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Toronto FC president says MLS club is struggling through a season in 'quicksand'

TORONTO — It's been a painful, difficult season for Toronto FC, mired in the MLS basement as it resumes play this weekend after an international break.

TORONTO — It's been a painful, difficult season for Toronto FC, mired in the MLS basement as it resumes play this weekend after an international break.

With 12 games remaining in the regular season, Toronto (3-13-6) languishes in 27th place — 15 points outside of the playoff picture.

"(The description) I've used is we're in quicksand right now," said team president Bill Manning. "And every time you get a little bit of something, maybe a branch, and then the branch breaks right as you try to pull yourself out."

Toronto appeared to have steadied the ship after firing first-year coach Chris Armas on July 4 in the wake of a humiliating 7-1 defeat at D.C. United that extended its losing streak to six and winless run to seven.

Under interim coach Javier Perez, the club upset New England and went on a five-game unbeaten run (2-0-3). But the club has since lost its last four and gone winless in six (0-5-1).

Toronto is 0-1-4 at BMO Field since returning north of the border.

"When we were in Florida, (we) found ways to lose. And when we came home, we weren't able to find a way to win," said Manning. "We had all those ties at home.

"Every game, the pressure to win every game became too much in some ways. And I think it drained the team and put us to where we are now. Our record is who we are."

Despite a challenging pre-season, TFC had a promising start in ousting Mexico's Club Leon in the round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League 

"Then the wheels started falling off the bus," said Manning.

Mexico's Cruz Azul knocked Toronto out of CONCACAF's elite club competition. And TFC stumbled out of the MLS regular-season gate.

The good times were over.

"We had a really good run with this group," said Manning. "I'd say a five-year run where we were, if not the best, one of the top two or three teams in the league consistently.

"Now we have to lay out a plan how to put this season behind us, be bold and put together a group that is going to be a championship contender. That's what I always talk about and we're nowhere near that right now."

Toronto, whose last win was a 2-1 decision in Chicago on July 24, visits 26th-place FC Cincinnati (3-10-8) on Saturday. It's the first of seven games in 23 days before the October international window.

"It's going to be all hands on deck," said Manning.

With the prospect of the playoffs disappearing into the distance, TFC now has to focus on the Canadian Championship, starting with a Sept. 22 quarterfinal against York United FC of the Canadian Premier League.

"I think that's got to be ultra-important to our club right now, to pull something from this season," said Manning.

Jobs will be on the line, on and off the field.

Perez has been handed the keys to the team for the rest of the season. Essentially it is his job to win or lose.

Manning declined to comment on who may be in charge next season, saying Perez — who he said has "given his heart and soul to the club and he's got an incredibly high soccer IQ" — has plenty of games left this year.

GM Ali Curtis would be next on the firing line. Manning, who doubles as president of the CFL Argos, appears to be well positioned within Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. 

"For me, one of the biggest disappointments has been how we've been losing," said Manning. "One of the things that I want to look at closely, (with) our staff, is how do we finish the season — knowing unless we make a historic run, it's going to be very difficult to get in the playoffs."

"How we finish things off these next few months will be very telling," he added. "I have a saying: the players always give you the answers. That's something we're going to be looking for the next couple of months."

There is plenty to fix.

"I think we have to take a very holistic look at how we want to reset this team such that we can get back to where we need to be," said Manning. "And where we want to be, which is the team that went to three finals in four years and finished second in the Supporters' Shield last year."

Toronto has conceded a league-worst 47 goals, leaking 2.14 per game. Eleven of those have come in the first 15 minutes of play — another league low — with another seven coming in minutes 16 through 30.

That sets up the team for failure, with TFC 0-12-3 when conceding first.

Toronto ranks 17th in goal-scoring, averaging 1.18 goals per outing. While an impressive 17 players have scored this season, 12 have only scored once.

Midfielder Jonathan Osorio leads the team with four goals. Strikers Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore, both currently recovering from surgery, have five between them. 

