"Oh, how the mighty have fallen."
That's the usual sentiment when a title-winning side struggles to impose itself in the following season, but there's no reason to panic just yet at Toronto FC.
Coming off the greatest single season in MLS history, Greg Vanney's side currently sits dead-last in the league, having procured just one win in six attempts. The Reds blew a second victory with a last-minute concession to the Chicago Fire on Saturday, but does that mean they are set to endure a miserable title defense?
With Toronto FC balancing league action with its trials in the CONCACAF Champions League, it's safe to say the Reds haven't prioritized MLS quite as high in the early parts of the season. While it's not the best of starts, there are plenty of reasons why TFC shouldn't be too worried about the 2018 campaign.
One of the biggest problems Toronto has had to deal with in the early goings is the number of injuries to key contributors, whether recurring or temporary. Justin Morrow, Victor Vazquez, and Chris Mavinga were all limited in their contributions to the Reds' Champions League efforts, which may have been a factor in TFC's eventual loss in the final.
The absences of other players, such as Jozy Altidore, Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, and Nick Hagglund, have forced Vanney to get creative. For the Champions League final, he built a backline consisting of two right-backs in Auro and Gregory van der Wiel, defensive midfielder Michael Bradley, and left-back Ashtone Morgan, who before 2018 had not garnered meaningful minutes in his last two seasons.
But those injuries, apart from Moor's potentially longer-term spell on the sidelines, should clear up in the coming weeks, restoring Toronto FC to full strength. As much as this team's depth has been praised, there's no substitute for a team of preferred starters, and if the Reds can stay healthy, the sheer quality of their players should turn the tide of this recent form.
There are a few matches each team circles on its calendar before the start of a season: Away trips in altitude to the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake or the hot summer sun against the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas are just some of the more testing fixtures each outfit faces.
Luckily, for Toronto, most of those trials are behind it now. While away trips to Colorado and Houston produced losses, the Reds won't be heading down to Texas and will instead host Dallas at BMO Field this season, and don't need to worry about a flight to Salt Lake City, either, having hosted and defeated RSL 3-1 at the end of March.
As a result, Toronto FC's remaining 28 matches - split evenly with 14 home and away fixtures - seem significantly easier as the weeks roll by. The Reds only travel to the west coast twice more this season to take on the San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers in August. The rest of the season is manageable.
Losing a tournament final so early in a season can serve as a double-edged sword. It's not ideal to suffer a demoralizing defeat before really getting going in the regular season, especially when the alternative is to energize and empower the group with yet another victory. In that regard, Vanney will need to ensure his team remains properly motivated and confident, having failed to secure the Champions League title in the cruel fashion of penalties at the last.
But, regaining a singular focus - returning to the playoffs and winning the MLS Cup - should serve Vanney's side well if a recovery in morale is needed. The job itself is both straightforward and achievable. While the Supporters' Shield race may be a stretch, which will certainly be a disappointment to Bradley and Co., the fact that Toronto FC's objectives are now clear should restore order.
It will help that the team can now fall into its regular training-preparation-match routine without necessarily considering how best to balance multiple fronts. No longer will Vanney need to send makeshift reserve teams on away trips while the "real" team stays back and concentrates on another tournament.
It's now back to work for Toronto FC, which will be important as an already-short offseason was cut even shorter to adequately prepare for trips to Mexico.
(Photos courtesy: Getty)