TORONTO - There have been more than few stumbles along the Toronto FC road this season.
But depth in defence seems one of the major miscalculations for an MLS team looking to apply the brakes on a slide that has seen just three wins in its last 14 games (a 3-6-5 run).
Toronto (9-10-6) looks to turn that around Saturday in a rematch with the visiting Philadelphia Union, which won 1-0 Wednesday at PPL Park. It's the second game under new Toronto head coach Greg Vanney.
Former manager Ryan Nelsen believed he had an effective back four with fullbacks Justin Morrow and Mark Bloom flanking captain Steven Caldwell and either Doneil Henry or rookie Nick Hagglund.
Morrow, who can also play centre back, was seen as insurance in the middle. Bradley Orr, a versatile right back, can also slot in at centre back. Also available but apparently not needed were Ashtone Morgan (ignored for all but one minute of the first 23 games) and Ryan Richter (recently recalled from a loan spell with Ottawa Fury FC).
In the first 11 games of the season, Nelsen was able to field a backline featuring Morrow, Caldwell and Bloom in eight contests. Toronto, using just six different players in its back four, went 6-4-1 over that period and gave up 13 goals (1.2 a game) while posting four shutouts.
In the 14 games that followed, the Toronto backline went through nine players with Brazil's Jackson, Warren Creavalle and Morgan drawn into action as Caldwell, Bloom and Morrow all suffered injuries. Jackson and Creavalle, who have also been hurt, are both midfielders who have also played in defence.
Toronto went 3-6-5 and gave up 27 goals (1.9 a game), with just one shutout during that run. It was able to use a back four that featured Morrow, Caldwell and Bloom just five times.
Put it together and Toronto ranks 15th in the 19-team league in goals-against at 1.6 a game.
"The injuries in the back have kind of left us scrambling week in, week out," said Bloom. "I can't say that we don't have players to come in and fill those roles. But it is a bit of a scramble each and every game. So it makes it a little more difficult."
Vanney assembled his team Friday for a video session on defence with the emphasis on collective defending rather than individual moves.
"Aside from that, we try to provide them with leadership and guidance as much as possible," Vanney said. "Short of having Steven Caldwell in there or somebody who can provide that for them these guys are going to have to grow up fast, read the game and manage situations.
"They're doing all right. They'll be fine."
It's not all on the backline. As Nelsen often pointed out, all 11 players need to defend and the former New Zealand international defender lamented more than once the fact that his back four was not getting help from the people in front of it.
Losing striker Jermain Defoe, the club's leading scorer with 11 league goals, to a groin injury has not helped. When the offence stalls, there is more pressure on defence.
Vanney, formerly the team's assistant GM and academy head, said depth at the back has been an issue all season.
"It was a discussion very early in the year and even in pre-season, that when you're assessing everything on your roster, what happens if you lose the veteran guy (Caldwell). Stevie had had a great run, we had some options. You also want to see how your young player develop over course of the year.
"I can't say it's a discussion that never happened. It's ongoing."
There are limited options now if the club wants to add a defender. With the international window closed, help would have to arrive via a player out of contract or an MLS trade.
"We're looking at it. It would take a special, right sort of fit for us to look in that direction," said Vanney.
The good news is the training room is beginning to empty out.
Morrow (hamstring) was back practising this week and could see action Saturday. Creavalle (hamstring) and Jackson (groin) are available for selection.
But Caldwell (quad) will miss the game and midfielder Jonathan Osorio is also a likely spectator. He was slated for a scan Friday after leaving Wednesday's game with tightness in his hamstring.
Toronto stands fourth in the Eastern Conference with 33 points, the same number as fifth-place Columbus and sixth-place Philadelphia. Toronto has a game in hand. The top five teams in the conference make the playoffs
Toronto could drop to sixth if Philadelphia (8-9-9), Columbus (8-9-9) and New York (7-8-10) all win this week.
The message Friday from both Vanney and midfielder Michael Bradley was that, with nine games remaining, there is still everything to play for. But wins are needed and soon if the team is to fulfil MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke's goal of making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
The recent wobbles on that road cost Nelsen and five of his assistants their jobs.
Failure to make the playoffs, with the possibility that Defoe could be out the door in the January transfer window, would make a mockery of all the team's pre-season promises.
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