Defence has been a major problem area for Toronto FC this season, especially lately.
The Reds have lost their last four Major League Soccer games by a combined score of 12-2, and boast the worst defensive record in the 18-team league with 41 goals against in 23 matches.
TFC will switch its focus away from MLS when it hosts Nicaragua's Real Esteli Wednesday night in the opener of their CONCACAF Champions League qualifier. The teams meet again next Tuesday in Nicaragua.
The winner of the home-and-away series advances to the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions, which features the 16 best pro clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Toronto is coming off a dismal 4-2 road loss against Sporting Kansas City in a game that saw the Reds give up three goals in the space of nine minutes during the first half.
Part of the problem is injuries. Regular starting central defenders Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams are both sidelined with season-ending ailments. Another contributing factor is roster turnover — the clubs has made a slew of trade moves and roster signings in the past two weeks, including adding defenders Andy Iro and Eddy Viator.
Fans hoping for a quick turnaround due to the infusion of new blood may have to wait a bit longer. TFC right fullback Richard Eckersley cautions that it’s going to take time for the back line to gel properly, especially with the new faces.
"We’ve been training with each other now for two weeks and I think the more time we play with each other and spend with each other, the better we’ll be," the Englishman told CBCSports.ca.
"You just have to look at other teams like Real Salt Lake, who kept the core of their team [together] and that’s how they’ve pulled off results — because they all know each other. That’s what TFC could be doing — keeping the core of the team together and working and building on it. Maybe that’s how we’ll get success in the future."
Coach Aron Winter experimented on the weekend by using Eckersley in the centre of defence alongside Iro. The results were disastrous, as Eckersley was caught out of position on Kansas City’s third goal, and he and Iro never really developed any chemistry.
Still, he found the experience rewarding and educational.
"Obviously it was very disappointing, the goals that we conceded. A few of them were soft," Eckersley conceded. "But it was a good experience and for me, as a fullback, it makes me appreciate the positioning of the centre back, and how I can play off him to keep things more compact at the back."
Eckersley also contends that the back line is not solely to blame for the team’s defensive struggles.
"We need to defend better as a team," he said. "When we lose the ball up front, it’s about everybody getting back into position and getting organized. It’s not just the back four, because obviously if five opponents are running at the back four, we’re going to get overhauled."
Winter said his club has no injury concerns, and that Canadian midfielders Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield, recently acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps, will be available for selection.
"I think [their return] is massive," opined Eckersley. "Anyone that’s coming back from injury to bolster this squad, it’s going to be vital. The more players you can get the more competitive we’ll be for starting places and the more depth we’ll have. It’s a trickle-down effect."