Toronto FC has turned the historic highs of 2017 into a catastrophic 2018 campaign
If you're looking to pinpoint the lowest low in what has become a downer of a campaign for Toronto FC, it would be hard to beat the moment Eriq Zavaleta's own goal crept over the line on Wednesday night with goalkeeper Alex Bono crawling on his hands and knees in a vain attempt to keep the ball out of his net. That goal effectively sealed the inaugural Campeones Cup, giving Tigres an unassailable 3-0 lead in a match the Liga MX side ultimately won 3-1.
And if TFC wouldn't normally fret over losing a somewhat contrived showdown between the champions of Major League Soccer and Liga MX, given its standing in the league, this felt like another gut punch. With barely a month remaining in MLS' regular season, it no longer feels premature to ask: Is Toronto FC done?
It has been a precipitous fall from grace. At this point last year, TFC was as many points ahead in the Supporters' Shield race (nine) as it currently is out of the playoff qualification places right now.
The 2017 Reds were one of the most dominant -- perhaps the most dominant -- teams in Major League Soccer history. Their 69 points were more than any other squad had ever racked up, and the attack powered by Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore tied for second for the most goals in a single season. They became the first group to ever win the Shield, a domestic cup and MLS Cup all in one calendar year, comprehensively defeating defending champion Seattle in the final.
But before tackling the question from above, it's probably best to start with another: What the hell happened?
Predictably, it was a confluence of things. Having expended so much focus and energy to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final earlier this year -- a match that Toronto lost to Chivas -- Toronto was gassed, a sensation exacerbated by a short offseason after winning the 2017 MLS Cup; the hangover from losing that final carried over into the 2018 regular season; and to top it all off, the defense has been a leaky sieve pretty much since the season kicked off.
Momentum, too, is a fickle thing, even in a league with a drawn-out regular season. Remember when the Colorado Rapids rode a year-long hot hand all the way to the 2016 Western Conference final? Less than two years removed, it already feels impossible that a club that swiftly returned to the dumpster really made it that far in the first place, but the Rapids did.
Toronto has had the opposite problem: Instead of a boulder rolling steadily downhill, it has been unable to get any momentum going at all. And so here Greg Vanney's team sits, nine points out with six games to go.
Based on sheer talent and pedigree alone, the Reds have probably earned the benefit of the doubt. Even if Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore have all simultaneously taken a step back, they're still top-level players compared to their MLS peers. Jonathan Osorio has had a breakout campaign and Victor Vazquez can still ball out on his day.
None of their contributions will matter, however, if Toronto can't tighten things up at the other end of the field. Recent indicators aren't promising. Altidore scored twice in a must-have home match against LAFC ... and the Reds lost 4-2. TFC took a 3-0 lead over the LA Galaxy last weekend and gave it all back before having to scrap for a nervy 5-3 win.
The rest of Toronto's schedule is brutal. Of its remaining opponents, only New England can probably be safely written off as a playoff contender -- and the Revs still have a four-point lead on TFC in the Eastern Conference standings. Toronto has to go to Red Bull Arena (Saturday at 5 p.m. ET, ESPN+), D.C. United and Montreal. It closes at home against an Atlanta team that might be playing for the Supporters' Shield.
Based on all of that, Toronto essentially has one more opportunity to prove that it still has a fighting chance in the postseason battle. If the team can somehow find a way to upset the second-place and Shield-chasing Red Bulls, who knows? If the much more likely scenario comes to pass and Toronto drops any points, the Reds are done.
As to what Toronto's seemingly inevitable abdication of the throne means for the MLS Cup race, that's a question for another day.