TORONTO - Paul Mariner called it the “90th-minute jitters,” a phrase he used to describe the precision at which Toronto FC has dropped points all season.
Ahead of Saturday’s goalless draw with the Montreal Impact, one that kept TFC winless in 13 league games, the Reds had conceded 16 times inside the final 15 minutes.
They very nearly added to that total in front of 16,151 zombie-like fans who have suffered through a season to forget.
“I turned to the lads on the bench and said, ‘I’m not sure who wants to win this game today,’” Mariner said of what was a listless home finale.
With the game on his foot — twice — in stoppage time, Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio should have issued TFC its 21st loss. The Italian had a close-range look smothered in the 91st minute before watching his wide-open volley inside the area skip harmlessly wide before full time.
“When the ball dropped to Di Vaio … I thought because of his quality that it was going to be curtains,” Mariner said.
Despite playing its Canadian rival evenly and trading chances during a wet and windy afternoon, Freddy Hall was forced to tip a stoppage-time effort from Sanna Nyassi in the 92nd minute before laying out for a second game-saving stop on Justin Mapp in added time.
“I don’t know why the last five minutes of the game we tend to … drop off,” Hall said of the pelting he took at the end — a frenzy that saw the Reds once again exit to a chorus of boos.
The anger then made its way to BMO Field’s main entrance after the match as a group of protesters once again gathered with signs that called out the club’s top brass.
“You can see we’re bare bones,” Mariner said TFC’s current squad, one riddled with injury. “Today we had eight guys on the field that really would be (reserves).”
With Irish international Darren O’Dea injured, Montreal cut open TFC’s makeshift defence early in the first when in the 13th minute Nyassi’s through-ball put rookie Andrew Wenger in on Hall. Wenger clipped the ball by Hall but watched the game’s opening chance roll wide.
In a drab and emotionless first-half between a pair of teams outside the playoff picture, Eric Avila provided Toronto with its best chance, lacing an effort in the 41st minute that Impact ’keeper Troy Perkins had to work to collect.
It was the only opening chance the Reds created going without Ryan Johnson (suspended) and Quincy Amarikwa (hamstring injury).
Already on in place of O’Dea, when stand-in centre back Logan Emory came off towards the end of the opening half with a shoulder injury, TFC’s injured increased to 11 — an entire starting lineup.
“Initially, we did very well,” Mariner said of his first 10 games in charge. “We just never, ever seem to get a break … (Most of our healthy players) are learning on the job.”
With both sides looking to claim the season series, a Richard Eckersley turnover two minutes into the second half saw Nyassi streak up the right side. The Gambian skipped in a cross that Wenger once again failed to convert.
Toronto came back with a pair of half chances minutes later when Eric Hassli struck Luis Silva’s laid-off ball right at Perkins from the edge of the area. Reggie Lambe followed that up a minute later, capping off a spirited run by rolling a left-footed effort to Perkins.
“I thought our quality in the attacking third was not what it should be,” Mariner said. “Our composure and awareness in the middle third I thought could have been better.”
In the 68th minute Hassli provided TFC with its best look of the game when the Frenchman was left unmarked on a Terry Dunfield restart. In his first action since being sidelined with an ankle injury, Hassli failed to test Perkins with his snap header, TFC’s final chance before late-game “jitters” set in, which Mariner chalked up to youth.
“It’s almost like baby steps with these guys,” Mariner said. “They’re young players.”
Toronto travels to Torreon, Mexico next Wednesday to wrap Champions League group play against Santos Laguna. Needing a big result to make up for a 3-1 loss to the Mexicans at BMO Field, its fate is all but sealed.
The Reds wrap MLS play next weekend in Columbus.
MARINER’S JOB APPEARS SAFE
Any questions concerning whether Paul Mariner will enter 2013 as TFC’s head coach have been put to bed.
“Not one bit,” said the Englishman, when asked if he was concerned following a horrible end to 2012. “My future is great.”
Despite MLSE president Tom Anselmi telling reporters late last week that Mariner’s job would be under review at the conclusion of the season, Mariner’s confident post-game remarks seem to indicate assurances have been given.
“You look at the wins and losses and obviously it’s depressing,” Mariner said. “There’s nobody more depressed than me. I can’t wait for next season ... We’re already working on the squad for next year.”
It would seem the sizable contingency of post-game protesters were hoping the club would go a different direction.
“The type of football we’ve played this year with the players we’ve got is nowhere near the type of football I want to play,” Mariner said.
It looks as though he’ll get his chance to implement a new brand come January.