Stop the bleeding. Toronto FC has done just that with consecutive positive performances, culminating on the weekend with an impressive 3-2 win at the Columbus Crew. Back-to-back wins on the road couldn't come at a better time for TFC. Two wins on the road, at that, reaffirming Toronto as a contender.
Questions were beginning to be raised about Toronto FC's credentials as true challenger in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference. Just one win in eight coming out of the MLS World Cup break would always ramp up that conversation, promoting negative sentiment. It was a frustrating July for Ryan Nelsen and co. with the team showing better on the field in terms of overall play, with results failing to follow. Fortunately, while not playing well over the opening months of the season, Toronto FC managed to pick up points, building a cushion and lessening the blow of a difficult month.
Toronto FC is back on track. A visit to the woeful Montreal Impact brought three points 11 days ago. Saturday's trip to Columbus was likewise fruitful. Luke Moore's winner in the 84th-minute capped off another fine performance, where TFC persevered despite the Crew twice equalizing. Through it all, Toronto FC remains third in the Eastern Conference, five points up on sixth-place Columbus and with at least a game in hand on all others in and around the top five in the conference, battling for playoff spots.
Here are five thoughts on Toronto FC coming off their most recent win:
1) Goal-scoring Gilberto – Make it goals in back-to-back matches and three in his last four starts for the often criticized Brazilian striker. It's plain to see Gilberto is finally full of the confidence he lacked early this season. Gilberto's athleticism and potential have always been ubiquitous. His misfiring ways and, oftentimes, frustrating carelessness on the ball brought out the critics. It seems the transition period to MLS is firmly behind him and now is the time to prosper. Recent weeks have been kind to Gilberto as he has battled back to fitness, finally finding form. Injured captain and central defender Steven Caldwell (@stevocaldwell) took to Twitter post-match Saturday to praise Gilberto, writing "I don't like to single someone out, but I thought Gilberto was tremendous tonight. What a win!"
MLS onlookers agree with Caldwell's assessment with Gilberto being named to MLS Team of the Week. Gilberto's recent form softens the blow of Jermain Defoe out of the line-up (groin). Further competition up front is on the horizon with Bright Dike back training after having missed the first five months of the season (Achilles). Nelsen has been treading lightly, preferring to keep Gilberto out of the starting XI in preference of Moore. It's Nelsen's team after all, and he should be able to do whatever he deems best for the team, but there have to be internal pressures to play the high-priced off-season acquisition. The argument is becoming irrelevant at this point, with Gilberto forcing his way into the side based on his play, rather than price tag or potential.
2) Osorio Impact – Back-to-back starts for the Canadian and back-to-back wins for Toronto FC. Not only that, but Toronto FC have held more possession in consecutive games that Jonathan Osorio has started, something they have struggled to do all season. It's no coincidence. Toronto FC was too direct and weak defensively down the wings with both Dominic Oduro and Jackson in the starting XI. TFC is a better team with Osorio in it. It may be an imperfect situation with Osorio playing wide left in the 4-4-2 with the midfielder's preference to come inside and play one-two touch football in the middle of the park. When it works, it really comes off well. Osorio was a force in the second half in Columbus, creating before scoring the 2-1 goal. Osorio predictably came inside and forced the issue, showing for the ball before cutting forward to get into position to score on the rebound. Osorio, as an outside midfielder that fails to take advantage of the width, makes it all-important for Gilberto, Luke Moore or whomever is playing up front to play off Osorio and, at times, utilize the space down the flank. It's likewise essential for Justin Morrow to get forward from his left-back position to contribute in the attack, providing balance. Toronto FC's wing-backs don't get up the field nearly enough for my liking. Quite frankly, they cannot risk regularly getting forward, abandoning defensive responsibilities with the Oduro/Jackson combination on the flanks. Osorio is simply a better fit for all aspects of Toronto FC's play.
3) Nine-Point Swing – TFC swept their Trillium Cup rival this season, taking all nine points from three games against Columbus for the first time in club history. Bragging rights are one thing, but taking all the points against an Eastern Conference adversary is another. A five-point cushion between them and Columbus, the sixth-place team in the Eastern Conference is as good as it gets. In fact, Toronto FC has taken four out of six points against fourth-place New York Red Bulls. TFC begins September with a critical home-and-home against the fifth-place Philadelphia Union, which will go a long way in determining playoff positioning. All in all, a favourable schedule lies ahead, with ample time for rest and recovery with no mid-week games until the Philly back-to-back on September 3 and 6. With Caldwell due to return in September and with nothing else significant in terms of long-term absentees, things are trending in the right direction. The MLS roster freeze comes on September 15, leaving plenty of time for general manager Tim Bezbatchenko to figure out what he still needs for the duration.
4) Liking Luke – Few mid-season acquisitions in MLS have been as important as Luke Moore to Toronto FC. And to think, all Toronto gave up for the English striker was defender Gale Agbossoumonde, who has yet to play a game for the Colorado Rapids. It's absolute larceny by Bezbatchenko and the fact Moore comes on the cheap, with his salary largely paid for by his Turkish club Elazigspor, makes it all the better. Nelsen deserves credit, as he really pushed for the team to acquire the player. Bezbatchenko obliged and the team is better for it. Moore has been effective all over the field – nothing flashy, but solid, coming back to control the ball as a more natural number nine, as well as being decent in the air. His game-winner, a header off a corner Saturday was equally impressive in power as it was placement. The returns as a Red, five goals and three assists, as well as building solid partnerships with both Defoe and Gilberto, speaks to his quality. The attacking side of the equation, in depth and talent, should not be a worry for TFC down the stretch of the season. Moore is a big part of that.
5) Road Warriors – TFC wraps up their four-game road trip Saturday against Sporting Kansas City, a place they earned a hard fought 2-2 draw down to ten men earlier this season. Road success has been key to Toronto's turn-around this campaign. TFC has picked up 16 points away from BMO Field, the same number of points they have earned at home. TFC only earned nine away points through the entirety of the 2013 season. Away goals haven't been an issue either, having scored two more away goals than at home, looking rather comfortable playing a more patient, counter-attacking style. Saturday's upcoming match should be predictably heated, with serious tension between the two sides. Toronto FC's 2-1 loss to SKC last month was noted for its chippy, physical and emotional play. Referee Ted Unkel was forced into numerous questionable calls and non-calls, which were highly debated among onlookers. Both sets of coaching staffs, publicly and/or privately begrudged the difficult night for the referees, who did little to quell tensions or properly manage the thorny occasion. The unfortunate outcome for TFC will be fresh in the players' minds heading to the midwest. TFC has something to prove after back-to-back losses against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Saturday at Sporting Park has the makings of something special, pitting two standout MLS sides, capable of playing at the highest level with good tempo and quality play, with no love lost between them.
Toronto FC and Sporting KC renew hostilities Saturday night at 830pm (TSN2, TSN 1050 Radio).