The rebuilding job at Toronto FC is going slow, perhaps slower than anyone but coach Bob Bradley expected.
Toronto, which finished 26th last season in the then-27-team league at 6-18-10, currently stands 24th in the 28-team standings at 5-10-4 — two points out of the basement. It has yet to win on the road (0-5-3) in 2022 and has not kept a clean sheet in 27 games, dating back to last September.
Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo now wears Inter Miami colours. Carlos Salcedo, the highest-paid defender in Major League Soccer, exited Tuesday by mutual agreement and is headed back to Mexico to rejoin his family.
Italian star Lorenzo Insigne, the team's lone remaining designated player, has had to put his TFC debut on hold due to a calf injury.
Help is needed.
Winless in three games, Toronto has just two victories in its last 12 league outings (2-8-2) and looks to turn things around Wednesday with a visit to the lowly Chicago Fire (4-10-5).
With some 20 first-team players moving on after last season, Bradley knew a rebuild wasn't going to happen overnight. Fans likely saw things with rosier-coloured glasses, at least for a time, as the veteran coach showcased young Canadian talent like Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Jayden Nelson, Luca Petrasso, Kosi Thompson and Ralph Priso.
Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez also provided reason for optimism with eight goals, turning heads early in the season. But he has not scored in his last seven league outings.
Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio continues to excel.
"On paper the team is already better," he said. "And so because of that the expectations rise. That's normal and I think as it should be.
"But at the same time we know this a process. We're still a new team."
While there have been flashes of effective pressing and dangerous, fast-moving counter-attacks, there have also been missteps and misfortune.
It has proved to be a half-season-long audition with Insigne, fellow Italian Domenico Criscito and Canadian Mark-Anthony Kaye coming in during the league's secondary transfer window. Their presence has yet to be felt, although the 35-year-old Criscito looked impressive at left back in his debut on the weekend, and more additions are expected.
“The first half of the season was always going to be (an) opportunity for young players, which has been the case," Bradley said recently. "And we've seen some good things, we've seen some things that still need improvement. That's normal.
"And then from there, we assess and look at options and figure out how we want to move forward.”
Bradley enjoys working with young talent. But he is also realistic.
In sending the highly promising 19-tear-old Priso to Colorado in the trade package that netted the 27-year-old Kaye, Bradley said the Kaye-Priso equation was simple.
"I think at this point, Mark is far ahead of where Ralph is," said Bradley. "I think Ralph is a good, young player.
"With all our young players, there's talent, there are good guys. But then there's the process of growing in a team and becoming guys that can be counted on."
Chicago, which occupies the league basement, has its own problems.
The Fire blew a 2-0 lead on the weekend, eventually losing 3-2 on a late goal by visiting Columbus. It marked Chicago's ninth loss in its last 12 MLS matches (2-9-1).
"A tough game, as always," said Osorio. "This is a team that I think is going into this game trying to bounce back from a bad loss at home … This is a big game for them, as it for us."
Chicago coach Ezra Hendrickson didn't mince words after the latest loss.
"We didn't fight in the second half at all, you know. We just laid down and let them pass right through us, run by us, don’t run at them with our guys," he said. "And when you do that, teams punish you.
"But, absolutely no excuse to lose again at home like that, up 2-0 at halftime and all you have to do now is just manage the game; make sure the team doesn't score and you win the game. But they came at us, punched and we didn't punch back and, you know, they got the victory.”
Toronto suffered similar late pain last Saturday, settling for a 2-2 tie with San Jose after conceding a stoppage-time goal that negated a two-goal TFC comeback.
"At the end when everything requires that extra little bit of concentration, that extra little bit of knowing what every moment's about, you've got to have everybody understand that," said Bradley. "Even if you have a large percentage of the guys on the field at that moment who understand it, if a couple don't, then you can still pay the price."
Toronto defeated Chicago 3-2 on May 28, extending its unbeaten run against the Fire to 14 games (11-0-3) dating back to September 2015. No MLS team has ever gone 15 straight regular-season meetings against a single opponent without losing.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press