Short-handed Toronto FC need to dig deep to earn a victory over Orlando City

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Toronto FC will face the Lions on Saturday with a group of cubs.

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In the last few weeks, the Reds have been forced to add a handful of TFC II players to fill out their roster ahead of games, and that won’t change for Saturday’s match at BMO Field against Orlando City. In fact, head coach Bob Bradley has effectively been without a full, veteran lineup for a majority of games this season (partly due to injuries and suspensions and partly to do with being simply short-handed). And that has taken a toll.

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TFC sits one point out of the MLS Eastern Conference basement with 11 points (3W 6L 2D) and the team is riding a four-game losing streak. Bradley will be getting Italian international Lorenzo Insigne on July 1 and TFC president Bill Manning has said there will be two more quality veteran players joining the lineup in the upcoming weeks.

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Genoa left back Domenico Criscito is likely one of them. But in the meantime, Bradley has been forced to use young players, often teenagers. And while many of these young bucks have taken great strides this season — including 19-year-olds Jayden Nelson and Deandre Kerr — in a perfect world, Bradley would be starting mostly veterans in their place. For his part, the first-year TFC coach has taken a very pragmatic approach to being short-handed for much of the season.

“Just put it in a category of challenges in the first part of the season — that we, in some cases, were ready for,” Bradley said. “And then when you get a number of different injuries or health and safety protocols hitting at the same time, it makes it a little bit more challenging.”

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TFC will be getting a couple of veteran players back for the Orlando match, including centre back Carlos Salcedo and likely forward Ifunanyachi Achara, both of whom have been on the COVID health and safety protocol list. Midfielder Ralph Priso will also return from his red card suspension. However, the club will be without midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Noble Okello (lower body), fullbacks Jahkeele Marshall-
Rutty, Kadin Chung and centre back Chris Mavinga (lower body). Full back Jacob Shaffelburg is questionable. Bradley said Osorio is on the field training, though not with the team, but said the Canadian international is getting close to returning.

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Taking three points from a solid team like Orlando City, who have 17 points in 11 games (5W 4L 2D) and sit tied for third with CF Montreal in the MLS Eastern Conference, will not be easy. Orlando is unbeaten in four straight meetings against Toronto (W2 D2) and the Lions have added some quality players this season, including Austrian forward Ercan Kara, who has scored two goals in eight games.

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“Orlando in the last few years has been an experienced, good, solid team,” said Bradley. “Kara is another version of that kind of guy. Óscar’s (Pareja) a good coach, they’re always well organized. A difficult opponent. Just a good team that’s always hard to play against.”

“We expect a tough game,” added Kerr. “We’ve been on a bit of a tough stretch and we’re hoping to turn it around at home. And the only way to do that is to start this weekend and start with a win and build off that.”

The unofficial plan for TFC heading into the 2022 MLS season was to try to stay within striking distance of a playoff spot in the early part of the season — hold the fort if you will — until Insigne and the reinforcements arrive in the summer. Despite the recent slide, Bradley has his team only three points below the playoff line.

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“Bob is a very high-level professional coach and he’s doing what he needs to do to get these young guys competing and trying to earn their spots,” said Manning. “A lot of it has come down to execution and with some of the injuries, it’s been a little bit of a struggle lately, especially the two COVID cases, which really killed us.

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“But Bob is exactly what we needed here,” the Prez added. “He has a vision of what this team is going to look like and we’re far from being a finished product. We have a long way to go. Obviously, this summer window will be incredibly important for us. And, again, the winter window also as we look to really complete the transformation from what Bob took over. But he has this team very well organized, it’s just that we’re lacking some ‘men’ for a lack of better words out there that know what it takes to win, game in game out.”

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TFC is still without a clean sheet this season and has now allowed a goal in 40 of the 41 MLS matches its played over the last 12 months, including the last 19 matches in a row.

The Reds have had a week to contemplate the agonizing 1-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place last Sunday when the ‘Caps scored a 90th minute goal. Earlier in the second half, Jayden Nelson gave TFC a 1-0 lead but the goal, which came on a rebound, was disallowed by referee Victor Rivas, who ruled that Whitecaps goalkeeper Thomas Hasal had control of the ball, when clearly he did not. Rivas’ ruling was confirmed by VAR ref Malik Badawi. A couple of days later, the Professional Referee Organization, which overseas MLS referees, acknowledged that Nelson’s goal should have counted. Bradley said one of the disappointing aspects of the ruling was scoring that goal would have been a major confidence booster for Nelson, who is starting to play well.

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