BY RYAN TOLMICH
Toronto FC’s story is a much publicized one.
Since joining the MLS in 2007, TFC have never had a winning record and never made the playoffs. It has been a history of disappointment, failure and, to put it kindly, mediocrity.
2013 was more of the same for TFC. A 6-17-11 record was deemed unacceptable. Quite frankly, TFC’s owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, had seen enough.
Enter the 2013-14 offseason. TFC went on a spending spree that hadn’t be seen since David Beckham’s stateside arrival. The club acquired, among others, U.S. Men’s National Team star Michael Bradley, Tottenham Hotspur forward Jermain Defoe, Brazilian National Team goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Brazilian striker Gilberto and former MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario. Overall, the club reportedly spent over $100 million to revamp their roster in an effort to escape the doldrums of MLS.
TFC’s acquisitions join a squad that now is among the most top-heavy in recent memory. There are plenty of stars in Toronto, but depth looks to be an issue, especially with the injury bug already having gotten to the team via Bright Dike and his torn achilles.
The 2014 season is the beginning of a new era in Toronto. Big name players have arrived and talent appears to be in abundance. Only one question remains: can money actually buy happiness?
Here is a closer look at 2014 Toronto FC:
TORONTO FC SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 6-17-11, 29 pts. (Ninth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Jermain Defoe, M Michael Bradley, GK Julio Cesar, M Dwayne De Rosario, F Gilberto, M Jackson, D Bradley Orr, D Justin Morrow
KEY LOSSES: M Mattias Laba, F Robert Earnshaw, M Bobby Convey, F Justin Braun, GK Stefan Frei
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Gilberto. Everyone knows what TFC are getting with Bradley, Defoe and Cesar. However, Gilberto is somewhat of an unknown in comparison to his new teammates. The Brazilian forward was the sixth-leading scorer in Brazil’s top flight last season, as the 24-year-old scored 14 goals. If Gilberto can play up to the level of his new superstar teammates, TFC will be fun to watch.
PRESSURE IS ON: Michael Bradley. The 26-year-old American left Italian powerhouse Roma for greener pastures in Toronto. It’s a World Cup year, so getting on the field is the name of the game. Bradley now has certain expectations thrust upon him as a result of his big money move. The American midfielder will have to justify his price tag with his league play, while also proving to US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann that a move to MLS is a viable option in terms of player development. It’s going to be a big year for Bradley at both the club and international level.
On paper, TFC have what it takes to be a contender in the Eastern Conference. They have a midfield general in Bradley to feed their fearsome front line of Gilberto and Defoe. In the back, they have Cesar to erase mistakes, which is something the Brazilian did for years at Inter. When assessing this team from top to bottom, they have talent that is rivaled by few in MLS.
However, paper talent and functional talent are completely different when it comes to assembling a team at this level. Professional soccer isn’t all about rolling the ball out to your best players and telling them to play. TFC will face plenty of challenges in their quest to the first winning season in club history.
The Toronto all-stars will certainly take time to acclimate to one another. While each of their acquisitions is a proven professional, it takes time for players to develop the trust required to make a deep playoff run. TFC’s biggest fight of the season won’t be against New York Red Bulls or Sporting Kansas City; it’ll be against time, as TFC will find themselves in a race to develop the chemistry it takes to be successful.
Even if you aren’t a firm believer in the “chemistry wins championships” school of thought, TFC also have depth issues that could come back to bite them. The club spent big money on their acquisitions, yes, but there are 18 names on a game-day roster, each of whom plays an important role for the team. TFC will need their superstars to play consistently elite soccer for the team to succeed.
In terms of specific positions, TFC’s biggest assets are up front. Defoe and Gilberto could potentially combine to be one of the league’s top strikeforces. Defoe is a striker hitting the end of his prime, but the former Spurs man still has goals to contribute. Defoe will instantly step in to the team as one of the top forwards in MLS. The 31-year-old will need to come out of the gates firing with a trip to the World Cup on the line, so look for Defoe to score early and often.
In the midfield, there’s Bradley, whose style of play should fit quite nicely in MLS. Bradley has the ability to make everyone around him better with his passing and soccer IQ. Bradley will be TFC’s most important player this season and he will have to play like it if TFC are to contend with MLS’ elite.
Bradley will pair up with Jonathan Osorio, Alvaro Rey and fellow new arrival Jackson in the midfield. Bradley has the talent to make each of these players better, especially the 21-year-old Osorio, who scored five goals last season. Overall, it is a decent midfield that is made much better by the arrival of the American.
On the defensive end, veteran Steven Caldwell is entering the back end of his career. The 33-year-old Scottish international was solid in the back last season and he will need to continue to lead the TFC defense. Joining Caldwell will be Doneil Henry, with young American centerback Gale Agbossumonde waiting to step in should the need arise. At the fullback position, on-loan Bradley Orr will join former all-star Justin Morrow to form a backline that will need time to adjust to one another.
Luckily, the presence of Cesar will help TFC work through some of the opening week kinks. Cesar is still an elite goalkeeper, as evidenced by his status with the Brazilian national team, and TFC can expect Cesar to save the team from giving up a few cheap goals.
Overall, TFC have assembled quite the team. They truly do have the talent to compete in the always fierce Eastern Conference. However, it is yet to be seen if TFC can play up to the level of the conference’s elite, as Sporting KC and NYRB should still be favored to claim the top two spots.
It’s playoffs or bust this season for TFC. Anything less than an appearance in the postseason will be a massive failure. 2014 might not be the year of TFC, but it will be the year that the club finally escapes its status as perennial cellar-dweller .