TORONTO – Toronto FC captain Dwayne De Rosario had already put his body through more than 1,100 minutes of intense game action by the time Tuesday’s practice drew to a close, with players sweating under the midday sun and orders from their coach to run another series of sprints.
“I’m part of the team,” De Rosario said, still sweating as he boarded the team bus. “I do what the team does.”
The team has worked hard through the first half of its Major League Soccer schedule, but like the players at the end of Tuesday’s workout, the challenge will be in the home stretch. Toronto is searching for the first playoff berth in franchise history, and now has 15 regular-season games in which to earn it.
Eight of the 16 teams in MLS qualify for the playoffs, and Toronto holds one of the final two spots.
“I think, with our fans, the expectations have gone up,” said Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and chief operating officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. “The expectation, clearly, is that we’re going to make the playoffs this year. And so, anything less than that would be deemed a failure — but, at the same time, the fans have been very receptive to this team.”
Toronto set a franchise record with an 11-game unbeaten streak through all competitions, a run powered by a stifling defence and the often stellar play of goalkeeper Stefan Frei. The run included a successful defence of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, which allowed Toronto to hoist a trophy for the first time at BMO Field.
It also left players facing an even heavier workload.
Winning the title lifted Toronto into the CONCACAF Champions League, which pits two dozen North American, Central American and Caribbean teams in competition to represent the region in the FIFA Club World Cup. Toronto hosts Club Deportivo Motagua on July 27, before heading to Honduras for the return leg on Aug. 3.
“I think we’ve done OK, far better that I would have expected at the beginning of the year, considering the way we started,” Toronto coach Predrag (Preki) Radosavljevic said. “We’re still not there. We’re still not where we need to be.”
Toronto has another non-league game on Wednesday, when it hosts the Bolton Wanderers in the final stop of the English Premier League team’s North American tour. The Canadian side is expected to rest many of its big-name veterans, with a handful of academy players slotted around Spanish forward Miguel Angel Ferrer Martinez, who is set to make his Toronto debut.
“Games like this are a time for players who don’t play very often, to get their time to shine,” Toronto defender Gabe Gala said.
Preki would not name any of the other players who might be on the field Wednesday.
“We’ve added some pieces again,” he said. “So it’s going to take some time for everybody to get used to each other and know each other. Once that happens, I think we’ll be OK.”
Toronto defender Ty Harden left Tuesday’s workout with an ice pack on his left calf and a pair of metal crutches under his arms. Fellow defender Nana Attakora was not on the field due to a minor toe injury.
“It is a tough time in our season, so we can’t afford to get guys injured,” De Rosario said. “It is (Bolton’s) pre-season, so I know they can’t afford to get guys injured. It’s a balance, right? As professionals, we don’t want to lose, but in the same sense, we have to be mindful in how we approach the game.”
Toronto (six wins, five losses and four draws) had gone eight league games without a loss before it allowed a goal in the 94th minute against the expansion Philadelphia Union last weekend. The penalty kick left Toronto on the wrong end of a 2-1 game.
The Canadian side’s league schedule resumes Saturday with an important home game against Dallas FC, a team only three points ahead of Toronto in the overall standings. Toronto has not made the playoffs since it began league play in 2007.
“Everyone’s expectations are up this year,” Anselmi said. “Everyone likes what we’re seeing. Now, we just need to see more of it.”