So, another away game, another loss for Toronto FC. While it had started so badly for TFC as they let in a sloppy (albeit well taken) first goal from Chris Rolfe against Chicago Fire tonight, the positive response from the Reds saw them equalize via 16-year old debutant (and second-youngest ever MLS draft pick) Abdus Ibrahim.
Yet as has so often been the case for Toronto on their travels this year, they couldn't hold onto this morale boosting position, and let in another soft goal in the 91st minute courtesy of John Thorrington, to hand the Fire a 2-1 victory. The defeat potentially leaves Toronto out of the play-off spots, depending on results from the other games played this weekend.
With an away record that now stands at 1-6-0, Toronto FC obviously have a problem when not playing at BMO Field. So what is it, and what can be done to prevent this from derailing a potentially groundbreaking second season for this newest MLS franchise?
If there's one thing that can be said about any sport, mental attitude is everything. If you're a team that's not used to winning, then it becomes difficult to overcome this hurdle. Toronto FC had this last year, both at home and away, as result after result went against them.
However, this year has been a different proposition altogether, as new signings and a new manager has seen Toronto get some excellent results and establish themselves as genuine playoff candidates. At least at home, that is.
Despite this new improved Toronto, they have failed to transfer their impressive home record to their away games. Six losses and 16 goals against them does not make for happy reading. So has Toronto lost confidence on the road? It would seem that way.
Although their performance against the Chicago Fire tonight was a much improved one, it was obvious that after the Fire scored their first goal the players of TFC were thinking, "Here we go again." Until this mindset is worked out of the players' system, Toronto will continue to struggle on the road.
An indisputable fact from this year's campaign is Toronto's impressive home record. Any successful team needs to make their home turf a fortress, and in this respect Toronto have delivered.
Undefeated at home in eight matches and with 10 goals to their credit (and only 2 against), BMO Field has become a place that opposing teams know they will have to fight hard to leave with anything. No wonder TFC fans chant, "This is our house."
Yet perhaps this has worked against TFC when it comes to taking to the road. Despite the loyal travelling support of the fans-300 made it to Chicago for tonight's match-there isn't the same atmosphere on the road as there is at BMO field.
Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has consistently said that the Kop-the hardcore supporter's section-is like a 12th man for his team. The same could be said of Toronto FC's loyal fans-at home the atmosphere is incredible, and perhaps even intimidating for visiting teams.
Away from home, when the crowd has been diluted, perhaps subconsciously it does affect the players. When things are going wrong at BMO Field, you can rely on 20,000 vocal TFC fans urging the team forward.
Although the travelling fans do their best, it's impossible to replicate this at away games and maybe, just maybe, the players feel this too.
Tactics, Tactics, Tactics
Although injuries and suspensions may have forced Head Coach John Carver into it, his decision to try an all new tactical line-up tonight (3-5-2 as opposed to the tried and trusted 4-5-1) seemed to backfire.
The three defenders of Toronto were consistently overrun by Chicago's attacking midfielders and forwards. Only when Toronto reverted to their trusted formation did they force themselves back into the game.
It's all well and good wanting to try something different but in an important game like the one against Chicago, where victory for either team would cement their claim for a play-off place, trying something new seemed naive management. Credit to Carver, he realized his error and changed when it became obvious it wasn't working, but it was still a strange decision.
So, where now for Toronto FC? There's no question that they are a very different team this year, with a far more cohesive unit that has a very realistic chance of reaching the play-offs. At least going by their home record, that is.
Until they can cure the malaise that is their away day results, then Toronto FC will continue to be the MLS "almost team". Whether it's employing a more defensive, counter-attacking line-up, or dropping some of the players that don't seem to travel well, something needs to be done if they want to live up to their obvious potential.