Michael Bradley had every right to be frustrated.
In the two months since Bradley and Julio Cesar last suited up for Toronto FC, the team had done everything right, quietly going on a six-game unbeaten streak while two of its biggest stars flew their respective countries' flags at the World Cup. Heck, even Gilberto started to earn his hefty striker's paycheque in their absence, scoring his first goal for the club 10 days ago against New York.
So it made little sense that in Bradley's first game back, TFC conspired to drop a very winnable game at home to D.C. United on Saturday, losing 2-1 – the same scoreline that prompted the United States' ouster in Brazil – on the only two shots the Eastern Conference table-toppers registered on target all evening.
The only good news for TFC fans was that Bradley "felt good physically" during his 61-minute outing – before being substituted with Jonathan Osorio – despite his recent toils in the sweltering Brazilian heat. With Cesar headed back to QPR in the English Premier League whenever Brazil's involvement at the World Cup comes to a end, the American midfielder's return has Toronto FC at virtually full strength as it heads into its biggest logjam of fixtures this season.
Currently sitting fourth in the East, TFC is set to play a further five Major League Soccer fixtures this month, with a high-profile friendly against Jermain Defoe's former team, Tottenham Hotspur, squeezed in on July 23. As Bradley puts it mildly, "The season for us really starts now."
With the addition of long-coveted attacking midfielder Dominic Oduro just before the World Cup, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko says the current squad of players is one that the franchise's braintrust is largely happy with, though with the roster freeze deadline of Sept. 15 still a ways off, you never say never when it comes to making changes.
"There's a lot of things we're looking at but we like our team now and the priority has definitely shifted from filling holes and adding depth – we have depth now in all our lines," he says. "It's now about jelling, coming together, deepening that character that I think you've seen that we have and just coming together and developing that mentality that you'll need in the run-up to the playoffs."
Given that TFC has between two and four games in hand on everyone else in the Eastern Conference, Bezbatchenko also knows that his club is well positioned to make a successful assault on the first playoff berth in franchise history, particularly as TFC's current average of 1.5 points per game this season places it third in the East in that regard, behind only D.C. (1.65) and defending MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City (1.53). But after three years of watching on from MLS head office as senior director of player relations and competition, Bezbatchenko is well aware that things can change in a hurry.
"In this league, it's tough because everyone's so close," he says. "You string together a couple of wins and all of a sudden you've moved up. So we're on guard. Houston [seventh in the East] for example has had a tough run of it, but they always find their form during the summertime and late and you never count somebody like [long-tenured head coach] Dom [Kinnear] out."