On the back of four-straight losses, it would be easy to be down.
Toronto FC looked to have turned a corner at the end of March with a run of four-straight unbeaten, including wins over defending MLS Cup champions NYCFC and current East leaders the Philadelphia Union, but a rematch defeat away to NYCFC, losses in both the home and away games against FC Cincinnati, and then in heartbreaking fashion last Sunday at Vancouver Whitecaps FC has halted that progress.
Bob Bradley, however, is not easily discouraged.
“If I look at the last four games,” he reflected during Friday’s prematch press conference. “Oddly enough in NYCFC, an away game, I actually thought we did alright in the early part of the game: going up 1-0, playing in their end, how we went about things. The home game against Cincinnati we have a fair amount of control – I don't think, from the start, we were dangerous enough, but that game turns later in the half.”
“The next game it's everything you try to stay away from: an early goal and a red card, all of a sudden you're fighting uphill. And then, overall, there were positives in the way we went about the game with Vancouver,” he continued. “I look at what all those games entailed.”
The injury bug has bitten hard, suspensions haven’t helped, the lineup has chopped and changed, but this was always going to be a part of the learning experience for a renovated side easing their way into a new era.
That work continues.
“We're working through our ability to handle different situations and make plays,” assessed Bradley. “Yes, we have had to make changes, we've had guys get tested as young players, sometimes in new positions. It's part of the work of this group to become a better team.”
Progress is funny like that. Sometimes it happens slowly, often behind the scenes and imperceptible, only to then emerge whenever it feels like.
Deandre Kerr is a case in point.
Signed to a homegrown contract in the off-season, the 19-year-old struggled in his first MLS outing against FC Dallas only to emerge better for the experience a few weeks later. Thrust into a more central role against Vancouver, he was one of the brighter spots on the day.
“It's what you want to see in a young player,” highlighted the coach. “He had a good preseason, got an opportunity to start in the first game – that wasn't his best 45 minutes, and then he hit a little bit of a wall with some injuries, little things, and there was a moment in there where he dropped.”
“This is new, going through that, for young guys. We've tried to talk him through it, make sure he knows that we think he's got some really good starting points, and his response has been excellent,” Bradley added. “So I'm really happy for him. He's shown some good things of late.”
How the teenager handled that setback was instructive.
“Just keeping my head down, keep working hard, listening to the coaches – they've played a big role in helping me, helping other guys,” said Kerr. “Just keep working hard to gain the coach’s trust and then when I get my chance, do my best to perform to help the team.”
Lost somewhat in the maelstrom of that nine-goal roller coaster in New York City, Kerr scored his first professional goal, a powerful header off a dead-ball – he called it ‘a surreal moment.’
“Something that you dream about,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we were losing at the time, so I was just focused on getting the ball and getting the game going again and try to come back. Looking back on it, it’s definitely a core memory I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
“It's been a great experience so far,” added Kerr of his first steps in MLS. “It's always been my dream to become a professional so now I'm getting to live it, in my hometown as well. I'm just taking it all in and trying to do my best to help the team.”
For individual players, for the team as a whole, these are foundational days.
A big inflection point in the season is fast approaching.
MLS will pause at the start of June for nearly three weeks with a FIFA international break on the books. The Concacaf Nations League and preparations for this winter’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar will continue, but for TFC and the rest of the league it will be a moment to take a breath and regroup.
TFC has three league matches before that pause as well as two Canadian Championship matches interspersed.
Orlando City SC visits on Saturday, then comes an away trip to D.C. United in league play the following weekend. Toronto will make a first-ever trip to Atlantic Canada afterwards for a cup tie against HFX Wanderers FC on May 24 before closing out the MLS schedule back at BMO Field against the Chicago Fire.
There is also the matter of a final against Forge FC to be slotted in on June 4, the much-postponed 2020 Canadian Championship Final with Voyageurs Cup glory on the line.
“In the moment the focus has just been on trying to take lessons from every game and apply them for the next game and find ways to continue to grow and get better; try to help the group feel some success again,” outlined Bradley of this opening period of action. “I haven't really looked past everything.”
“When we get towards that international break, we also have the 2020 Canada Cup game with Forge; before that we have a quarterfinal 2022 Canada Cup game in Halifax, so I look mostly at the short term, mostly at the next game, think about where we are with each guy,” he continued. “The idea that after June 4, we have a weekend off, yes, we've discussed the schedule in there, one that gives guys a little bit of a break, but also keeps us going so that we can take advantage of that period.”
The pace of the schedule will intensify through July and August – the ol’ summer grind – and soon enough the MLS Cup Playoffs will start to come into view.
But that is all in the future. There is a game to be played.
Orlando City comes to town as one of the top four sides in the Eastern Conference.
A 3-0 home loss against the Red Bulls and a 4-1 defeat on the road against Montreal either side of a 2-1 home win over Charlotte FC has blotted their recent form, but still Orlando are pushing with Philadelphia, the New York Red Bulls, and CF Montreal for the top of the standings.
Oscar Pareja, in his third year in charge, has transformed Orlando from expansion strugglers to perennial playoff finishers.
“Orlando, in the last few years, has been a good, solid team,” levelled Bradley. “Oscar is a good coach, they're always well-organized. A difficult opponent, just a good team that's always hard to play against.”
Attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra remains a central force in the side, as his five assists attest, but with the departure of Nani in the off-season, Orlando has retooled, bringing in Uruguayan forward Facundo Torres (two goals, four assists) and Austria striker Ercan Kara (two goals, two assists). Alessandro Pato (two goals, two assists) regaining fitness has been a boon as well
“Just like every other MLS game, we expect it to be competitive,” anticipated Kerr. “Every team has quality in this league, so we expect a tough game. We’ve been on a bit of a tough stretch and we're hoping to turn it around at home. The only way to do that is to start this weekend, start with the win, and then build off that.”
A little bit of home cooking after two games on the road never hurts.
Saturday will be the second TFC/TFC II double-header of the season, as the Young Reds square off against New England Revolution II at 6 pm, following the conclusion of TFC vs. Orlando City.
“The fans have been amazing. I'm sure that will only continue to grow,” added Kerr. “I've never really played in front of such a large crowd before so to do it now is definitely great.”