TFC has played below the lofty standards bestowed upon it in the offseason, but the team still finds itself in a position of strength after a third of the 2014 campaign.
Sitting at 19 points after 11 games, TFC is currently in fourth place in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference. That's not bad considering the abject failure that's smeared all over the franchise's history.
But a second look at the table reveals a much better outlook than "not bad" for TFC. Right now, the club has a points-per-game average of 1.73 — the best in the East and second league-wide after the high-flying Seattle Sounders.
Toronto's relatively low position in the standings versus its point-per-game pace is a result of a wacky schedule that saw the team play fewer games than the rest of the league during the first three months of the campaign, and it hides the fact that TFC, results-wise, is a very good MLS club right now.
Making things look even rosier for the Reds is its goal-against average, which currently sits at a stingy 1.18. That's better than all but two Eastern Conference opponents, and it's probably the key reason why Toronto has amassed as many points as it has thus far.
For all the offseason hype about big name players joining the side, it's been TFC's improved defensive output that has defined it through the first three months of the season.
"What I wanted this Toronto FC team to be is — at least when teams play against us they have to earn it to win it," second-year head coach Ryan Nelsen said after TFC's final match before the three-week World Cup break. "[Opponents] have to play really well to beat us. And I think that's starting to happen, to tell you the truth. That reputation is coming around the league, and that's a good reputation to have."
|When teams play against us they have to earn it to win it."
- Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen
Indeed, most of Toronto's matches have been closely contested affairs, which is a continuation of how things went in Nelsen's first season as coach. An influx of talent all over the field has turned some of those losses and draws from last year into wins this season, despite TFC not having all of its key pieces together on the field all that often.
If it wasn't team-leading scorer Jermain Defoe going down to a hamstring injury for a month, it's been second-year midfielder Jonathan Osorio missing large swaths of time with various ailments. Brazilian midfielder Jackson had been absent for several weeks because of concussion issues, while others have shuttled in and out of the squad for numerous reasons.
And then there's the large hole in the middle of the pitch created by Michael Bradley's absence. The other half of TFC's "Bloody Big Deal" has only played in six of 11 league games, missing the past four because of World Cup preparations.
For most teams, missing Bradley for such a key stretch would be a death knell, but TFC has soldiered on in his absence. Since the influential American departed for U.S. national team training camp, Toronto has rolled to three wins and a draw in MLS play.
It's an odd little run punctuated by an influx of new players into the squad. Newcomers Luke Moore, Collen Warner and Dominic Oduro have added to the ad hoc nature of TFC's lineup over the past several weeks, something that will have to change if a serious run for the postseason is to be made.
"We've got this three-week break, we can really work them in and we can really work on the combinations and get everything going," Nelsen said not only of the new faces, but also to the handful of regulars who have been bitten by the injury bug this season. "Hopefully we can come out of the back of that — hopefully the U.S. do very well but we'll probably have Michael back pretty soon, hopefully. And then we can start to really feel like kind of a team. A complete team."It has to bring a smile to even the most downtrodden TFC fan's face to know that the team has climbed into such a favourable position with an "incomplete" side. In addition, the East looks wide open this year, with a lot of teams clearly nowhere near top form.
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Keeping in mind that TFC still has yet to face any of the four worst-performing sides in its conference, it does tend to paint a nice picture for Toronto's postseason chances.
That said, not everything is rosy at BMO Field.
Toronto has scored a meagre 15 goals so far, with seven of those coming off the feet of Defoe. If the team's defensive organization is a continuation from 2013, then so is the lack of goalscoring. Nelsen knows he'll have to find some secondary scoring from somewhere, be it from maligned Brazilian designated player Gilberto, Moore or Oduro.
Perhaps even more troubling is the manner in which the Reds play. No one would ever accuse TFC of being a pretty team to watch, with many games devolving into slugfests where the opposing team carries most of the possession.
And yet, despite earning widespread criticism for being the architect of his team's unimaginative play, Nelsen conceded that it's something that he wants to change in time.
"A hundred percent, we have to evolve as a team," the coach said. "There's a whole list of things we've got to get better at as a team, I'm the first one to sit here and say that. But we have to build a foundation, we have to learn how to win. We have to learn how to win 1-nil, we have to learn how to win ugly, we have to learn how to win without the ball, we have to learn how to win with it.
"These are just growing pains of a young team; a team that hasn't been together very often."
Whether you agree with Nelsen's assessment of his side or not, one thing that can't be argued is the results. Any way you slice it, TFC has put itself in prime position to do the previously unthinkable and actually challenge for a playoff spot.
"I don't think we're, as a team, playing as well as we can but we're getting more points than probably I thought we'd get after 11 games," Nelsen admitted. "We're not playing well but we're showing a lot of character and a little spirit."
TFC's spirit may have gotten it to this point, but once MLS reconvenes at the end of the month it'll be up to the team to show that it can take advantage of its talent to finally join the rest of league at the adult table.