games, managing games," he said. "I think we have the ability on our team to do it."
He said 50 points would probably be a target to get into the playoffs, while saying a few less would probably also do the trick. Toronto currently has 33 points.
Bezbatchenko said expectations are higher now for Toronto, whose ownership has dug deep into its considerable pockets to acquire star talent like Defoe and Michael Bradley.
Asked if he believes his team has underproduced when it comes to killer instinct, Bezbatchenko said the franchise had lacked on that score in past years.
"I think now we're at an OK level but our standards are not just OK now, we're not just trying to be average," he said. "Killer instinct means that we can compete with elite teams at the end of games. So we can better."
That includes the injury-ravaged defence, which has given up more goals per game this year than last.
"Is it a concern? Yeah, that's a concern," said the GM. "I think that the players would be the first to hold up their hands and say we need to be better ... especially ay the end of games, you've got to do more than just what's expected of yourself.
"We've obviously have shown the ability to be sound and tight defensively. But I think that in the last few games we've lost some of that."
"The time is now," Bezbatchenko said. "So that's sort of the message out to our fans and to our club. It's we mean business now."
That may come as a surprise to Nelsen, who no doubt has meant business since the start of training camp.
The Toronto manager has more pressing concerns, however.
It speaks volumes about Toronto' injury problems at the back that Bloom may start despite being "sleep-deprived," according to Nelsen, and missing practice Friday.
Toronto may start Bloom at left back, with Doneil Henry and Bradley Orr in the centre and rookie Nick Hagglund on the right. Fullback Ashtone Morgan, who has one minute of league play this season, is another option with Brazilian midfielder Jackson, who has seen action as an emergency fullback, also available.
Toronto has also recalled defender Ryan Richter from Ottawa Fury FC.