As Toronto FC's Titanic-like 2023 season nears an end, the talk is of professionalism.
Languishing in 15th and last place in the Eastern Conference and escaping the MLS basement only on goal difference from Colorado (minus-21 compared to the Rapids' minus-23 although Colorado has a game in hand), Toronto (4-15-10) is playing for pride and — in some cases — jobs.
"We spoke (Thursday) about going out and being professional," said interim coach Terry Dunfield.
"I think it's a fine balance," he added. "When it's difficult, it's important to try to remain positive and show some of our best practices. But also to not hide from some of the permissiveness when things do become difficult. So we're trying to find that sweet spot."
There have been instances where the team has looked anything but professional.
Lorenzo Insigne, for one, has exhibited horrible body language at times. He has lost the ball and opted for a stationary show of frustration rather than chasing back to correct his error. Fellow Italian star Federico Bernardeschi has also chosen to conserve his energy, to put it politely, on occasion.
Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio downplayed the toll of such a challenging season, saying the players are fortunate to have the jobs they have.
"When things go bad is when you have to really show your character," he said. "And, for me, you have to stay professional. It's that simple.
"That doesn't mean that you're smiling every day and acting like things aren't the way they are. Acting professional is just being there for your teammates and doing what's asked of you on the pitch. And doing things off the pitch that you need to do to be ready. It's not giving up on the team. Those things are what, I think, Terry is talking about. And for me those little things should not be hard."
What is hard, he added, is to "stay strong mentally" in games when things keep going wrong.
"Which has been tough for this team this year," said Osorio. "When we get a punch we find it very hard to recover from that."
Toronto has five games remaining, starting with Wednesday's matchup with New York City FC (7-10-13) at Red Bull Arena where NYCFC humbled TFC 5-0 in Leagues Cup play in late July.
Three of the remaining games come in October, with former Canada coach John Herdman slated to take charge on Oct. 1.
A loss or tie Saturday and TFC, which goes into weekend play 14 points below the playoff line, will be officially eliminated from playoff contention. Toronto could also be eliminated with a win depending on results elsewhere.
Coming off a 4-0 midweek loss at Inter Miami, Toronto has won just one of its last 16 games (1-12-3) in all competitions. TFC is the only team in the league yet to win on the road this season with an 0-10-4 record away from home.
Toronto is looking to snap an 18-game away winless streak (0-14-4) in all competitions. TFC has been outscored 21-1 in losing its last seven road games. Its last win away from BMO Field was Aug. 27, 2022, in Charlotte.
Still, NYCFC is not taking Toronto lightly, even if that declaration comes in the form of faint praise.
"Yeah, OK, they're bottom of our league and they haven't won many football games. But this team beat Philadelphia (three) games ago, who are consistently a team that wins," said New York coach Nick Cushing. "So this team can win football games … They have good players, and the opportunity to win when you have good players is always there."
Toronto midfielders Victor Vazquez and Brandon Servania both left the loss to Miami with lower body injuries. Dunfield confirmed both had MRIs on Thursday with Servania's result still under analysis. Vazquez is questionable for Saturday.
"I expect some rotation in the team. Not so much but I think there's some opportunity for some guys who maybe haven't seen the field lately," said Cushing, citing Brazilian forward Talles Magno as a possible starter.
New York will also be without midfielder Richard Ledezma, who was handed a one-game ban and an undisclosed fine Friday by the MLS disciplinary committee for spitting at an Orlando player midweek. The incident went unseen by the on-field officials.
Champion in 2021, NYCFC has struggled this year after the departure of top talent like Taty Castellanos, Nicolas Acevedo, Alexander Callens, Anton Tinnerholm, Brazil's Heber and goalkeeper Sean Johnson (who signed with Toronto as a free agent).
The New Yorkers go into weekend play in 10th place in the East, two points out of the last playoff wild-card berth, with just four regular-season games remaining. And Chicago and Charlotte are just one point behind with games in hand.
"We know that we are playing playoff football. And we have to have the mentality that it's 'Win and in,'" said Cushing. "We don't win and it's going to be incredibly difficult."
There have been more signs of life recently with New York unbeaten in its last four games (2-0-2) after winning just two of its previous 21 outings (2-11-8) in all competitions. That slide started with a 1-0 loss in Toronto on April 29.
Algerian forward Mounsef Bakrar has three goals in the last four games.
NYCFC has had success against Canadian opposition, with three of its four wins since late April coming against Canadian teams including the Leagues Cup demolition of Toronto.
Santi Rodriguez, 23, has pulled the strings in the New York midfield.
According to the league, the Uruguayan young designated player created five chances for his teammates in the 2-0 midweek win over visiting Orlando. That brings his season total to 54, 20 more than any other NYCFC player.
Toronto elected to remain in Miami after Wednesday's game, flying to New York on Friday.
"There was lots of friends and family around the team for the game on Wednesday night. That was a special occasion," said Dunfield. "But then there was some heaviness after the game. Again it felt like Groundhog Day where within the 90 minutes there was a good performance for a long spell and then it got away from us.
"So we've been working hard since the game to clear the heaviness, live in our processes and get ready for New York."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press