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Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley is calling on fans to' keep the faith despite the MLS team's troubles this season.
After finishing second in the Supporters' Shield race last year, Toronto (1-6-2) is mired in a four-game losing streak, winless in five (4-0-1) and languishes in 26th place in the 27-team league. Its record in all competitions this season is 2-8-3.
Toronto, which conceded late goals in recent 3-2 losses to Orlando City and Nashville SC, looks to pull out of its nosedive on Saturday against FC Cincinnati (2-5-1) at Orlando's Exploria Stadium.
"Nobody here is happy or satisfied with how things are going right now," Bradley said Friday. "Nobody is ready to write anything off. But the reality is that it's a new team, it's a new group coming together. Circumstances have made it a little bit more challenging, for sure, but we are going to get things going.
"I think the team and the club has earned the respect and the pride of our fans over the last five, six, seven years. And so I get it. Nobody likes or is happy with the results right now. And we feel that part as well. But whether we're in Orlando or Hartford or Toronto, we need our fans to stay close with us, because we're going to get this thing right. We're going to continue to push forward in a strong way, and that's that."
While the standings say otherwise, it has not all been doom and gloom. Toronto has played some good football in stretches, only to shoot itself in the foot.
After conceding twice in the first eight minutes against Orlando last Saturday, Toronto fought back and tied the game before conceding an 84th-minute winner. It scored first against Nashville mid-week, then pulled ahead 2-1 in the 81st minute on a Patrick Mullins goal — only to concede goals in the 83rd and 92nd minute.
"We continue to feel like there are a lot of good things. But we have to now find the ways to reward ourselves," said Bradley. "We have to find ways to take the good moments, all the positive things that we feel good about and make them count for more."
And while the team is reluctant to lean on excuses, the pandemic has taken its toll on the group.
It had to endure a COVID-19 outbreak — goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, his wife and their four kids all contracted the virus. among others — during training camp. Pandemic-related travel restrictions forced the team to set up shop in Florida. The club is still getting used to new coach Chris Armas' aggressive pressing style of play. And it has missed top players through injuries and other reasons.
"Nothing has been easy for anybody in the last 18 months," said Bradley. "We've tried our hardest to still be a team that, with everything going on, can step on the field, can play in a way that makes the people who watch us back home proud. I think over the last five, six, seven years we've been able to do that on a lot of days. Maybe not every one, but on a lot of them."
Toronto, which has played its last 24 league games on the road since its last match at BMO Field on Sept. 1, 2020, is off to the second-worst start in club history with five points through nine matches. The only worse opening was 2012 when the team lost nine straight.
Armas remains optimistic.
"We're not harping on negativity. We're not harping on where we are in the standings," he said. "We're looking forward, three points at a time."
Sorting out the defence is key. Toronto has given up a league-worst 18 goals and ranks 26th in the 27-team league, conceding an average of 2.00 goals a game. Only Cincinnati, at 2.13, leaks more goals a game.
Cincinnati is tied with Vancouver and Inter Miami for 23rd in the league in scoring, averaging 0.89 goals a game.
Toronto may be without Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, who was substituted at halftime mid-week because of hamstring tightness.
"He's got just this small soft tissue thing brewing." said Armas, who was awaiting word from his medical team.
"We as a club will be smart how we use him this weekend, if at all," he added. "We've just got to see because we can't afford to lose him for extended time."
Armas said midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who also left the Nashville game early due to hamstring tightness, is good to go.
While Toronto has won all three previous encounters with Cincinnati, the third-year team has been making strides of late after opening the season winless in four games (0-3-1). Cincinnati has gone 2-2-0 since and won back-to-back away matches for the first time in club history, dispatching the Fire 1-0 in Chicago on Wednesday and CF Montreal 2-1 on May 22 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The six points earned on the road come after collecting just five in its previous 15 away games (1-12-2). Cincinnati was 4-21-3 on the road in its first two seasons.
"They're a team that can give trouble … They're organized defensively and they become a really dangerous team in transition," said Armas.
In other injury news, Armas says Venezuelan winger Erickson Gallardo is healthy again. He has been absent since April 7 when he was injured in TFC's first outing, a 1-1 draw with Mexico's Club Leon in Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League play.
Gallardo, while training with the first team, is currently on loan to Toronto FC 2. GM Ali Curtis said the move was to give him games. Armas suggested it had to do with roster compliance.
Fellow Venezuelan Yeferson Soteldo, who had been nursing a hamstring injury, is also healthy again and has joined Venezuela at the Copa America, according to Armas. The 23-year-old designated player has missed Toronto's last three games.
Venezuela (0-2-1) is currently at the bottom of the five-country Group B at the South American tournament. It finishes group play Sunday against Peru.
FC CINCINNATI (2-5-1) AT TORONTO FC (1-6-2)
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET at Exploria Stadium, Orlando.
LOSING STREAK: Toronto has lost four straight for the first time since 2015. The club has not lost five in a row since April-May 2013.
FORMER RED: Defender Nick Hagglund, in his third season with Cincinnati, has appeared in six games this season, including three starts. He spent five seasons with Toronto before joining his hometown club and is tied with Chris Mavinga for ninth on the club's all-time appearances list with 115 in all competitions.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press