|DC United's Danny Cruz battles for the ball with Toronto FC's Ashtone Morgan (L) during the first half of their MLS soccer match in Toronto, May 5, 2012. (Reuters/MARK BLINCH)
TORONTO - Toronto FC’s forgettable season remains meaningful for one man — and he made it clear he expects the same amount of passion from his players when the Reds host D.C. United this afternoon at BMO Field.
“Blood, snot and fire,” TFC head coach Paul Mariner said of what he expects during the club’s second-to-last home match of this season.
Despite being well out of the playoff picture for a sixth consecutive year, the fiery Englishman put his roster on notice Friday, painting today’s late-season fixture against the Black and Red as an audition ahead of what will likely be an offseason exodus.
As pointed out by club executive Earl Cochrane last month, a good portion of TFC’s 2012 roster isn’t under contract heading into December, which means some — maybe most — of tomorrow’s roster will be competing for more than a result.
“I want to see (which players) want to be here next year,” Mariner said. “It’s very, very simple … everyone has got to be working very, very hard for each other because we’re bottom of the league. What else are you going to do?”
For D.C., the stakes are quite different. After compiling 20 losses in 2010, United is poised to return to the MLS playoffs for the first time since it topped the Eastern Conference in 2007. Sitting three points above the Columbus Crew with three games to go, a win against the lowly Reds will see United into second place in the East, all but locking up a post-season return.
“As far as I’m concerned we’ve got four important games left,” Mariner said of TFC’s October schedule, which includes the near impossible task of topping Santos Laguna by three or more goals to advance to CONCACAF’s Champions League knockout phase.
“We’ve got two massive home games,” the embattled coach continued. “Nothing changes from the coaching viewpoint. We can set up as best we can.”
Referencing the fact the club hasn’t managed to stay off the treatment table for most of the season, Mariner confirmed Friday that Eric Hassli once again won’t dress for today’s match. With Matt Stinson still miles away from first team football after dealing with a strained quad through the second half of the season, the club’s attacking options remain few and far between.
“We’ve got millions of dollars on the sidelines which doesn’t please me that much,” Mariner said. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
But as Mariner plainly stated during pre-match training, goals haven’t been the issue down the stretch. The Reds conceded 13 times through five games in September, including four in each of their last two matches.
Despite scoring first at Red Bull Arena a week ago, Toronto’s back four was picked apart by the surgical precision of Thierry Henry, who capped off a three assist night with an MLS Goal of the Year candidate in stoppage time.
Toronto’s 11th consecutive league match without a win, a loss to United would see it move to within one game of the league’s record winless run (13 games, Columbus ‘06) by a non-expansion team.
“It’s just a question of not conceding the first one, that’s the problem,” Mariner said. “We’re going to set up hopefully to not do that. I just reiterated to the players today that it’s vitally important you don’t give up the first goal because the stats in MLS say that you very rarely win.”
Sitting somewhere between a bonafide starter and a quality bench player, many are still skeptical of Morgan, who was recently left off Canadian head coach Stephen Hart’s World Cup qualifying roster. Despite putting in his most complete seasons to date, the 21-year-old still has loads to prove, which makes Saturday’s matchup against one of the league’s promising young attackers even more appetizing. Like Morgan, Najar is from his club’s academy setup. The Canadian and Honduran have loads of pace and spirit.
FOR THE FANS: The Reds are a game away from hitting the 20-loss mark, a forbidden number for a non-expansion club. With attendance expected to be spotty towards the end of another playoff-less season, the Reds have to put in a showing for fans who have struggled alongside all year.
ORGANIZATION AT THE BACK: After conceding from a corner in New York last week, all three of the Red Bulls’ goals came as a result of Toronto’s disorganized back four. Darren O’Dea was to blame on both Kenny Cooper goals after diving in and watching Thierry Henry blow by him.
TEST HAMID: Heralded as the best young ‘keeper in MLS, Bill Hamid is shaky at times and almost conceded a howler last week in Portland.
To say the Reds have struggled against DC in recent memory would be an understatement. Prior to falling 2-1 and 3-1 to the Black and Red this season, Toronto lost 3-0 at the start of 2011 under then head coach Aron Winter.