SPORTS

Toronto FC looks for first MLS win of season, hopes to avoid record book

05/04/2012 01:37 EDT | Updated 07/04/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - The storyline for Toronto FC's game Saturday with D.C. United is simple.

A Toronto loss and the 1999 Kansas City Wizards are off the hook for the worst start to a season in MLS history (0-7-0). That albatross will be Toronto's alone, a bad news bookend for a franchise yet to see the post-season.

Toronto coach Aron Winter and his players have been answering the same questions week after week, with only the number of losses changing.

Does the record weigh on your mind?

"Massively," said Richard Ecklersley, the latest defender to be dropped by Winter in his bid to solve a porous backline that has given up a league-worst 16 goals.

"Like I said last week I can feel it all the time. Everyone's got pride on the team so everyone wants to do well and to push up this (league) table. I believe we can do it. I've said it a million times. And hopefully we can do it (Saturday)."

Like the questions, the answers have been the same.

"I think we are close to getting three points. We deserve it," said Toronto captain Torsten Frings.

"You could see it in Salt Lake, we played well," he added, referring to a 3-2 loss last weekend that hinged on a stoppage-time goal.

"We fought for every metre. I think we deserved more."

Added Eckersley: "I still don't believe we're an 0-7 team."

The Toronto mantra this weekend is the somewhat unfortunate "keep the zero," as in not give up any goals.

Winter's squad managed to do that in a drab 0-0 Amway Canadian Championship road draw with the Montreal Impact on Wednesday. But Toronto's defending in the league has been horrid this season.

Saturday's subplot could be one of revenge. D.C. United's potent offence features two former Toronto captains in Dwayne De Rosario and Maicon Santos.

With six league goals, Santos has many as the entire TFC roster.

"He's been excellent for us," said D.C. United assistant coach Pat Onstad, a former Canadian international goalie. "For Maicon, he's got not only a coaching staff but also a team that really believes in him. And he's the type of guy that when he has that, he really thrives.

De Rosario, last year's league MVP and leading scorer, has two goals and seven assists. He scored a cracker in midweek in a 5-3 loss in San Jose, accelerating like a Ferrari to pounce on a loose ball before rocketing it into the back of the net

"He's starting to definitely round into top form, which is great for us," said Onstad.

Winter was short when asked whether he regretted letting the two players go. "No," he replied.

United has scored 10 times in its last three outings, defeating the Red Bulls 4-1 and Houston 3-2 prior to the loss to the Quakes.

Toronto teammates are no doubt already stepping gingerly around goalkeeper Milos Kocic, whose 2.29 goals-against average is second-worst in the league.

Of the 25 other MLS goalies who have seen action this season, only Portland's Joseph Bendik has a worse goals-against average (7.83) and that's because he gave up two goals in his 23 minutes on the pitch.

Kocic's save percentage (65) is tied for 20th among goalies in the 19-team league.

And the Serbian has played well.

Despite that, it's been a while since Toronto kept the zero in league play.

Toronto's last league shutout was 16 games ago, a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Aug. 13. Toronto, which gave up a league-worst 59 goals last season, is on pace to yield 77 this year.

Winter had his team tighten its tactics in Montreal, playing more compact when not in possession and choosing the right moment to counter-attack.

The Dutch manager's pithy plan is "to start from zero, not give nothing away and (at) the (right) moments, we're going to create, to score, to make goals."

He seemed to suggest that the team may try to return to a more expansive playing system down the line, "but we need those points."

Despite dropping 21 points already this season, Toronto is just seven points back of Columbus and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference.

There could be goals Saturday in spite of Winter's tactics.

The last two league outings for each of Toronto and D.C. United have produced a total of 23 goals.

D.C. United is missing three centre backs (Canadian Dejan Jakovic, Emiliano Dudar and Ethan White) and has given up seven goals in its last two games.

"We know what the weaknesses are," Winter said of the D.C. defence.

Onstad knows Toronto is not to be taken lightly.

"It's going to be a difficult game for us," said Onstad. "At some stage you know they're going to break through. They've been very close in the last few weeks and I think their group, their core group, certainly is ready to go."

Not every Toronto player is losing sleep over possibly making it into the MLS record book.

Frings dismissed such talk, saying it meant nothing to him. And young defender Doneil Henry was quick to urge his teammates to look forward, not back.

"We need to look ahead of us and (Saturday) that's D.C. Yes we have seven losses in the last games but now we have a game to start a new record."

And despite Toronto's woeful record, the team seems to have kept its spirits high.

It wasn't like that in Kansas City in '99, recalled Bob Gansler, who took over the team at 0-7-0 and coached it to the MLS Cup the next year.

"When you're on a downward slide like that, they were totally dispirited," he said.

There are Toronto connections to that Kansas City team. Preki and Mo Johnston played for the '99 Wizards and went on to coach Toronto. And Gansler was an assistant coach with TFC in 2007.

Frings isn't about to let anyone rain on his parade. He doesn't bother reading the newspaper or watching TV to see what people are saying about TFC.

"No, because I've played soccer so long ... all this kind of journalism is not important to me."

"I don't read it, I don't need it," he added.

The 35-year-old midfielder says he has no regrets about coming here.

"I love Toronto and I love the club."

NOTES — Toronto forwards Danny Koervermans (groin) and Nick Soolsma (hip) are questionable for the game ... Toronto captain Torsten Frings says his penalty miss in Real Salt Lake ended a streak of 21 or 22 successful kicks.

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