Ciarán Breen believes that TFC have been short on luck on their grueling road trip, but have reasons to remain positive.
Toronto FC can consider themselves unlucky after debatable officiating has marred each of their opening four games but performances suggest that when their luck turns, they have a team ready to compete for the long-haul.
Against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday, the Reds finished on the wrong end of a 1-0 result for the second game running but it’s worth scratching beneath the refereeing controversy to find positive signs.
Let’s start with some context to settle the nerves.
Toronto have collected four points from their opening four games. No team in the East has more than six. Variables aside, if contentious refereeing decisions in each game had gone the other way, Greg Vanney’s side could be sitting pretty at the top of their conference.
During the seven-game road stretch that opened TFC’s 2015 season, the team lost four straight after beating the Whitecaps on opening day in Vancouver.
In the opening quarter of fixtures in 2015, Toronto scored a total of five goals, one more than they have at this point. This small deficit could easily be excused by pointing to Jozy Altidore’s limited game time so far this season due to injury.
More striking however is the goals against tally. Toronto conceded two at Yankee Stadium against NCYFC and one apiece in Kansas and Colorado. By the same point last year, the defense had been penetrated eight times and by the final whistle on matchday five, the against column read 11.
While feeling aggrieved at refereeing decisions going his side, Grey Vanney was at pains to praise his backline’s performances to date.
“I’m very happy with our defensive commitment,” said the head coach. “I think defensively this group is growing leaps and bounds beyond where we were last year.”
He’s not wrong about the turnaround. Four goals conceded in four games leaves Toronto tied for fifth best defence in the league. The whole league! This for a team that finished last season with the worst defensive record across the board.
“I think it’s a foundation to keep growing,” Vanney added before giving a special mention to goalkeeper Clint Irwin who made string of saves to keep the score at 1-0.
“We’re thankful Colorado was nice enough to send him to us. His presence behind our back line has made our backline better.”
Irwin arrived from the Rapids in the off-season with teammate Drew Moor in tow. Along with the addition of right-back Steven Beitashour, acquired from the Whitecaps, they are forming a solid backbone.
Once the attack, tied second best in the league in 2015, get into their stride, this team could start racking up wins at pace. With Altidore back and 11 men on the pitch for 90 minutes, there’s no reason this side can’t compete with anyone, home or away.
Toronto are averaging 43.5% possession, which on the road, is not a bad return. What is a little concerning is the lack of clear cut chances created. The team has registered 45 shots in four games but only 15 of those have been on target. Against the Rapids, that number was just two.
Try as he might, Giovinco can’t win every game by himself so his teammates will have to step up if Toronto are to reach the magical eight-point mark by the end of their extended road trip. Management have charged Greg Vanney with picking up eight points in time for the home curtain-raiser at BMO Field on May 7.
In the meantime, fans are growing angry at the calls they see as costing the team points. Listening to the post-game comments of players and manager, there are mixed messages.
Speaking about Colorado’s winning goal, Vanney admitted it was a tight call but was frustrated at the pattern of calls going against his side.
“I understand there are close calls but I feel that every game we’re having the same discussion.”
His disputing of Benoit Cheyrou’s second yellow in as many minutes was more forthright. Interestingly, Vanney drew comparisons with David Villa’s controversial goal in the game in March that saw Toronto battle back to a 2-2 draw with NYCFC. Vanney said he was told Villa’s handball in the lead up to the goal wasn’t called because the Spaniard was making a natural jumping motion. Many argued Cheyrou’s arm was raised in a natural jumping pose when it collided with the oncoming Bobby Burling during Saturday’s loss.
There have now been 16 red cards issued across Major League Soccer this season. For comparison, 32 matchdays in the Premier League to date have brought 49 sendings off. TFC captain Michael Bradley believes there’s an issue with officiating to be addressed but doesn’t think his team is being unfairly targeted.
“It’s a shame for a league that has grown in big ways that ultimately there are too many days where the referees are the main talking point,” said the United States international.
Listening to Bradley speak though, you get the sense that inside the camp, players are keeping things in perspective.
“There’s no sense of feeling sorry for ourselves,” said the former Roma midfielder. “Things happen in the course of a season. Things find a way to even themselves out.”
The Reds captain represents the potential strength of this team. In speaking out and airing his complaints with the league, Greg Vanney is doing what any coach should be doing in this moment but no one is panicking.
“The last thing I want to make it seem is poor us. That’s not the mentality that we have,” said Bradley. “The mentality continues to be very good and very strong. Everybody on the inside of this group can feel that.”
After finally making the playoffs for the first time last season, this team is not interested in moral victories. Four games in, they know what it feels like to lose in games of close calls. The proof of the pudding will be if they know how to win and can be clinical when they get the rub of the green.
As always though, the ride with Toronto is never smooth. After opening day elation in New York, we were fools to think it could ever have been any other way.
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