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After spending big on glitz, Toronto FC stabilizes its defense

Toronto FC has morphed from a club heavy on the glitz to one that now has the sturdy defensive foundation to complement its starpower, writes Brian Straus.

WASHINGTON — It’s six down and two to go, according to the schedule. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Going back to preseason, I think we’ve been traveling almost 12 weeks straight,” Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin told following Saturday’s 1-0 win at D.C. United.

That's a long time–perhaps long enough to forge a new identity for a club that desperately needed one. The date Irwin and his teammates have circled on the calendar is May 7. That’s when a road trip equal to the third longest in MLS history finally will end. The Reds will host FC Dallas that evening at a renovated BMO Field featuring $120 million in upgrades, including new sound and lighting systems and a roof on three sides. What once was a functional but relatively basic place to watch a game now will be counted among North American soccer’s finest venues. It will impress. It also will stand in ironic contrast to the way its primary tenant was constructed.

Think of Toronto FC as a home that boasted some lovely art on the walls and a beautiful chandelier or two while lacking a sturdy foundation. It sure looked nice, but it couldn’t withstand a storm. While BMO Field is getting its glitz only now, the team that plays there was built from the top down.

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The “Bloody Big Deal” billboards and elaborate press conferences that signaled the arrival of players like Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the departed Jermain Defoe and Torsten Frings boosted the club’s Q rating but not its place in the standings. TFC ended its embarrassing eight-year playoff drought in 2015 thanks to the league’s decision to expand the number of berths to six in each conference.

The Reds then were promptly obliterated by the rival Montreal Impact in their first and only game.

“You look at Toronto from the outside, and it’s this big club that has huge aspirations, that has signed all these fantastic players, but you always felt like you could get them—like you could go into their place and beat them. That’s what they’re trying to change,” said veteran defender Drew Moor, the former Colorado Rapids captain who moved to TFC this winter. “We have some world-class players and we can play some beautiful soccer at times, but what we have now is a bunch of hardworking guys that can grind it out. And in this league, you have to have those kind of players.”

Toronto didn’t have enough of those players last year. It was a team that had trouble maintaining its shape and composure in key moments, lacked resilience and simply couldn’t defend. No MLS club yielded more than the 58 regular season goals conceded by TFC, and its 3-0 playoff capitulation in Montreal was an embarrassment.

So with the art and chandeliers in place, GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney set out to strengthen the foundation. They needed bricks and mortar. The stuff that keeps a team together and the stuff that keeps it sturdy. Moor was signed as a free agent and Irwin (from Colorado), right back Steven Beitashour (from Vancouver) and indefatigable midfielder Will Johnson (from Portland) arrived via trade. Captain Michael Bradley would withdraw a bit and play more of a two-way role, supporting the back four along with his good friend Johnson and connecting that new foundation to Altidore and Giovinco.

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“The team was very smart in almost kind of doing these combination acquisitions,” Irwin explained. “You get [left back] Justin [Morrow] and Steven who know each other very well [from playing together in San Jose]. You get Will and Michael who know each other very well. Myself and Drew [from Colorado]. To add that to the group—to add these connections on the field—it makes the transition to a new team easier on and off the field. And then you start to learn more and more about the rest of the team as you go along and I think we’ve gelled pretty well in the first few games.”

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The club set an eight-point target for the eight-game road trip. Among the other three MLS teams to leave home for as long, only one (Chicago in 2006) managed to earn anywhere close to one point per match. As expected, it’s taken a while for the attack to come together. Altidore’s hamstring trouble certainly didn’t help. But the defense, thanks to those partnerships and a significant preseason commitment to establishing additional chemistry, has been outstanding.

Saturday’s victory in D.C. was Irwin’s second shutout this season, and Toronto's goals against average of 0.83 now ranks second in the 20-team league. The win also lifted the club to 2-2-2. The eight points are secured, as is a belief that TFC can win the tight, defensive games it used to lose.

“It wasn’t pretty after [Giovinco’s first-minute goal],” Altidore said. “I think maybe games before this, maybe last season, we don’t win a game like that. So to go dig in, it was a game all about determination. To win that game I think will do a lot for the morale of this team.”

United coach Ben Olsen called Toronto “very well-organized and committed” as well as a “team that defends very well.”

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That hasn’t been a typical assessment of TFC in the past. The visitors on Saturday were out-shot 18-10 and out-posessed 55.9% to 44.1%. Yet they never seemed to be in too much danger.

Toronto narrowed its four-man midfield in the second half, forcing United to send in more crosses. Irwin, Moor and center back Josh Williams, who was filling in for Damien Perquis, were up to the challenge.

“In general, as a team, we’re much more stable. We have a much better grip on things,” Bradley said. “That doesn’t mean every play is perfect. It doesn’t mean we never give away a chance. But in general, when you look at the games that we’ve played, for large parts of every game we’ve had things under control and our terms. And there’s different ways to do that. You can do that with the ball on certain days, and on other days you can do that without the ball.”

Before Toronto gets to May 7, it faces two very tough tests. Next Saturday it must head back to Montreal, the scene of last fall’s knockout-round elimination. TFC then will head to Portland for a matchup with the MLS champs. Points won’t be easy to come by, and nobody in red is thrilled that they’ve managed to score only six times in six games. But there are a lot of home dates in a very nice stadium coming up. And they're rounding into a stronger, sturdier team that appears to be shedding a cumbersome old identity and finding new ways to win.

“Six games in, to be where we’re at, we have to be happy,” Bradley said.

Added Irwin: “All through preseason, as soon as I came here with Drew, Steven and Will, it seemed to be the focus: let’s strengthen ourselves and get a little more gritty and get guys who know how to scrape out points in games like these on the road. I think our guys have shown that we have that experience now and have that ability.”