Rudi Schuller: Midfield help, not defense, most pressing need for Toronto FC

The impending arrival of a pair of experienced international defenders will only paper over the cracks of a TFC team that struggles for ideas in the center of the park.
There is a clear pattern starting to emerge at Toronto FC.

No, not the late game defensive lapses that have doomed the club since last year (more on that later), but rather what the team is doing about them.

As the transfer window closed in North America this week, TFC solidified a flurry of loan deals to ostensibly plug the gaping holes that have left the club winless in its past eight MLS matches.

Joining the club is a trio of internationals, from Scotland, New Zealand and Israel. Two of the three incoming players are not only defenders with decent CVs, but they're also packing a ton of experience.

The moves reveal something stark: Toronto FC isn't satisfied with its defense.

On the surface, that much seems obvious. Head coach Ryan Nelsen made his name in soccer as a hard-nosed center back, hence it makes sense that he'd believe that more defensive options for a losing side would be a good thing.

You build a structure -- or in this case, a soccer team -- from the foundation up. But what if the approach is a bit off the mark in this particular case?

Three short-term loans, two of them for defensive players, smacks of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what will stick.

It's hard to blame Nelsen for trying, however. After watching his team drop points in the final 10 minutes of five straight matches, most would agree that something needs to be done at the back end to avoid what's becoming more and more inevitable.

But what if the problem isn't so much in the back line?

Defensively speaking, there has been nothing special about TFC this year. But that in itself is a massive improvement from the record-breakingly awful defense that plagued the side last year.

From the first 10 games of the 2013 MLS campaign, two things have become clear: TFC can't hold on to leads or draws late, and the team has -- from a purely scoreboard-watching standpoint -- yet to be truly out of a game.

(No, the 6-0 drubbing in Montreal doesn't count, as it took place outside of league play and is looking like an outlier based on squad rotation and a hugely motivated opponent.)

The truth is, for as putrid as TFC has looked at times this year, the team has also found a way to linger in matches for sustained periods. It's no coincidence that the club has yet to lose by more than one goal so far.

All of that said, things have taken a turn for the worse lately. Whereas Toronto was applying effective high pressure in the earlygoing, it seems as though the team has reverted to the dreaded "hoofball" that had fans frothing at the mouth last season.

The old adage is that the team that has the ball most will be the one with the best chance to win, and that was shown in spades in TFC's most recent loss Wednesday night in San Jose. The Reds had taken the lead early and battled pretty well for the first half, but the final 45 minutes was a horror show of hit-and-hope football that would make squad players in League Two blush.

It all started at the very back, with goalkeeper Joe Bendik electing to put his foot through the ball indiscriminately and gifting possession to the Earthquakes every time he touched it.

Bendik's poor distribution has been the one glaring flaw in his game since he usurped the starting job from Stefan Frei in the preseason, and it grows more influential with each passing match as teams know to simply sit back and wait as he hits long ball after long ball to Robert Earnshaw -- all 5-foot-7 of him -- in a frustrating cycle of ineffectiveness.

On the odd occasion that Bendik's defenders receive the ball, it's usually given to a midfield that has become a turnover machine of late. Jeremy Hall is a tremendous athlete and has done exceedingly well in covering ground and disrupting the opposition in his new central role, but like his goalkeeper, Hall's strong point is not distribution.

The wide players are not much better, as Hogan Ephraim and Reggie Lambe have done little to advance the attack outside of an odd cross into the penalty area. Only newcomer Matias Laba, sophomore Luis Silva and super-sub rookie Jonathan Osorio -- all uncoincidentally versed in the Latin American culture of possession-first soccer -- have shown the ability to hold on to the ball and make positive, forward passes on a consistent basis.

It's with this in mind that one can forgive Bendik a little bit for almost always bypassing his midfield and consistently dialing up the Hail Mary pass for Earnshaw and sometimes strike partner Justin Braun.

But to bring it all back to the back line and its incoming reinforcements, perhaps more mind should have been paid by the front office to shoring up the weak TFC midfield instead. More gambles like Jeremy Brockie -- a midfielder with a nose for goal -- along with increased playing time for likes of Silva and Osorio could help solve the possession and creativity issue in the center of the park.

That, along with more attention paid to improving TFC's wide play -- which is currently hovering around slim and none -- could help the team create more chances of its own rather than trying to hit on the counter in predictable fashion.

It doesn't matter if the back line is marshalled by Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore in their primes, if the defense is always under siege as a result of lack of ideas from teammates upfield, it's eventually going to leak goals.

The way to fix that is to improve the midfield, not by bringing in stop-gap defensive help that may not be here in two months' time.