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TORONTO — Officially eliminated from MLS playoff contention, Toronto FC is focused on getting healthy and retooling its game ahead of a Nov. 3 Canadian Championship semifinal with Pacific FC.
"It's been a very difficult year for everybody, for all of us," said Toronto coach Javier Perez, who took over the team July 4 when first-year coach Chris Armas was fired after a 1-8-2 start. "But at the same time, we want to continue to get better."
Toronto (6-16-7) has five regular-season games remaining. Next up is a midweek visit to slumping Inter Miami CF (9-15-5), which has lost six straight since winning 1-0 in Toronto on Sept. 14 — a result that capped an 11-game run that saw Miami go 7-1-3.
Miami has been outscored 16-1 during the current slide. The Florida club has been blanked in its last four outings, all on the road, and has not scored a goal in 386 minutes dating back to a 5-1 defeat Sept. 22 at the hands of Nashville SC. Miami has managed just one shot on target in each of its last two games and has been outshot 64-34 (20-7 in shots on target) over the last four outings.
Coach Phil Neville says his team is creating chances, just not finishing them. More worrying were the breakdowns on defence in Saturday's 4-0 loss to Columbus.
"We still made four individual errors for goals conceded," said the former Manchester United and Everton player. "That for me is a bigger crime than one chance missed … That kills your forward play. That kills the belief of the strikers and the flair players in the team when you concede goals."
He could have been talking about Toronto, which has been hurt this season by giveaways in inopportune time and places. TFC has given up a league-worst 56 goals, which is eight shy of the franchise record of 64 (set in 2018).
With five games remaining, 11th-place Miami stands nine points below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference — and seven points above 13th-place Toronto.
While Miami tanked after the September win over Toronto, TFC went unbeaten in its next five games (4-0-1) in all competitions — a run that was snapped in Saturday's 2-0 loss to visiting Atlanta United, which officially eliminated Toronto from post-season play.
"We have to stay strong," said Perez. "That's what the good teams do. They know how to bounce back right away."
The weekend defeat was an ill-tempered affair that saw Toronto's Brazilian fullback Auro and Atlanta's Ezequiel Barco both sent off in the dying minutes for violent conduct. Both teams have appealed the red cards.
Miami has been short on bodies as well as goals in recent days.
It dressed just six substitutes in the loss at Columbus. Ventura Alvarado, Ian Fray, Joevin Jones, Ryan Shawcross, Nico Figal, Kieran Gibbs and Victor Ulloa were all unavailable.
"It's a tough stretch this, particularly with the roster that we've got available at this moment in time," said Neville. "So what you saw on Saturday is probably what you're going to see on Wednesday night in terms of the permutations and the players available."
It's Miami's first game at home — Fort Lauderdale's DRV Pink Stadium — since the loss to Nashville on Sept. 22.
"It's been a month on the road and that takes its toll," said Neville, who says his team will do its talking on the field in the stretch run.
"What we need to do is mathematically still possible," he added. "My mindset is that we can still do it … We want to make sure we end the season well."
Neville, like most opposition coaches, spoke highly of Toronto despite its position in the standings.
"I look at Toronto's roster and I see a roster with lots of talented players," he said. "I look at the Canadian national team and I see a team that's getting better and better. And I see a lot of those players playing in the Toronto team as well. So I think their position (in the standings) in terms of the quality that they've got is totally false.
"If you think about Toronto next year, they will be fighting for a playoff place or they'll be up at the top end of the table if they make one or two changes. I'm sure of that. because their roster is too good to be at the bottom of the league."
Still Miami has beaten Toronto twice already this season — 3-1 on Aug. 21 in Fort Lauderdale and 1-0 Sept. 14 at BMO Field.
TFC's September loss to Miami was action-packed.
Toronto was reduced to 10 men for almost an hour after defender Kemar Lawrence was sent off, saw an apparent 87th-minute Jacob Shaffelburg goal incorrectly waved off before ultimately falling victim to a 95th-minute Christian Makoun penalty that likely should have been retaken due to encroachment by Miami players.
That result consigned Toronto to a sixth straight defeat while extending its winless run to nine (0-7-2). Miami, meanwhile extended its unbeaten run to six games with four clean sheets.
Both teams have since gone in different directions.
Toronto was able to field all three designated players against Atlanta, with striker Jozy Altidore and Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo returning from lengthy injury absences. Their return should take the load off Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo.
Toronto will be without injured striker Ifunanyachi Achara, who limped off during the Atlanta game. Auro will miss the match through suspension unless he wins the red card appeal.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press