TORONTO — A 7-1 drubbing at the hands of D.C. United on July 3 was the nadir of Toronto FC's dismal MLS season. First-year coach Chris Armas was fired the next day in the wake of the 1-8-2 club suffering its sixth straight loss.
Four months later, Toronto (6-17-10) has a chance at some payback in the regular-season finale.
D.C. United (13-15-5) arrives at BMO Field on Sunday needing a win and some help elsewhere to make the playoffs. D.C. goes into Decision Day in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, three points below the seventh-place New York Red Bulls and two behind eighth-place CF Montreal.
D.C. needs to pick up three points in Toronto and have the Red Bulls lose in Nashville and Montreal lose or tie against visiting Orlando.
Whatever happens, Toronto will finish the season 13th in the 14-team Eastern Conference, although it could leapfrog Houston into 25th place in the 27-team overall standings with a win Sunday.
That is of small comfort to a Toronto team that finished runner-up in the Supporters' Shield Standings last season.
Toronto is coming off a 2-1 midweek win over Pacific FC in the Canadian Championship semifinal. It is winless in its last five league game (0-2-3) although it has taken playoff points off three playoff contenders — Montreal, Philadelphia and Atlanta — with the three ties.
"I think the team has kept at it in a really difficult year," said captain Michael Bradley.
"It's not been good enough in a lot of different ways," he added. "That's the results at the beginning of the year right on through. So it's been a frustrating year, there's no two ways about it.
"Obviously the circumstances have been what they've been. Not to make excuses but just from March of last year through July of this year, between the initial phase of the pandemic, (the) MLS Is Back (Tournament in Orlando), (relocating to) Hartford, Orlando, it was hard. We tried like hell to be better than it, above it. You guys heard me say a hundred times in the last year and a half we don't want to use it as an excuse. But it's been difficult.
"And look, I'm not feeling sorry for ourselves. We've let ourselves down. We haven't been good enough."
Toronto still has the Canadian Championship final against Montreal to look forward to. Montreal's playoff status will help determine when that game will be played.
The Toronto and D.C. coaches both played down the July 3 debacle.
"That was a long time ago," said D.C. coach Hernan Losada. "Both teams were in different moments, in different places. Many players who played that game won't be able to play this time."
"I think we are in a different place," echoed Toronto coach Javier Perez, who was elevated from assistant coach after Armas was fired.
"For us it's just business as usual," he added.
But the Spaniard acknowledged that he knew taking over the slumping team after the lopsided July defeat was going to make for "a very challenging rest of the season."
"I knew that expectations were high. And the objectives, they were difficult to reach at that point, even if it was kind of early in the season. The team was going on a free-fall. But for me the most important things was make sure that the team didn't suffer any other situations like (the) D.C. (defeat). And build little by little and make the team feel more confident and stronger, which I think now the team is."
The team has gone 5-9-8 in league play under Perez, who has been a steady hand at the helm.
"I think Javier has done a really really good job of trying to keep everyone going, of trying to find the right ways to get us results, put teams on the field that are ready to go," said Bradley. "But when you look at where we've been as a club, when you look at the standards we've set for ourselves, we've fallen well short.
"So we now have to finish this season off in as positive a way as possible, starting with the home game against D.C."
In the off-season, the club will have to do whatever it takes so that "when next season starts, we have done everything we've need to do to really move forward now in a big way," he added,.
Toronto has not said who will coach next season. Perez says he's just focused on the remaining games.
"If we learned any lessons about this season, it's that if we try to find security, if we look too much into the future, we are missing the present," he said. "And the present is Sunday. The present is the game against D.C."
Toronto will be looking to avoid some dubious milestones. The club has conceded 63 goals, one off the franchise-worst given up in 2018. And an 18th loss would match the number TFC had in 2018's 10-18-16 season (the club record was set during 2012's 5-21-8 season).
Sunday will be the MLS swansong for 34-year-old fullback Justin Morrow, who is retiring at the end of the season.
Toronto will be without the injured Yeferson Soteldo and Alex Bono as well as long-term absentees Ayo Akinola, Tsubasa Endoh and Ralph Priso.
Centre back Chris Mavinga, who missed the last two games, is available. But Perez said it's unlikely centre back Omar Gonzalez and Brazilian fullback Auro will play Sunday.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press