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Toronto FC heads home wondering what went wrong at MLS is Back Tournament

An off night, the lack of a healthy striker and some weary bodies cost Toronto FC at the MLS is Back Tournament.

Sunday’s 3-1 loss to New York City FC in round-of-16 play was a disappointing end for a team that prides itself on its strong mentality and ability to step up in pressure-filled games.

Coach Greg Vanney, normally the picture of patience, was running short of that commodity after watching his team outworked by a hungry NYCFC side at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex in the Orlando area.

“We didn’t have the urgency. We didn’t play with the right mentality as a group,” said Vanney. “Tactically we didn’t get to the right spots and do things the right way,

“There were a lot of things that didn’t go right tonight. We’re all a part of that.”

WATCH | Castellanos’ beauty sees TFC exit MLS tourney:

Valentin Castellanos scored a great game-winning goal as New York City FC sent TFC home from the MLS is Back Tournament. 1:13

With Ayo Akinola sidelined by hamstring tightness and Jozy Altidore apparently not ready to go 90 minutes, Alejandro Pozuelo played as a false No. 9. That disrupted his growing rapport with Argentine newcomer Pablo Piatti and Brazilian fullback Auro on the right side.

Omar Gonzalez, who looked miserable all tournament playing in the Florida heat, was beaten for pace once again. Fellow centre back Chris Mavinga essentially waved a white towel after the ball went past him on NYCFC’s final goal.

‘We could have dug down deeper’

“There’s a lot of individual and collective things that I will take away from the game — they’re not for the press conference — that we will deal with in terms of our group,” Vanney said.

“I think we could have dug down deeper. We could have played better,” he added.

Vanney conceded his players were fatigued after a gruelling rejigged schedule that included two 9 a.m. ET kickoffs.

“I think the tournament and the games wore on us. And we weren’t good enough. And so because of that we had to do more work.”

Captain Michael Bradley was not interested in talking about the schedule, however.

“We’ve never made excuses along the way and we’re not going to start now,” he said. “At the end of the night, it’s pretty simple. When you play a big game and not enough guys have good games on the night, then the bar’s going to tilt pretty heavily in their favour.

“We’re honest enough with ourselves to understand that in all ways we weren’t good enough.”

Warning signs in opener

There were warning signs in the tournament opener when Toronto conceded two late goals in an unsatisfactory 2-2 tie with D.C. United. Vanney acknowledged his player selection in future games might have been different if Toronto had held on for all three points against D.C.

But Vanney was in no mood for Monday morning quarterbacking, saying it was easy to sit in Toronto and criticize. He also did not appreciate the suggestion that his team might have suffered through a lack of rotation.

One wonders why Altidore was allowed to stay at his Florida home during the pandemic lockdown, which seemingly led to a delay in his regaining fitness upon returning north of the border in part due to quarantine preventing him from joining the team in training.

A healthy Altidore would have been welcome for the full 90 minutes against NYCFC, rather than 33 minutes off the bench. Patrick Mullins, who scored coming off the bench thanks to a gorgeous cushioned header from Altidore and a fine cross from Jacob Shaffelburg, must be thinking once again what does he have to do to get a start when the striker cupboard is all but empty.

Losing fullback Justin Morrow to Achilles tendinitis in the first game did not help the cause.

Plus side

On the plus side, Toronto collected five of the nine possible points in the regular-season standing available at the tournament. It did not trail in its first three games in Florida.

Akinola, a 20-year-old striker who had played in just 12 MLS games over the previous two seasons, had a breakout tournament with five goals in his first two games.

Teenage winger Jayden Nelson, a 17-year-old Canadian international seen as a future star, got his first taste of MLS action. Piatti showed flashes of real class.

Whether Vanney can play the two bruising strikers up front as well as the creative Pozuelo and Piatti and still get the full team defence he needs remains to be seen. He will have time to think about it with Toronto’s travelling party required to undergo 14 days quarantine upon returning home.

The future is uncertain with the league hoping to resume some form of schedule in mid-August. How the Canadian teams will figure into that given the border issue remains to be seen.

TFC currently sits second in the Eastern Conference at 2-0-3 and is unbeaten in its last 15 regular-season outings (6-0-9) dating back to a 2-0 loss Aug. 3 at the New York Red Bulls. Knockout games at the tournament do not count as regular-season games.

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