COLUMBUS, Ohio - Toronto FC, the worst team in MLS, staggered to the finish line of its worst-ever season Sunday with yet another loss.
Two goals by Argentina striker Federico Higuain, including a 62nd-minute penalty winner, gave the Columbus Crew a sloppy 2-1 victory over Toronto, extending TFC's winless streak to 14 on a raw, wet Fan Appreciation Day at Crew Stadium.
The game meant nothing to either team and despite the announced crowd of 15,672 fans, the empty seats in the rain-drenched stands showed it.
Columbus (15-12-7) was eliminated from playoff contention last weekend.
Toronto (5-21-8) limps into an off-season that should see massive change. Fans will wonder if this badly broken franchise can ever get it right after six straight years of failure.
Manager Paul Mariner said the rebuilding begins now, with a European scouting trip planned for Tuesday after the club's end-of-season media availability.
"As far as I'm concerned, my new season starts now," he said.
He maintains that there is a good foundation, once his roster finally gets healthy.
"If you look at the quality we've got on the treatment table, and you add four or five players to those, then that's a big overhaul," he said.
In 2012, Toronto FC posted franchise worsts for wins (five), losses (21), points (23), goals against (62) and winless string (14). It has not won since July 18, a 2-1 decision over Colorado.
It's yet another shocking return for a team that seemingly has it all, from a well-heeled ownership group to a brand new $21-million practice facility that is the envy of the league.
This season's storyline is one of injuries and lack of quality. The few good players got injured. The rest weren't good enough.
"I think that's a little harsh," said Mariner, citing the double-edged sword of having to go with youth in the absence of injured veterans.
Richard Eckersley did not hide his irritation at both Sunday's result and the season, citing "silly goals and silly mistakes."
The English defender showed a passion that did not seem visible elsewhere in the dressing room.
"I'll be thinking of it throughout the off-season," he said of the dismal campaign. "I think every player in here should as well, review the season personally. Because as a team, it wasn't good enough.
"We need to change our mentality . . Some games lacked passion," he added. "To win games and get results, you need eight, nine players giving everything they've got on the pitch, leaving everything out there. If you have that, then you've got a fighting chance. It's a doubt whether we have that or not.
"People want to concentrate on the next game. Like I said, what about this game? It's important."
A season that started with a league-record nine straight losses ended with an 0-10-4 run, tied for third-worst winless streak in the MLS record book. The record is 18, set by Real Salt Lake in 2005-06.
It took Toronto 34 games to win five games. Sporting Kansas City matched that win total in its first five games and they did it by mid-April.
The league low for single-season wins is four, set by the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny (4-21-2) and 2005 Chivas USA (4-22-6). Toronto joins four other teams on five-win seasons.
For the record, Toronto beat Philadelphia, Montreal, Vancouver, New England and Colorado this season. Only Vancouver made the playoffs.
Midfielder Terry Dunfield, named by team officials as TFC's MVP this season, says there is some relief that the year is over.
"A lot of difficult results. If you've watched us closely, we've played some good stuff," he said. "Today was probably a good example of it. At times we outplayed Columbus and again we get beat."
Toronto started promisingly but Columbus gradually began to take the upper hand, slicing away at the visitors' defence. Toronto had its chances through set pieces but failed to show any teeth up front.
Higuain opened the scoring in the 17th minute, taking advantage of a fortuitous bounce and then freezing the Toronto defence with a nice cutback before stroking in a left-footed shot.
Andrew Wiedeman tied it up in the 27th, collecting a Ryan Johnson header and outmuscling a defender before slotting a right-footed shot home for his second career goal. The score was Toronto's first in October, in the club's fourth match in all competitions.
The team had not scored since a Johnson goal Sept. 29 in a 4-1 loss at the New York Red Bulls.
That made for a 291-minute scoring drought in the league, a bookend to the 296-minute scoreless run that started in the second half of Toronto's season opener in Seattle.
Higuain made it 2-1 from the penalty spot after Dunfield pulled him down. Toronto finished with central defender Adrian Cann playing forward after an injured Johnson was substituted.
There is a depressing symmetry to Toronto's MLS track record.
It started with six wins in its 2007 expansion year followed by nine, 10, nine, six and now five. It has finished seventh (last), seventh (last), fifth, fifth, eighth and 10th (last) in the Eastern Conference
Owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has somehow managed to squander what once seemed like an endless supply of fan enthusiasm. BMO Field used to be a rocking, raucous soccer home complete with streamers. Now it is no-frills, no-atmosphere venue.
Once the blueprint for the in-game experience, Toronto now ranks 10th in the league in attendance at 18,155 per game and plenty of ticket-holders have been staying home this season.
MLSE thought it had found a solution when it hired Aron Winter with his "Total Football" plan prior to the 2011 campaign. But the former Dutch international exited in June after managing a 7-22-15 record in one-and-a-half seasons.
Mariner, the club's director of player development, was named as the team's seventh manager. The former England international forward, an old-school footballer whose easy-going approach was welcomed by his players after Winter's micro-managing, finishes the season with a record of 4-12-8.
Mariner was bedevilled by long-term injuries to key players (goalie Stefan Frei and designated players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans) and a lack of quality in the rest of the roster.
Striker Eric Hassli, brought in as a third designated player in July, was in and out of the lineup due to injury.
"I wouldn't say we've been lucky this season," Dunfield said dryly.
TFC has a lot of money tied up in Frings and Koevermans, who at 35 and 33 face long roads in coming from hip and knee surgery, respectively. Add in Hassli and the trio of DPs earned US$4.77 million between them this season.
"The DPs that we've got are real quality," said Eckersley. "If we get them fit and really athletic, then I think we've got a fighting chance."
Frings was injured in the season opener. He came back, but was unable to stay healthy and was eventually shut down in late August in advance of surgery.
Mariner asked for commitment, hard work and some pride in the jersey. The reaction seemed not entirely to his liking in some quarters.
The bright points are few and far between in a season that had further reduced Toronto FC's reputation.
Koevermans started slowly before going on a tear, averaging 0.68 goals per 90 minutes. He scored nine goals in 16 games (12 starts) before ripping up his knee. Frings, when healthy, was a calming influence but is visibly slowing.
The CONCACAF Champions League offered some cause for celebration to open the season when Toronto eliminated MLS champion Los Angeles in the quarter-finals before losing 7-3 on aggregate to Mexico's Santos Laguna in the semifinals.
Toronto also won the four-team Amway Canadian Championship.
Eckersley gave it his all throughout the season, playing out of position at centre back. Irish international Darren O'Dea helped organize a shoddy defence. Rookie Luis Silva showed attacking flair. Dunfield provided graft in midfield and 21-year-old Ashton Morgan blossomed at fullback. Johnson put in an admirable shift all year, with little to see for it.