TORONTO — There was a time in this MLS season when Toronto FC was a terrifying goal-scoring machine.
During a six-match winning streak in which they all but clinched the regular-season title, TFC scored 21 times, an average of more than three per game.
They have scored three goals, total, in their four playoff games.
So, what happened? Where did the offensive flash go? Over the extraordinarily long MLS playoff schedule — Saturday’s MLS Cup final will be TFC’s fifth game in 47 days — did they misplace their swagger? And more to the point, can they get it back?
Considering the final is a rematch with a Seattle Sounders team that held TFC without a goal over 120 minutes in the last MLS Cup, it is a bit of an urgent question.
Not that TFC sounds terribly worried about it.
“We’ve just come up against teams that are trying to stifle the way we play rather than impose their style of play,” defender Justin Morrow said Wednesday after a cold and windy training session at the team’s Downsview practice facility.
“Playoffs are cagey,” defender Drew Moor said. “Teams didn’t want to open up against us.”
TFC coach Greg Vanney said much the same thing, and walked a large media throng through the way the playoffs have unfolded. When TFC jumped out to an early lead in their first post-season game in New York, with an eighth-minute goal from Victor Vasquez, and came away from that match with a 2-1 lead, it sent them home for the second leg needing to do nothing other than avoid conceding twice.
“Then maybe you are less ambitious to try to go and get the third goal, the fourth goal, guys tend to take up more conservative positions and try to protect on the defensive side a bit more,” Vanney said.
“In order to score goals sometimes you have to open yourself up a bit and if you are already ahead, you don’t have to open yourself up.”
In the next round, against a hot Columbus team, and with strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore suspended, TFC opened on the road looking for a clean sheet first, and maybe a goal if the chance presented itself. The resulting goalless draw was a comfortable result.
The second leg at BMO Field, Vanney said, could easily have unfolded differently. Vasquez was stoned on a penalty kick attempt early. Things got tight.
“If we score that PK early on, maybe the game opens up a little bit more, maybe something comes out of it, I don’t know,” Vanney said. As it was, the second-half goal by a hobbled Altidore, presumably right before his sprained ankle swelled up like a balloon, was enough for a 1-0 aggregate win. It wasn’t the 4-0 one-game shellings that TFC was routinely offering three months ago, but it was enough to advance. Which is the point, after all.
“The priorities shift to whatever helps you win,” Vanney said. And Toronto’s opposition, more than aware of the team’s league-leading 74 goals in the regular season, took cautious approaches, although different approaches. As Morrow put it, Columbus was a chess match, “and New York was a brawl.”
But all that said, Toronto learned last year that they do not want to leave themselves to the coin flip of a penalty shootout, and so on Saturday afternoon goals should be the, um, goal.
“I sure hope so,” Moor said of the prospect of this MLS Cup final containing some actual scoring. “I know y’all hope so.”
But, then: “Cup finals are usually cagey,” Moor said. “No one wants to make the big mistake.”
“But if it does open up, I think that tilts the bar our way.”
And that is probably the challenge. Toronto scored 22 more goals that Seattle in the regular season and conceded two fewer. Given TFC’s many offensive weapons, with the sublime play of Vasquez added to the Giovinco-Altidore tandem, why wouldn’t Seattle seek to huddle behind the ball, do everything to keep the ball out of their net, and hope for a break in the eventual shootout? It worked for them a year ago at BMO Field. That team can park the hell out of the proverbial bus.
In which case, it will be up to TFC to keep it from coming to that. The defenders, and the coach, talked on Wednesday of the pride that this team takes in its defensive responsibility. “It’s a collective mentality to protect and defend our goal,” Vanney said, noting that that Toronto had blanked Columbus in their two semi-final games. That’s not nothing. His squad could have become frustrated with the lack of scoring and become sloppy in pursuit of goals. That way lies danger and regret.
Moor said TFC’s foundation was its organization at the back. Morrow said their defensive success was a mentality thing, not just shape and organization. He noted that for all of TFC’s star power, players are willing to make the responsible play first. “It’s selfless plays,” Morrow said.
And yet at some point, if they want to avoid the cruel fate of spot kicks, one of those players may have to decide to be selfish.
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