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Depleted Toronto FC heads to Charlotte, looking to reboot after back-to-back losses

Back-to-back losses to Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver along with a growing injury list have brought Toronto FC back to earth after an impressive 3-1-1 start to the MLS season.

Coach John Herdman is calling for bravery and patience from his depleted squad as it looks to end the slide at Charlotte FC on Saturday.

But what Toronto (3-3-1) needs most is time.

Time to get healthy and time to mature under the former Canada coach.

"We're still building as a team," said Herdman. "This a group that has gone from bottom of the league to be within two points of second place … We haven't been able to get a consistent cohesive lineup where you're getting the same guys consistently in positions that matter."

The visit to Bank of America Stadium marks TFC's fifth road game in eight matches — and its second outing against Charlotte.

Toronto edged Charlotte 1-0 in its home opener March 9 at BMO Field, thanks to a highlight-reel strike from Lorenzo Insigne from distance in the 80th minute. It was later judged goal of the week.

That win improved TFC's record to 2-0-1. But Herdman's club has gone 1-3-0 since, including a humbling 4-0 defeat at Vancouver last Saturday.

"We've self-destructed twice now in the last two games, where we just haven't shown that patience and control in a moment where one goal changes the game," said Herdman.

Toronto, outscored 7-1 in the two recent losses, enters weekend play in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte (2-3-2) is two points below in ninth place.

While Charlotte has yet to win on the road this season at 0-3-1, it is 2-0-1 at home where its average attendance this season is 30,778 — second only to Atlanta's 50,961.

Toronto ranks third at 25,498, just above Vancouver at 25,293. (The Whitecaps announced Thursday they had sold out their season memberships at more than 16,000). Montreal has yet to play at home this season.

Charlotte has gone 1-2-1 since the first meeting with Toronto, losing 1-0 at New England last time out.

Scoring has been an issue for both teams, with just six goals in seven games — an average of 0.86 that leaves the two tied for 25th in offence. Vancouver tops the league, averaging 2.33 goals a game.

Charlotte's six goals have come from six different players with Argentina forward Enzo Copetti, a designated player, yet to score in five appearances.

"If we weren't creating chances, that's when you start worrying," said English midfielder Ashley Westwood, the Charlotte captain. "We're creating good chances. It's down to us to work hard in training and to put it right."

"The minute one goes in, they'll be like London buses, they'll all be coming at once … We believe in there we're going to hit someone for six soon. And I've said that to the lads," he added. "We're very close to being a real real good team. And that's just the final part. And that's why the best strikers in the world get paid the most money because that's the hardest job in football.'

With the primary transfer window closing April 23, Toronto continues its search for a centre forward to complement Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.

"We're pushing, absolutely pushing ," said Herdman. "We've got a pot of money that we've accumulated. That pot of money is maybe not enough to get what we need in. And we're still looking at assessing what might need to go out."

But the club will wait for the right piece, he added.

"We can't Band-Aid this and we can't just panic-buy," said Herdman. "I'd rather just be patient and see what comes up in the summer (transfer) window. And I know that will kill the fans. But it also kills the fans when a guy comes in and they just feel like there's been no uplift."

Defence has been far better for both teams with Charlotte third in the league, conceding 0.86 goals a game on average. Toronto's numbers slipped after the Vancouver defeat with Herdman's side 12th, giving up 1.29 goals a game.

Toronto is without the injured Insigne, Richie Laryea, Brandon Servania, Shane O'Neill and Raoul Petretta, with a question mark over Tyrese Spicer. The rookie wingback was to see a foot specialist Thursday over a toe injury.

On the plus side, centre back Nicksoen Gomis returned to action in Vancouver, wearing a cast to protect his surgically repaired wrist.

Toronto will likely get its first look at Charlotte's recently acquired Israeli international winger Liel Abada. Coach Dean Smith has a choice at forward with Copetti and six-foot-four Patrick Agyemang both healthy.

"I want it to be a competitive battle," Smith said of his starting striker.

Charlotte is without defender Nate Byrne and midfielder Ben Bender while midfielder Andrew Privett is doubtful with a hamstring issue.

Herdman calls Charlotte a "very well-organized unit."

"The tightest team in MLS … They're front to back. It's direct football," he said.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press