COLUMBUS, Ohio — Toronto FC goes into Major League Soccer's international break with plenty of troubling questions on and off the field.
Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew dropped Toronto's record to 1-4-2 in MLS play. TFC, which finished second overall in the 2020 Supporters' Shield race at 13-5-5, languishes in 25th spot in the overall standings and has won just two-of-11 matches (2-6-3) in all competitions this season.
'Toronto coach Chris Armas had asked for a 90-minute effort from his squad, which has been decidedly uneven in games this season. He didn't get it in a poor first half that saw Toronto's defence breached twice in ugly fashion.
"On one level I see that the team is fighting and pushing. On the other level where we have to really improve is moments of transition," said Armas. "Can we be better with the ball in certain parts of the field? Can we have an ability to put out fires when those fires come?
"You think back to some of the goals that we've given up or many of the goals this year, it's certain moments of concentration and focus … It's not just one thing. It's everyone pulling a little more weight — all of us — to get the results that we need."
There is a question mark over the future of star striker Jozy Altidore, who is on the outs with the club. And the team learned late this week that Venezuelan international winger Yeferson Soteldo, another of its designated players, will be out four-to-six weeks with a hamstring injury.
Toronto GM Ali Curtis says the club will hold talks with the disgruntled Altidore over the international break to determine his future. TFC doesn't play again until June 19.
Armas decline to wade into the Altidore mess when asked about it.
The good news for Toronto on the day was that Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, the league's reigning MVP, came on in the 55th minute for his first action of the season after a thigh injury.
Pozuelo was a breath of fresh air, bringing the stagnant TFC attack to life when he touched the ball.
Luis Diaz and Gyasi Zardes scored for defending champion Columbus (3-2-2). The score could have been more lopsided had it not been for some fine saves by Toronto 'keeper Alex Bono.
"I thought you saw in the first half we really came out with a lot of intensity. I thought we were aggressive," said Columbus coach Caleb Porter. "It's our best half of the year, by far. And we looked like the Columbus Crew.
"Disappointed in the second half … We give up a goal against the run of play when we're in compete control of the game," he added.
Ayo Akinola scored for Toronto, which had downed Columbus 2-0 in their previous meeting May 12 at Orlando.
Captain Michael Bradley had a chance to tie it in the 96th minute but Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room made a diving save.
Columbus went ahead in the 12th minute on what was essentially a Diaz breakaway after a Toronto corner at the other end. Bradley's delivery hit a foot in the penalty box and the ball went to Pedro Santos at the edge of the box.
He sent it forward to an onrushing Diaz who — with no Toronto defender hanging back — raced the length of the field untouched before tucking the ball past Bono.
Toronto was carved open again in the 21st minute on another rapid-fire counter-attack. Santos was the provider again, sending in a marvellous cross that split the two Toronto centre backs and allowed Zardes to acrobatically get a foot to the ball and deflect it past Bono.
It marked Zardes' 50th goal in all competitions for Columbus.
The goal started on a giveaway by Jacob Shaffelburg off a TFC throw-in deep in the Columbus end. Four passes later the ball was in the Toronto goal.
The goal survived video review. Zardes had had another goal called back for offside minutes earlier.
"We dug ourselves a hole," said Armas. "Against good teams, it's hard to dig yourself out.
"It becomes hard to win games when you're giving up goals that are preventable," he added. "It's a tough stretch but we're going to get through it."
Toronto did not put a shot on target in the first half and had just 34.2 per cent possession. But it had more success after Armas moved Richie Laryea further up the field from his original fullback role.
Akinola cut the lead to 2-1 in the 52nd minute, outmuscling two defenders to get to a rebound given up by Room on Laryea's shot. It was the first goal of the season for Akinola, who started in place of Altidore.
The season has been rough for the get-go for Toronto, which endured a COVID-19 outbreak in training camp before setting up shop in Orlando. And injuries have not helped the team's effort to adapt to Armas' aggressive pressing style of play.
Toronto has shot itself in the foot in a variety of ways, from weak set-piece defending to being vulnerable in transition.
Saturday marked the Crew's penultimate game at Historic Crew Stadium, Major League Soccer’s first soccer-specific stadium. The curtain will go down June 19 against Chicago Fire FC.
"Our goal with the last two games at Historic Crew Stadium was to get two wins, six points. We're halfway there," said Porter, whose team had played its last three games on the road.
"It's very important we feel to send our supporters off from this stadium … with that feeling of how special this stadium has been to a lot of people over the years."
Their future home, currently dubbed New Crew Stadium, will open its doors in July.
Armas made four changes to his starting 11 from last time out in Orlando, replacing the injured Soteldo, Omar Gonzalez and Jonathan Osorio with Eriq Zavaleta, Nick DeLeon and Shaffelburg.
Columbus made two changes to the team that beat New York City FC 2-1 last time out with defender Jonathan Mensah dropping to the bench and the injured Waylon Francis not dressing.
Columbus extended its undefeated streak at home to 12 matches (10-0-2) in all competitions, a run that dated back to last October.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2021
The Canadian Press