Rudi Schuller: Toronto FC squanders July opportunity

Much of the optimism that surrounded TFC at the beginning of the month is gone, and what remains are questions about a team faltering at both ends of the field.
Toronto FC will be very happy to see the month of July come to an end.

Instead of taking advantage of a home-heavy schedule, Ryan Nelsen's side instead reverted to the bad habits of old. A mediocre record of 1-3-3 (W-L-T) saw TFC pick up just six points from its seven MLS matches this month, a huge drop off from a springtime pace that had the team in the upper echelon of the league in points-per-game average.

While Toronto entered July chasing only the Seattle Sounders in terms of points gained per match, the end of the month sees Jermain Defoe and co. sporting a decidedly mediocre pace.

So what attributed to this almost sudden drop in form?

A few months ago I opined that while Defoe and fellow "Bloody Big Deal" signing Michael Bradley would grab all the headlines, the more important duo could prove to be centre back tandem Doneil Henry and Steven Caldwell.

Even back then, it was obvious that "The Captain & Doneil" would dictate much of went right at the back for a front-loaded team that was coming off yet another season of less-than-stellar defensive displays. Yes, TFC would almost certainly be better on the defensive end thanks to the likes of newcomer Justin Morrow and even midfielders like Bradley and Collen Warner, but with very few battle-tested central defenders on the roster the Caldwell-Henry partnership would be relied upon to lift the heavy loads.

And lo and behold, the month of July conspired to pull the Caldwell-Henry partnership apart, as the youngster missed the early part of the month with minor injury concerns while the veteran later took his turn on the medical table with a quadriceps tear that will probably keep Caldwell sidelined until September.

The resulting mismash of defensive parternships, exacerbated by the knee injury to starting right back Mark Bloom, has proven to be inconsistent at best — and downright comical at worst. Toronto has thrown away matches that it probably should have won, as defensive breakdowns have undone a lot of good work at the other end of the field far too often in this cursed month.

But what of that vaunted TFC attack? While new additions like Dominic Oduro, Luke Moore and even Warner have added a dimension of offensive nous that has led to some exciting stuff going forward, the end result has far too often failed to click.

Take the two most recent defeats to Eastern-leading Sporting Kansas City and second place D.C. United, respectively; in both of those losses, Toronto counterattacked with purpose and speed and actually outshot the opposition. But where those chances were being buried earlier in the season, lately the well has dried up and goals aren't nearly as easy to come by.

It isn't as if the team isn't creating chances. As illustrated above, TFC still tends to outshoot the opposition despite almost always ceding possession, but where the likes of Defoe and Moore were once enjoying quality looks at goal they are now forced to create for themselves with increasing regularity.

In short, the shots are still coming, but they are rarely the types of opportunities that turn into goals. And even those infrequent good looks at goal are left wanting, resulting in a dearth of offence from a team that simply shouldn't be struggling to find the net.

The defensive lapses combined with the lack of ideas up front have led to a predictably troublesome time for TFC. Instead of jumping on a prime opportunity to close the gap at the top and bank points as games-in-hand came to fruition, the club instead reverted to mean, allowing the bottom two-thirds of the Eastern Conference to gain ground.

The only positive to take from it all is that the heavy July schedule, most of which played out in the friendly confines of BMO Field, is over.

And the team still looks to be in a great position heading into August. Despite the gloom and doom that accompanies a whole lot of dropped points over the past month, TFC remains in the driver's seat to make the postseason for the first time in its bleak history.

The East remains terrible, and Toronto still holds games in hand on all of its conference foes, but what was once a comfortable perch for TFC is now a precarious grasp on a playoff spot that should be easier than ever to hold on to.