Terrible TFC defending to blame for three-goal loss in home opener

Chris Wondolowski: Scored twice

If there was any question of Torsten Frings’ value to Toronto FC, his absence for most of the last two matches has proven just how badly the Reds need their captain.

TFC dropped a 3-0 result to the San Jose Earthquakes in front of 20,753 disappointed fans at BMO Field on Saturday in the club’s home opener.  It was Toronto’s first full game without Frings, who suffered a hamstring injury early in last week’s 3-1 loss in Seattle and will be out of action until late April at the earliest.  Without Frings holding the fort at defensive midfield and providing cover on the back line, the holes in TFC’s defence were been badly exposed for the second time in as many weeks.

“We’ve had a big loss of Torsten not there to organize the team on the pitch,” said TFC head coach Aron Winter.  “At the moment he’s not available to play [so] we have to fix the back line….We have to resolve those problems.”

Those problems became apparent from the opening whistle, as Toronto looked sluggish in the early going, culminating in a ninth-minute goal for San Jose.  Just moments after goalkeeper Milos Kocic needed to make a leaping save off a Shea Salinas strike, the Quakes regained the ball and again went on the attack.  Sam Cronin crossed from outside the box to the right side of goal, where striker Chris Wondolowski found room to head the ball into the net.

“We can’t allow goals against us like that from the get-go of the game.  That’s a must in home games,” said Julian de Guzman.  “We were caught in the first few minutes and that shouldn’t be allowed….The entire game we were chasing it.  We want to play at home and be the ones dictating.”

The early setback perhaps woke up the Reds, who were actually the better club for the rest of the half.  Rookie midfielder Luis Silva generated a few solid scoring opportunities and, in the 37th minute, striker Reggie Lambe fed a pass through traffic in the box to fellow forward Joao Plata, who was just a step too slow to get a touch on what looked like a great setup for the tying goal.

Perhaps sensing that an equalizer could be near, Winter brought forward Danny Koevermans into the game at halftime, replacing mid Terry Dunfield.  The extra attacking pressure almost paid off immediately as TFC had two good chances in the 46th minute, but removing Dunfield weakened the midfield to an intolerable extent.

This became apparent on the Quakes’ next goal.  Following a bit of pressure in its end, San Jose was able to easily move the ball downfield on the counter-attack, with Tressor Moreno and Marvin Chavez finding lots of room to eventually deposit the ball to Salinas, who made no mistake with a left-footed strike.

Whatever momentum the Reds had was effectively killed off by Salinas’s goal, and it only got worse from there.  In the 68th minute, the Earthquakes again moved the ball downfield with impunity, with Rafael Baca getting to the right side of the box.  Kocic dove to stop him but Baca was able to complete a cross to Wondolowski.  The forward actually fumbled the ball for a moment and, with two defenders on the line to account for the out-of-position Kocic, it looked like TFC might catch a break.  It was not to be, however, as Wondolowski still fired it in for the brace.

The win improves San Jose’s record to 2-1-0 in this young MLS season and it also stretches the Quakes’ unbeaten record at BMO Field to 2-0-3 in five all-time appearances.  Wondolowski has been a big part of that success, now with six goals in his last three games in Toronto, and a league-best 37 goals since the start of the 2010 season.

The Reds had only themselves to blame for giving so much room to Wondolowski and the rest of the San Jose attackers.  The TFC midfield was incapable of preventing those passes into the Toronto end, and then the defenders couldn’t stop them from finishing or at least getting off strong chances at close range.  The score probably could’ve been worse had Wondolowski not hit the post on a wide-open shot in the 85th minute.

Winter was upset about the “terrible mistakes” his side made at key moments in the match and said he didn’t see any positives from Saturday’s performance.

“If you’re losing 3-0 it’s not positive,” Winter said.  “You can lose a game but not the way we lost the game today.”

Frings’ injury and the subsequent two heavy losses to begin the MLS season have effectively killed the momentum the Reds carried into the year from their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Now with just four days until the first leg of their CCL semi-final against Santos Laguna, the Reds could hardly be at a lower ebb facing powerhouse Mexican side, though Winter said his team hasn’t lost faith.

“It’s not a problem of confidence, I think it was a problem how we started,” Winter said.  “We weren’t happy in the locker room afterwards.  They’ll have a day to think about it and then Wednesday we have to be ready for the next game.”

As if one major injury wasn’t enough for Toronto FC, the club announced today that goalkeeper Stefan Frei will be out for the next 8-10 weeks after suffering a broken fibula during Friday’s training session.  Frei’s injury makes Kocic the unquestioned starter, and while it’s not fair to blame Kocic for his defence’s shortcomings, six goals in two games is a black mark on a goalkeeper’s record.

The big loss, obviously, is Frings.  Beating Santos Laguna in the CCL would’ve been a tall order even with Frings in the lineup — now it seems like a near-impossibility.  Even if Frings recovers quickly and returns at the lower end of his estimated four-to-six week absence, he will miss at least four more league games.  Unless TFC can figure out how to play defence without its captain, it seems that TFC’s early-season hole will get even deeper.

“In my eyes it’s just disappointing as a back four and as a whole defensive unit,” said defender Richard Eckersley.  “Players are in and out all season, we can’t always rely on one player to come in and steady the team.  Every player needs to look to steady the team and do it well.  Today was not good enough.  It might look bad that it’s Torsten’s first game out and stuff but it was terrible on the defensive front.”

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About Mark Polishuk

Mark Polishuk is a writer and editor from London, Ontario. He covered Toronto FC's first three seasons for Major League Soccer's official website, also covering such BMO Field events as Canada's World Cup qualifying match with Jamaica in 2008 and the 2008 MLS All-Star Game. Mark is also a stats stringer for MLB.com and is part of the MLBTradeRumors.com writing team.