It was yet another night of lows for Toronto FC, a soccer team consistent over the years only in its mediocrity.
Toronto (5-17-6) went out with a whimper Wednesday night, in a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Fire that was nowhere as close as the score suggests.
In truth, another early exit seemed a foregone conclusion as far back as May when the club lost its ninth straight to open the 2012 campaign. Wednesday's loss extended Toronto's current winless streak to eight (0-6-2) and Paul Mariner's team has not won since July 18, a 2-1 decision over Colorado.
Mariner pointed fingers at everything from fitness to mental fortitude, suggesting that some TFC players were destined only for the exit.
"It's all about analysing what's going to be around next year," said a disgusted Mariner, who called it the low point of his tenure as manager.
The former England international, who succeeded Aron Winter in June, has a weak squad that has been ravaged by injury to key players like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans.
Those given the chance to step up have not grasped the brass ring. Instead they have fumbled it or given it away.
"You can come up with all the excuses in the world — international call-ups, injuries to key players and so on and so forth," Mariner said. "But I was brought up in an environment where you were dying to get your opportunities to play at such a great place as BMO (Field) or Old Trafford or Highbury. And when your chance came, you made sure that you stayed in the team and you made sure that the manager couldn't drop you.
"That simple equation, that simple statement, you can all draw your own conclusions from what you saw tonight."
It does not bode well for Andrew Wiedeman, Logan Emory or Quincy Amirikwa, all substituted by Mariner who changed bodies and formation in a bid to inject some life into his team. But there were plenty of poor performances all round.
"There's one thing that you've got to have in a football team. And that's fight," Mariner continued. "If you don't fight for the right to play, if you're not fighting for your own personal pride first and foremost, then that's a problem."
It was a rare public roasting from Mariner, an old-school footballer who, while not averse to a tongue-lashing, would much rather put an arm around one of his players' shoulder.
But it seems like it's finally time for some tough love.
Toronto, which has six league games remaining this season, has never made it to the playoffs in its six-year existence.
The club has now given up 50 goals this season. And it is a telling 5-73-21 all-time when conceding the first goal.
The only good news is not many fans were on hand to see the latest debacle. There were plenty of empty seats for the 7 p.m. local start with an announced crowd of just 14,623.
Uruguayan midfielder Alvaro Fernandez and veteran Chris Rolfe scored for Chicago (14-8-5), which moved into second place in the East. The Fire have won five of six.
French striker Eric Hassli replied for Toronto in the 79th minute as the home side finally showed some signs of life late in the contest.
Toronto was missing two starters due to international duty: midfielder Terry Dunfield (Canada) and forward Ryan Johnson (Jamaica). Fullback Ashtone Morgan, who did not play for Canada on Tuesday night in Panama, was on the six-man Toronto bench.
Things got so bad that Morgan, who did not get home until 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, was thrown on in the second half.
Mariner did not even speak to his players after the match. But he did decide to replace a scheduled day off Thursday with a practice. Toronto hosts Philadelphia (11-8-15) on Saturday.
The Toronto manager said football players should be striving to climb up the club pecking order, to be the best.
"I don't see that from some of the players at the Toronto football club. And the mentality will change, starting tomorrow morning."
Mariner, perhaps optimistically, maintains that the team is only four new players away from respectability when he has his full squad.
But he raised the possibility that some of his current squad are unable to perform under the scrutiny in a "big-time" city.
"It's a bit of a conundrum to me at the present moment. I know we're (all) cut from different cloth but if I'm playing in front of this crowd, in this city, with the backdrop and all there is, I'd be ripping it up. But that's me."
Mariner also bemoaned that his team tends to play better when it was trailing — when the pressure was off, as he noted.
He pointed to defenders Richard Eckersley and Darren O'Dea as two players who performed OK on the night but it was lukewarm praise.
Milos Kocic returned to the Toronto goal after giving way to Freddy Hall the last four games. Kocic's wife Evelyn gave birth to triplets on Sunday night. Hassli started after being sidelined with a rib injury.
After a dreary opening, Chicago went ahead in the 13th minute on a header by Fernandez. Pavel Pardo sent over the cross after hitting the goalpost on a three-on-one attack in what was not the Toronto defence's finest minute.
The goal, triggered by an Aaron Maund miscue, seem to wake the home side from its stupor, however, and Toronto launched several attacks.
Chicago went ahead in the 42nd minute on a corner after two headed clearances only sent the ball to Rolfe whose shot went through a forest of legs in make it 2-0 after 42 minutes.
"There is absolutely no excuse for that first half," said Mariner, who told his squad at the interval that "we were their (Chicago's) best player."
Hassli finally gave the Toronto fans something to cheer about when he sidefooted the ball in after being sent in alone by Luis Silva.
A subdued O'Dea, nursing a cold and still feeling the effects of a 17-hour trip from Kazakhstan where he played for Ireland during the international break, agreed that the performance was "poor, to say the least."
"It's not good enough," said the Toronto captain. "It's not been good enough for a while."
"Where do you start?" he continued. "I don't know. But we certainly need to get together and figure it out because the run we're on at the minute is so far off anyone's standards, it's incredible."
O'Dea spoke in a largely empty dressing room.
Down the hall, Hassli peered out from the private part of the locker-room. When he saw a clump of reporters, he retreated.Suggest a correction