The door will likely slam this weekend on Toronto FC's faint post-season hopes. But the rebuilding continues at TFC.
Thirteenth-place Toronto (9-15-7, 34 points) visits fifth-place Orlando City (12-12-6, 42 points) on Saturday, with TFC sitting six places and seven points out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and only nine points left on the table from its three remaining regular-season games.
A win by seventh-place Columbus or a Toronto loss are high among the scenarios that would finish off TFC's slim hopes. A Toronto tie could also spell the end.
Toronto coach Bob Bradley sees the bigger picture.
"We understand the steps and the work to become a really good team," said Bradley, wrapping his knuckles on the desk in front of him to emphasize the point. "It doesn't start at the beginning of pre-season and then end at some point when it's either not going your way or you're out of contention or whatever. Even on the last whistle of the season. It's a continuation of work, of building a roster, of trying to make guys better.
"There's been a lot of work that's gone into it," he added. "It's been challenging but eventually it's going to get us somewhere. It's just that it doesn't always go as fast as anybody wants."
There was a procession out the door after Toronto went a dismal 6-18-10 last season in finishing 26th overall in the then-27-team league, with 21 players moving on or retiring. Key additions like Italians Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Criscito as well as Canadians Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea and Doneil Henry arrived mid-season.
Toronto made another investment in the future this week, signing 18-year-old forward Hugo Mbongue to a homegrown contract. Mbongue, the younger brother of former TFC midfielder Ralph Priso, becomes the 31st player in club history to sign for the first team from the academy.
And he is the 11th homegrown player — 13 if you include winger Jacob Shaffelburg and defender Luke Singh, who are currently out on loan to Nashville SC and FC Edmonton, respectively — on TFC's current first-team roster.
Bradley called Mbongue a "talented, young player" who impressed in pre-season.
Orlando, whose roster includes Canadian forward Tesho Akindele, is one point above the playoff line with four games remaining.
Orlando has lost two straight since beating second-tier Sacramento Republic FC in the final of the U.S. Open Cup, losing 5-1 last weekend at the Philadelphia Union and 1-0 midweek to visiting Atlanta. Orlando had won four straight prior to the Sept. 7 cup final.
"Having lost two games in a row, we have to expect them to really focus on the importance of this game at home," said Bradley. "Orlando is always well organized, a physically strong team. A mix of talents — different-type players, different backgrounds — but a solid, organized always tough opponent."
Toronto has not travelled well this season, with a poor 2-9-4 record on the road. Orlando, meanwhile, has a league-worst eight losses this season (7-8-0) at Exploria Stadium which TFC called home for a while during the pandemic. Prior to this season, Orlando had lost just eight of its previous 38 league matches (18-8-12) at home dating back to May 2019.
But Orlando is unbeaten in the last five meetings (3-0-2) with Toronto after winning just two of the previous 11 matchups (2-8-1). Orlando prevailed 1-0 when they met July 14 at BMO Field, thanks to a stoppage-time header by substitute Kyle Smith off a corner.
TFC is winless in three games (0-2-1) and has given up four goals in each of its last two outings, beaten 4-3 by visiting Montreal and 4-2 most recently in Atlanta. The game before that was a 2-2 tie with the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy, who secured the point with an 89th-minute goal.
Only three teams in MLS history have conceded four times in three straight games, most recently FC Cincinnati in October 2021.
The loss to Atlanta saw centre back JuanJo Purata score a hat trick, all on headers off corners.
Prior to the recent slide, Toronto had lost just one of its previous seven (4-1-2), a run that coincided with the arrival of Insigne and Bernardeschi.
Bernardeschi (eight goals and three assists), Insigne (six goals, two assists) and Criscito (one goal) have now been involved in 18 of Toronto’s last 22 goals in MLS action, including 12 of the last 14.
Bradley says mistakes and injuries have cost Toronto.
"We've not had the opportunity to have an extended run of games where you feel like, as things are gelling, the same guys are available. That's becomes a factor. And then I would just say, at times, in the wrong moments we've let ourselves down with some mistakes."
Toronto will be without injured defenders Chris Mavinga and Doneil Henry. Influential midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who revealed Thursday he has been dealing with a "neurological dysfunction" since taking an elbow to the head mid-July, is listed as questionable. Osorio has missed the last four games.
Orlando will be missing injured Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato. Midfielder Cesar Araujo and defender Robin Jansson, both starters, are listed as questionable.
Toronto currently stands 24th in the 28-team league and, having conceded 57 goals already, is nine off the franchise-worst of 66 set last season.
TFC wraps up regular-season play Sept. 30 at home to Inter Miami and Oct. 9 away to Philadelphia.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press