Perez has switched from Alex Bono to Quentin Westberg in goal, perhaps looking to share the pain while searching for an answer. But neither is a miracle-worker with the TFC defence repeatedly put under stress due to careless giveaways. 

Chris Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez had been a good centre-back pairing, with Mavinga's athleticism helping cover for the six-foot-five Gonzalez's lack of mobility. But Mavinga has not always been on top of his game this season and Gonzalez has struggled at times.

With veteran Laurent Ciman's retirement, Toronto was essentially left with Eriq Zavaleta and rookie Luke Singh as cover. The 20-year-old Singh was done no favours, thrown into the deep end early on.

One can argue the TFC roster is one of age extremes, with 13 players aged 23 or younger and another eight aged 30 or older.

Manning interestingly points to the loss of designated player Pablo Piatti. The club declined the Argentine winger's option at the end of last season and was unable to retain him. Piatti is now back in Spain with Elche CF.

Manning said when it came to goals against per 90 minutes, Piatti led the team last year.

The club made few moves in the off-season. Manning said that was partly because the club did not want to add any more change on top of a new coach and having to set up shop away from home again. 

"We felt … the existing roster and some of the younger guys coming up would be able to perform admirably," said Manning.

"You always look back in hindsight and clearly we maybe needed more firepower," he added.

Manning and others have been left scratching their head as the lack of execution in key moments. Winning teams recover from mistakes. Toronto pays for them.

"It's tough to see the drop-off but it is what it is right now and that's what we have to take it for," said Manning.

Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo, Piatti's replacement, has shown flashes of brilliance. He has also demonstrated a somewhat surly side, especially when substituted.

"He's a passionate player, he's a competitive player," said Manning. "The losing has worn on a lot of guys and I think Yeferson is one of them. It wears on you and you can see the frustration." 

A COVID-19 outbreak during training camp, having to move south of the border again due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, the demands of the CONCACAF Champions League and a leg injury delaying reigning league MVP Alejandro Pozuelo's start to the season were just some of the early problems plaguing TFC.

"If it can go wrong, it's gone wrong this year," said Manning.

Teenage midfielder Ralph Priso blossomed, only to be sidelined by season-ending ankle surgery. A switch to an aggressive pressing style under Armas did not work well in the heat and humidity of Florida. The relationship between Armas and Altidore broke down, leading to a lengthy stretch on the sidelines for the star striker.

No one has ever explained what happened. But clearly Armas and Altidore did not see eye to eye.

"I know he felt a bit misunderstood in that moment," Manning said of Altidore

Manning's intervention and Perez taking charge helped bring the 31-year-old forward back into the fold only to see him sidelined by injury.

"I feel for him," Manning said. "He really wanted to make a difference and he wanted to prove himself. … He wanted to help this team get back on track." 

Armas was dealt an unkind hand, playing away from home with reinforcements late coming. But the team never found a rhythm under his hand.

After the team stumbled to a 1-8-2 start, Perez restored some calm. He has also asserted his authority by resting captain and workhorse Michael Bradley, who previously was an automatic entry on the team sheet.

"Michael is a very intelligent person. And he understands the game of football as much as anyone," Manning said of the 34-year-old skipper. "He's a guy that's going to fight every single minute, for 90 minutes, and he's going to prepare himself for every day of the week for game-day.

"You know all of the good things that you're going to get. And so if managing minutes is going to help him — I'm sure he and Javier have talked — that's the most important thing. Michael is a guy who will do whatever it takes for the good of the team. And that's what makes him special and why he's been a champion."

Over his career, Manning has experienced ups and downs.

His 2017 Toronto team set records and won the MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and Canadian Championship. Sixteen years earlier, Manning was in charge of a Tampa Bay Mutiny team that finished last in the league at 4-21-2 despite starting with two wins in its first three games. The Mutiny's 14 points remains a league low.

He calls this season "as difficult a campaign as I've ever experienced."


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press