TORONTO - Ryan Nelsen has been exactly where his players are, with several games to go in a disappointing season and seemingly nothing left to play for.
"You feel like you're in this kind of limbo," said the Toronto FC coach and former longtime defender in England's Premier League. "But in saying that you always take pride in your work and you always take pride in what you do."
Toronto (4-14-11) hosts Sporting Kansas City (13-9-6) on Saturday, the first game since Nelsen's squad was mathematically eliminated from MLS playoff contention, and the first of five games left in yet another season of dashed hopes.
But Nelsen said his players still have something to prove as Toronto's seventh season without a playoff appearance winds down.
"That's the time when everybody is watching and everybody is testing you," Nelsen said. "It's kind of easy to play in front of big crowds or in big games, but the real determining factor is away from home, small crowd, when no-one seems to be watching, that's really the test of character.
"I learn more about them now than when we're right amongst it next year."
Toronto's beleaguered team looks to end a seven-game winless streak Saturday, but Nelsen admitted there is the danger of players losing focus now that any glimmer of post-season hopes has officially been extinguished.
"But I think the players see what's going on, they know what's around the corner and they all want to be a part of it," Nelsen said. "And they know by losing their focus, all that will be a backwards step towards where we want to go."
The team made another major move Friday in hopes of improving its future fortunes, introducing Tim Bezbatchenko as its new general manager.
At the other end of the MLS standings, meanwhile, a victory for Sporting KC will move the club even with the New York Red Bulls at the top of the Eastern Conference. New York plays FC Dallas on Sunday.
Toronto will once again be dealing with injury concerns. Striker Robert Earnshaw will likely sit out the game with a hamstring injury, while midfielder Matias Laba is still out with a fractured big toe.
Dutch forward Danny Koevermans, who has made just one start and four appearances this season as he battles back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, could return to the lineup Saturday.
Koevermans played 70 minutes in a reserve game last weekend, and did "really well," Nelsen said.
"He's been training really well. Hopefully Danny will be right and hopefully we'll see him on Saturday. If Danny Koevermans is fit, he'll be involved," Nelsen said.
The coach is being cautious with Bright Dike, Toronto's newly acquired forward who's still on the mend from knee surgery. Dike played 15 minutes in Toronto's 2-0 loss last week to New York, the match that officially ended the team's playoff hopes.
"I know from a lot of experience with ACL injuries and recoveries, sometimes you can get a bit too greedy with them and this is time not to be greedy," Nelsen said.
Defender Mark Bloom made his debut versus New York and played 90 minutes in place of an injured Richard Eckersley. The 25-year-old right back, who was acquired on loan in July from NASL club Atlanta Silverbacks, wasn't sure if he was in Nelsen's plans for Saturday.
"My job is to make it a hard decision on him," Bloom said. "You play in the lower leagues and the dream is to make that jump to MLS and for me getting this opportunity I feel very blessed to get that call, because not many guys do, even though there is a lot of talent in those leagues. It definitely is a great opportunity for me and I intend to take full advantage of it."
The young defender had a tough task against crafty French striker Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls, but Nelsen was pleased with how Bloom fared in his Toronto debut.
"He's composed, he's a good athlete, he's very comfortable on the ball, he likes to defend, and wants to defend, and wants the ball, and he's an intelligent player as well," Nelsen said. "The more games you get the more confidence you're going to get and the more personality will come out of him as a player.
"Mark did really well in that game, and yeah, it's going to be a really difficult decision obviously because of how well he did and how well Richard's been doing. But it's a great decision to be made, I'd like to have that at every position."