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Toronto FC goalkeeper Joe Bendik feels pain of MLS team's current slide

09/12/2014 11:31 EDT | Updated 11/12/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Believers in the theory of spontaneous human combustion may want to keep a close eye on Joe Bendik in the coming weeks. More than once this season, the Toronto FC goalie has looked like his head might explode.

Playing behind a chop-and-change backline, the 25-year-old 'keeper has received scant protection. When he picks the ball out of his goal, Bendik's raw emotion is unmistakable.

And there has been plenty to lament of late.

Toronto (9-11-6) is winless in five games and has lost three straight while being outscored 6-0. The team has won just three of its last 15 matches (3-7-5), dropping 31 of a possible 45 points along the way.

Last weekend alone, Toronto fell to seventh from fourth in the Eastern Conference, slipping outside the playoff ranks.

Toronto looks to stop the slide Saturday night in Chicago when it takes on the Fire, who at 5-7-14 is just four points behind. A Toronto loss combined with a Houston win over Columbus could see TFC fall to eighth.

Other than wearing his heart on a lime-green or baby-blue sleeve, Bendik has not complained about his lot. But his new manager feels his pain.

"I do. I sympathize with all the defenders to be honest," said Greg Vanney.

A former MLS all-star defender, Vanney took over from the fired Ryan Nelsen — a former English Premier League centre back — two games ago and has been working hard to shore up an injury-plagued defence that has to replay on players out of their position or comfort zone.

"We're always reactive, we're always late to things," said Vanney, who has been working on the spacing between the back four and midfield to avoid such a disconnect.

"I think that will help Joe and then it gives Joe some clarity as to what he's communicating to the guys in front of him as well, so that we're all on the same page," Vanney added.

"But yeah it's never fun to be the goalkeeper who has to come up with some big saves that keep you around. I think every goalkeeper is probably going to have to come up with one or two saves in a match, but it can't be much more than that or else you're giving away far too many chances."

Bendik has done his bit to keep the scoreline down in recent weeks with a string of acrobatic stops. He was up for MLS save of the week for his one-handed stop on Philadelphia's Sebastien Le Toux.

"It's difficult when you don't have your whole strongest backline but at the same time you want guys to step in and really step up and be the guy that we can turn to," Bendik said. "In key moments in games, we've failed to do that and it's really hurt us."

The Georgia native is a hard read. While totally at ease helping kids at a soccer camp, he's not one to trade idle chit-chat with reporters. He acknowledges only that it has been a "difficult" few weeks. But like his teammates, he remains positive.

"We can still easily make the playoffs," he said this week. "Especially with the coaching transition, these next games — now that we've had a full week to prepare for a game — are the most important."

It has not been the season Bendik expected, after winning the starting job from Stefan Frei (now with Seattle) in 2013. That performance, in his first year in Toronto since coming over in a December 2012 trade from Portland, earned him a new deal worth US$147,375, more than triple what he made in 2013.

Instead of starting the season as No. 1, Bendik found himself backing up Julio Cesar as the Brazilian star, out at favour at England's Queens Park Rangers, came to Toronto on loan in search of playing time ahead of the World Cup.

"A hit to my pride today but luckily I've got tons of it! Going to take in everything I can from a top shelf gk (goalkeeper) to better my abilities," Bendik tweeted in February — minus a profanity — after the Cesar signing.

"It was a pill to swallow. It was a big one and I wasn't sure how I was going to react to it," he elaborated later on Episode 6 of "All for One," Toronto FC's in-house televised season diary. "Honestly, I really wasn't sure."

Quizzed about Cesar's arrival by a kid at a Toronto FC camp, Bendik said: "I was happy, also mad though. Because I wanted to play."

Instead of resenting Cesar as an interloper, Bendik found a friend in the personable Brazilian.

"It really helped Julio being here because you can talk about it and you can do this and that and everything else, but when you actually see somebody doing it the class of Julio, the way he would pass the ball out and stuff like that, it was great to see that up close," goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr said in an interview just days before he and four other Toronto assistant coaches were fired with Nelsen.

Cesar was a walking encyclopedia, not just about goalkeeping but also the ins and outs of the business of soccer at the highest level. Bendik soaked it up.

Today he sees Cesar's arrival at the club as a blessing for himself and fellow goalies Chris Konopka and Quillan Roberts.

"Going into this year, I pretty much knew I was going to be the starter," Bendik said. "And to me, that kind of worried me just because I like to be pushed and tested every day. Last year when Stef was here and we were battling back and forth just to keep the spot every day, very game, it pushed me along very far.

"Had Julio not come, I think it would have been me on my own, and just Q and Chris . . . But when Julio came along, he pushed all three of us. I think that was really important for my development."

When it came time for the team to give Cesar a farewell gift before the World Cup, Bendik was the one that presented it in the locker-room.

The Cesar era essentially became a two-month training camp for Bendik, who watched the first seven games from the bench. Saturday marks Bendik's 20th league game of the season since Cesar's departure.

Bendik tries to stay in touch with the Brazilian, usually by text.

"It's difficult to keep in contact when a guy like that is travelling all over the world," he said. "But yeah, he did really good things for me. (I'm) just trying to remember them each day in training and play."

One of Cesar's messages was that elite goalies must have short memories, so as not to let mistakes rankle.

"I'm very good at letting them go. It's a matter of not letting them happen," Bendik said with a laugh. "Every goalkeeper knows that you need to have a short memory, but at the same time some things that happen you really need to break them down and push yourselves to get better at them."

Nelsen, who played with more than a few goalies, says they come in all types.

"I've come across goalies, international goalies that are so insecure you couldn't say boo to a goose. But some are really strong and stubborn," the former New Zealand international reflected while still on the Toronto FC job.

Early in his development as a goalie, Bendik seems somewhere in the middle. Off the pitch, he carried himself with a bit of a swagger — as if he just walked off the set of a western. During games, his emotions are plain to see.

How long does it take to process a game, he is asked?

"You think about it the whole time until you start practice for the new week," he said. "After any game, especially if you don't win, you get with your teammates and try to just talk through whatever it is, and break down the things that happen that cause you to tie or to lose.

"When you win, it's pretty easy, you just put a smile on your face."

Asked last month about the defensive games he was proud of, Bendik essentially said he could count them on one hand.

Kerr's message to Bendik was to keep things in perspective.

"There are some things that happen in a game that you've got no control over," he said. "And what happens is you start looking for things that aren't there, you're hard on yourself and you start doubting yourself a little bit."

Toronto has had more than its share of such moments. Having conceded 42 goals in 26 games, the team stands 14th in the 19-squad league at 1.62 goals-against per outing.

Bendik's goals-against average of 1.74 is tied for 18th among goalies who have played at least 700 minutes.

Kerr, who has since given way to goalie coach Jon Conway, was proud of his star pupil, saying he would not exchange him with any other goalie in the league.

Bendik has improved his distribution and decision-making, said Kerr. And his shot-stopping skills are razor-sharp.

"If you look at the goals that go in, very few are his fault. Very, very few," said Kerr.

NOTES — Chicago lost sniper Mike Magee, tied with former Toronto FC forward Quincy Amarikwa for the team lead in goals with seven, to season-ending hip surgery Monday. The Fire has signed veteran French forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle to help up front.

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