TORONTO — Approaching the halfway mark of the MLS season, Toronto FC is 5-8-3 and five points out of the playoff picture with Italian star Lorenzo Insigne waiting in the wings.
There is plenty of work still to do as the Columbus Crew (4-5-6) visit Wednesday. But despite sitting in 11th place in the East, Toronto can see light at the end of the tunnel.
Bob Bradley's team has lost just one of its last seven games (4-1-2) in all competitions with reinforcements on hand. Insigne is expected to made his debut July 9, with fellow Italian newcomer Domenico Criscito expected to help bolster the TFC defence.
Criscito was slated to land in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon, according to a source granted anonymity because the Genoa captain's signing had not been announced yet.
Bradley is seeing improvements. Now he wants to see them consistently.
"We always want to see more of the good football," he said after training Tuesday. "We see it in moments … I think if you take all the games so far, we've seen some good stretches but we are looking to continue to get better in every way.
"That's the work. That's how you build a good team."
Added midfielder Jonathan Osorio: "It's early in the whole process really but you're already starting to see in the last few weeks a lot of positive signs. We're happy about that. (But) we're aware that it's not like that these signs have been consistent throughout the year. We have to work on being consistent and improving every game."
Toronto was 3-8-5 at the same time last season after a 1-8-2 start to the campaign that cost Chris Armas his job as head coach.
Toronto president Bill Manning said change was needed after a dismal 2021, when the club finished 27th overall with a 6-18-10 record.
"Things really went in a bad direction with our club … I wasn't feeling good about the direction of the club," he said this week.
"I felt we needed a foundational piece, literally a worldwide superstar" he added, referencing Insigne. "And I felt we needed a world-class coach. And Lorenzo was at the top of my list."
Bradley took over as head coach and sporting director last November, rebuilding a roster that saw 20 first-team members move on in the off-season.
Improving defending and gaining a measure of success on the road are high up on TFC's to-do list.
Toronto has won two straight at home and is 5-3-0 at BMO Field this season compared to 0-5-3 on the road. TFC's last eight MLS wins, dating back to September, have all come at home, as have 26 of the 31 points the team has earned over that period.
Toronto is currently in the midst of a five-game homestand.
"We have to change the away stuff," said Bradley. "We've played some decent games away but we've got to turn that into more points."
While Columbus is unbeaten in its last three matches (1-0-2), the injury-riddled Crew have dug themselves a hole following a 2-0-2 start to the season that included a 2-1 victory over visiting Toronto. Columbus has gone 2-5-4 since that start and has just one win in its last six league outings (1-2-3).
Ten of Columbus' 18 goals this season came in the first four games. Coming off a pair of ties, the Crew have managed just three goals in their last five outings (1-2-2).
Attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan leads Columbus with four goals but has not scored since he was named MLS Player of the Month for March, with injury playing its part. The Argentine-born designated player, who represents Armenia internationally, has not played since May 21 in a 2-0 loss to Los Angeles FC.
Injuries have affected more than just Zelarayan. Columbus was without Brazil's Artur, Derrick Etienne Jr., Erik Hurtado and Kevin Molino for Saturday's 0-0 draw at Real Salt Lake.
Zelarayan, Etienne and Hurtado, who have accounted for 10 of the Crew's 18 goals, are listed as questionable for the Toronto match, along with Marlon Hairston and Yaw Yeboah. Artur remains out with a leg injury.
Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who survived a jarring collision in Saturday's 2-1 win over Atlanta, and Mexican defender Carlos Salcedo both were not part of the training session that reporters were allowed to see Tuesday.
"Nothing major but we'll see whether everybody's available or whether we've got to hold some guys out and have them ready for Saturday (against Seattle)," Bradley said.
Midfielder Noble Okello, who last played April 9, is still sidelined by injury.
Wednesday's game features Columbus' 17th-ranked offence (1.20 goals a game on average) against Toronto's 27th-ranked defence (conceding 1.88 goals a game).
Hoping to help spark the offence, Columbus has signed 23-year-old Colombian forward Juan Camilo (Cucho) Hernandez (pronounced COO-cho), as a young designated player from England's Watford. The Crew say the transfer fee is the largest in club history but did not elaborate.
Like Insigne, Hernandez will have to wait until the MLS secondary transfer window opens July 7 to take the field.
The Crew have won the last two meetings with Toronto on their home field but are just 1-6-1 — including playoffs — against Toronto outside of Columbus, dating back to the start of the 2016 season.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press