[MLS SPOTLIGHT]Is it too obvious to designate inconsistency as the primary reason for Toronto FC’s impressive Concacaf Champions League performances and its dismal displays so far in MLS?
Not really. TFC is, of course, inconsistent, yet in peculiar ways. In other countries, it would be one of those classic “cup” teams that struggle to stay in the top flight yet capable of knocking off just about anyone on a good day in a head-to-head showdown. Right now, it is rife with talent in some areas and woefully bereft of same in others.
It is that unevenness, rather than an across-the-board averageness, that defines its particular strain of inconsistency. There’s nothing average about Joao Plata when he’s in the mood, and marking Danny Koevermans can leave an opponent bruised and battered physically and emotionally. On the other hand, abysmal defending crops up regularly, there are times during which the midfield looks completely disjointed. And for all the sharpshooting prowess Koevermans displayed last season (eight goals in 10 games), he’s been blanked in 2012 in both competitions.
To catch up: TFC eliminated the Galaxy in the Concacaf quarterfinals and tied Santos Laguna, 1-1, in the semifinal first leg at BMO Field. On Wednesday, in Torreon, it scored twice in the first half and went into the locker room at halftime tied at 2-2 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate, plus with a 2-1 lead on away goals.
Of course, it conceded a crushing third goal on a penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half and surrendered three more goals in a 6-2 shellacking. TFC is in good company here -- Santos pummeled the Sounders, 6-1, in their quarterfinal second leg -- yet the sharp plummet mystified many observers. It shouldn’t.
It helps to catch a good team in a bad run, à la the Galaxy in the Concacaf quarterfinals. After a 2-2 tie at BMO Field, TFC came west and exploited a leggy opponent playing its fourth game in 12 days to post a remarkable 2-1 victory on the night and 4-3 aggregate triumph. Drained physically and emotionally, as says the cliché, TFC continued up the West Coast and three days later suffered a 3-1 stuffing in Seattle.
Okay, fine, but a week after the Sounders game, TFC got steamrollered by San Jose, 3-0, at BMO Field. It then rebounded to get that 1-1 tie with Santos, then crumbled at home again in league play, losing to Columbus, 1-0. Two excellent goals by an effervescent Plata pushed TFC to a 2-1 lead in Torreon before the collapse.
No doubt the challenge of Concacaf play and pride in representing Canada/MLS helped drive the Toronto players in those games, but it’s been starkly clear the lineup doesn’t yet have the physical and psychological steel to handle a double dose of stress. There may be more talent on the roster than head coach Aron Winter has been willing to use, but it must be said he tested a lot of young players last year and some -- Ashtone Morgan, Eric Avila, Richard Eckersley and Plata – made the grade. More than a few veterans, however, didn’t.
Early in the 2012 season, newcomers Miguel Acevaland Aaron Maund are getting chances to showcase themselves. Aceval scored the first-leg goal against Santos, which ended in a melee during which Morgan suffered a painful head-butt. After that kind of rough, intense matches, it can be hard to bounce back.
One can mull into the wee hours tactics, formations, matchups, emotions and all that, but the stark fact is that TFC in its current form is doomed to riding a rollercoaster. When things start disintegrating in midfield, which is becoming a regular occurrence, Julian de Guzman and Co. can’t consistently hold things together. The man that can, central mid/defender Torsten Frings, suffered a hamstring injury in the Seattle defeat and will be out two more weeks at least.
It's far too romantic to compare TFC’s fluctuating fortunes with, say, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup four years ago while mired in financial troubles and relegation fears, or Second Division teams Sunderland (1973) and Southampton (1976) beating top-tier teams in the final. But common elements exist, and Winter and his players deserve considerable credit for getting out of the group phase -- at the expense of FC Dallas -- and going as far as they did.
Another axiom, “strength down the middle,” is a staple of solid performances that is sorely missed in the current version of TFC. Koeverman’s poor form and the absence of Frings are compounded by the long-term absence of centerback Adrian Cann, who finally got back into action last week by playing 45 minutes in a reserve game against the Crew. He’s far from impeccable, but Cann’s potential gives TFC fans legitimate hope for the future.
TFC lost that reserve game as well, 1-0, and Cann will need some time to fully recover from ACL surgery performed last spring. The Reds have certainly leaked a lot of goals with Cann in the lineup, but it must be noted he and Frings have yet to play together. That combination won’t be a solution, but it will strengthen the team where needed.
For the time being, Toronto heads to Montreal for their first meeting Saturday as MLS rivals. Neither team has a win; the expansion Impact has its best chance to break through. Kickoff is set for noon. Will there be another post-CCL pratfall, or can TFC renew its resolve in another frenzied environment?