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Toronto FC is a complete mess, again

After a promising start and a free-spending offseason, TFC is on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Pity poor Toronto FC fans. This was the year it was supposed to be different, the year where they not only spent money but spent money well. It was the year they were not only going to make the playoffs for the first time in the eight-year history, but that they might even contend for a trophy of some sort.

In just the latest reminder that TFC is TFC until proven otherwise, the season is quickly unraveling. With eight matches left to play, Toronto has fired their coach, are poised to lose their best offensive player and are currently on the outside looking in despite playing in a weak Eastern Conference.

But as recently Aug. 9, the season seemed to be going according to play. Toronto FC had beaten the Columbus Crew 3-2 and were sitting on 32 points through 21 matches. They weren't dominating, but they were solidly in playoff position and even had an outside shot at winning the conference.

Jermain Defoe didn't play in that game -- the third time in four that he had been out -- but it didn't seem to be a huge concern. Defoe had scored 11 goals in 15 games to that point and was essentially living up to the big-money transfer that had brought him to Toronto along with Michael Bradley during the offseason. There were concerns about the team, to be sure, but no clear signs that everything was about to go horribly wrong.

The following week, TFC had a big match against Sporting Kansas City, the reigning MLS Cup champions and the team that looked to be the favorites in the Eastern Conference race this year. TFC got smacked 4-1. A 2-2 tie against the lowly Chicago Fire came next and then the game that really started to show how tenuous the situation in Toronto really was.

Just a couple days before the closing of the English transfer window, TFC managed to get played off their own pitch by the New England Revolution and suffered a 3-0 defeat. This was a Revolution team that hadn't won on the road since May 17 and had only won two of their previous 12. In the run up to the game, TFC General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko had mentioned that "we need to win" to a group of assembled reporters, presumably starting with the Revolution game.

Following the game, TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen shot back at Bezbatchenko, effectively blaming his boss for unnecessarily raising the stakes. Nelsen's firing was announced the following the day.

Around the same time, Defoe's name started to surface in English transfer rumors. Several clubs were interested and at least one of them apparently made an offer that would have constituted a MLS record transfer fee. But TFC turned them all down, saying they intended Defoe to remain with the team.

There were also rumors that Defoe's injury was more serious than previously suggested and that he might even require surgery that would put an end to his season.

Despite the injury rumors, despite the transfer window closing, murmurs out of England are now saying that Defoe is trying to wriggle free of his TFC contract in order to expedite a move in the January transfer window. Meanwhile, TFC has lost the two games they've played under interim head coach Greg Vanney -- both to mid-table conference rival Philadelphia -- and find themselves in seventh place.

In other words, TFC finds itself in the kind of mess that their fans had hoped were a thing of the past. And it really is too bad. No fan base has suffered in quite the way TFC's has. They burst out of the gate, bringing a kind of energy rarely seen in North America, but the losing has taken its toll. The lively crowds have mostly died, with more and more seats sitting empty despite the ticket-sales numbers remaining relatively strong. The ownership has spent money, and lots of it, but can't find anything resembling a coherent leadership. Bezbatchenko was brought in from the league office, and while he gets credit for making a lot of smart moves on paper, still doesn't have much to show for it than his predecessors.

The chances that Vanney is the long-sought answer for coaching stability are not very good. Vanney, who has a solid playing resume, doesn't have much of a coaching track record and the early returns (a pair of losses) aren't so hot. There is almost guaranteed to be another coaching change this offseason, which is obviously bad. If they TFC keeps Vanney for the sake of continuity -- seemingly the reason Nelsen was allowed to remain after the man who hired him was fired -- there's a decent chance we're back where we started anyway. It's vicious cycle and TFC seems utterly unable to escape it.

This season is still far from lost, though. Even without Defoe, TFC has more than enough talent to fight its way into an Eastern Conference playoff field that seems destined to set a new bar for mediocrity. Making the playoffs would at least be different, but the ride sure looks familiar.