Cris Payne - Toronto FC/mlsfemale
Official Toronto FC Reporter

By Cris Payne // @crissypayne

Saturday, May 12: 3-2 Loss

Toronto FC twitter is in a state of panic. Fans fear they’ve stumbled into a time warp. Cold sweats and flashbacks of inadequacy ensue as the collective fanbase tries to claw its way back to 2018 from the pre-Bezbatchenko days of old.

Off the back of a frustrating loss at home to Seattle, a lacklustre Toronto FC team was, for the 6th time this season, not good enough. The concoction of troubles does pose a not insignificant challenge. However, not good enough is not good enough and the expectation is that the best team in MLS can continue to contend with the best regardless of circumstance.

Still, you can’t knock coach Greg Vanney for trying to find a lineup that works within his means, though many do anyway. A serious deficit in defenders saw Michael Bradley start in the centre of the backline once again and Gregory Van Der Wiel joins our crowded roster of injured defenders this week with a minor Achilles issue.

With Van Der Wiel, Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow, Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund and even former defender turned full-time midfielder Nicolas Hasler all sidelined we have two full strings of defensive lines missing. And that’s just the defensive woes.

Joining Bradley in this makeshift backline then are out of form 34-year-old MLS veteran Jay Hernandez along with Toronto native and recent MLS debutant Ryan Telfer. Telfer came in for an injury prone but healthy Ashtone Morgan who is safely squared away on the bench, protected from Gillette Stadium‘s synthetic turf. Brazilian wonderkid Auro Jr., the only first choice defender of the lot, completed a 4 man backline.

Defensive fortitude was, therefore, less a promise going into this game than it was a chasm built into our team. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t the pockmarked defense but the midfield that was directly responsible for 2 of the 3 goals. The defensive excuse ends up holding little water. Unsurprising considering the defense was a sieve but I digress.

Having historically lost a few big players at important times to the New England Revolution‘s poor turf conditions, it was no surprise that players like Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco joined Morgan on the bench. Therefore a somewhat patched together 4-4-2 squad entered the fray and quickly lost control of the game.

The troubles started in the 4th minute with an undercooked pass from Bradley to Ager Aketxe which was intercepted and neatly nestled in the back of the net by the Revolution’s Chris Penilla. Far from being Bradley’s fault, Aketxe has been caught out time and again waiting for the ball to come to him. Our number one goalkeeper for a third season running, Alex Bono, also looked like he could have done more.

It hastily got worse for the travelling side. Just a few minutes later in the 8th minute, Aketxe, after conceding the pass to him on the first goal, appears to believe Penilla plays for the Reds and passes the ball directly to him under little pressure. Perhaps to avoid further confusion for him I’ll stop referring to Toronto as the Reds as it’s dangerously similar to the Revs. Bono, who is completely off his line after fancying a dribble out of his box which started the manic panic, is unable to get back quickly enough to stop Penilla’s leisurely lofted ball sailing into the back of the net.

At this point, it was looking dire for the defending champions. Nonetheless, they spent the rest of the first half with the lion’s share of the possession, troubled only once more by a bundled attempt from Diego Fagundez after our defense was once more cut like cheesecloth. Unfortunately, possession without goals is all but useless and Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner denied a few good chances from Toronto, including a good shot from distance by an atoning Aketxe.

The second half arrives, time for Toronto FC to keep their heads down and get back into the game, right? Wrong. Inside of 60 seconds the Reds concede a third before most of the fans could crawl back to their television sets after 15 minutes of raw panic. 3-0 at the 46th minute; the Reds are sinking again.

One small positive to this goal is at least we can hope a first choice defensive line might stop that one. But wait; I spy Aketxe, tumbling backwards, apparently helpless to stop Teal Bunbury. At least he tried this time?

Nonetheless, it’s not over ’til it’s over. At 54’ fan favourite (this fan in particular) Jay Chapman sent a well-timed cross towards goal and Jordan Hamilton helped the Revs score an own goal. Shortly after Vanney sent in reinforcements by way of a newly recovered Chris Mavinga to tighten up defense and Sebastian Giovinco the super sub to save the game (little did we know).

Aketxe ends his day of disaster by making way for Mavinga which allowed Michael Bradley to slide back into his holding midfield role. Toronto FC restores much of its defensive harmony with those 2 simple shifts. It was no coincidence that the goals for the Revolution stop there.

Try as they might Toronto struggled to get back into this game. It wasn’t until the 87th minute that after a bizarre coming together in the Revolution box, Auro earned a penalty in the eyes of referee Mark Geiger. Sebastian Giovinco coolly slots it home but then loses all of his chill. He sticks his hand at the throat of a Revs player who tried to knock the ball out of his hand as he galloped back to the centre line.

The red mist clears and Giovinco pulls his hand back before applying any pressure to the gesture but the damage was already done. Giovinco is shown a straight red card after a quick video review but he is less quick to leave the technical area as he argues with anyone and everyone within three feet of him. He finally leaves and the remaining 3 minutes are played out without incident. It’s really over this time; Toronto FC is thwarted yet again. Giovinco has since been fined for his failure to promptly leave the game. (source)

In spite of all the reasons the side had to fail, it appears Toronto FC impaled themselves upon their own sword. The midfield made tough work for a weak defense and the attack didn’t attack enough. That is until they attacked too much and were asked to leave the game.

Post-game there’s the question of Aketxe that has remained unanswered. When Toronto FC signed him from Athletic Bilbao during the winter window it seemed an exciting benefit to winning the cup. A La Liga player from a renowned academy chose to play here.

Alas, the days of average to high-quality players coming from European leagues, even the top ones, and immediately making first team appears to be coming to an end. At least, that has been the case for Aketxe. After a slow start to the season for him he has struggled to make an impact despite plenty of minutes to do so.

His biggest impact has come against the Revs having been left red faced after all 3 goals. A bad start to the season for TFC all around and a period of adjustment makes judging the individual tough, but I for one have lost all hope of making a Toronto FC player out of Ager. My only hope for him at this point is that he proves me wrong. Fellow Toronto fans, let me know your verdict on Aketxe or lack thereof.

Toronto FC faithfuls must wait another week for a glimpse of the team they have come to know and love over the past 2 and a half years or so. Now Giovinco is suspended for a minimum of 1 game, Jozy Altidore is still recovering from surgery and the defensive absences are far from over. Patience will be key for Toronto fans looking for their Reds to be back at their best. Toronto faces Orlando City SC at BMO Field this Friday.

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