Two exciting wins to start the season have been contrasted by a woeful away loss to RSL. Which one represents the true Toronto FC?The dream of finishing the season at 34-0 is over for Toronto FC.
No, there wasn't anyone who was seriously thinking that the team could win all of its games this year, but after two morale-boosting wins to open the campaign there were some unrealistic superlatives attached to Ryan Nelsen's work in progress.
That all came crashing down this past Saturday night in Utah, when the Reds were taught a harsh lesson in what it takes to really succeed in MLS by Real Salt Lake. For all the gains that Toronto had seemed to make in the season-opening wins over Seattle and D.C., TFC looked very much like its old self while getting run over by Alvaro Saborio and company.
Once again, Toronto gave up the lion's share of possession to its opponent, but this time the team on the other side of the ball knew exactly what to do with it, effectively rendering the match done and dusted before the halftime whistle was blown. That has to be concerning for the many fans who had convinced themselves to give TFC another chance after seven years of incompetence, both on the field and off.
The 3-0 loss was reminscent of the bad old days, when Toronto would head into away venues like Rio Tinto Stadium simply looking to keep the damage to a minimum. But things aren't supposed to be like this, not in the new Bloody Big Era of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.
Defoe looked uncharacteristically ineffective for most of the match, which was due more to RSL managing to limit his opportunities rather than a downturn in form for the English striker. He, like the rest of the team, was overwhelmed by the superior organization of the RSL players on the field, who showed that -- unlike TFC -- they had spent considerable time together making other teams miserable.
"We can't make excuses, at the end of the day we lost the game," Defoe told reporters after Saturday's loss. "But I think now it's important that we bounce back because we've been fatastic for the last few games, so now it's important to show character, and come back and make sure we just put in a good performance in the next game."
|It's important to show character, and come back and make sure we just put in a good performance in the next game."
- Toronto FC's Jermain Defoe
But what is Toronto FC's character right now? Is it the ruthlessly efficient, steadfast team that won its first two matches by a single goal each, or is it the side that was easily opened up for three goals inside of an hour?
Despite being outclassed by RSL, Toronto still created several chances to score. Defoe and Bradley each rang shots off Nick Rimando's left post, and Doneil Henry got in his once-per-game blistering header that just narrowly missed the mark. TFC even had the advantage in corner kicks, doubling up on Salt Lake 8-4.
All of that means that Toronto, despite giving away most of the possession again, spent considerable time in the final third, but, unlike the wins over the Sounders and United, could not convert.
The difference for TFC was on the defensive end, where RSL was able to carve open the Reds' back line with disturbing ease. Toronto had played a solid defensive game in the first two matches, giving goalkeeper Julio Cesar very little to do and earning plaudits for its effectiveness.
No one will be praising Toronto's defence after that match, as Salt Lake's Javier Morales had a field day in creating the game's final two goals and a couple of other chances.
To be fair, TFC was missing midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Jackson, both of whom put in a lot more work on the defensive side than they are given credit for. Regardless, a long haul season like MLS' requires a full squad that can do the job, and Saturday's loss raised more questions about the team's depth.
Nelsen and his staff will need to get the team to quickly re-embrace the defensive tenacity that has become a trademark of the side since the Kiwi took over ahead of the 2013 season. In that year, TFC was only truly out of a handful of matches, despite not having the offensive threats to win games.
That was one of the few silver linings to the awful 2013 campaign, and now that Toronto has the weapons up top to compete, it needs to not lose sight of the team defence that will ultimately decide the team's fate for 2014.
Putting up a stinker of a game in one of the league's toughest venues is nothing to be ashamed of, especially for a team full of players still getting used to each other, and also given the perfect start the team had going into the match, but Toronto can ill afford to continue this Jekyll and Hyde act for much longer as a tough trip to face a surprisingly red-hot Columbus Crew awaits this weekend.
Is TFC is a genuine contender, or just another pretender? We may end up finding out sooner rather than later.