Fresh off its first-ever MLS Cup final appearance, Toronto FC is locked and loaded for another run in 2017. This time around, it may be MLS Cup or bust for the Canadian side.
The club did not make a lot of significant moves during the offseason, and for good reason. This same roster guided the team to the final and apart from Will Johnson’s departure, no other marquee players left during the winter. General manager Tim Bezbatchenko even managed a couple of signings, players like Victor Vasquez and Chris Mavinga.
“All of last year’s experiences, especially those taken from the end of the year, remain relevant with this group,” said head coach Greg Vanney. “From a leadership perspective within our team to the guys who played the cast majority of minutes last year down the stretch, by and large, everyone is here. We can continue to build off of those experiences as a group. We don’t have to start over.
“The year before, we had the disappointment of not playing so well in the playoffs and with the run we had at the end of last year, there’s a better sense of where we are and where we can be and some clarity on roles and things like that. We went from needing to add pieces to us now, this year, looking to add one or two pieces that can compete in the starting group… The establishment of the group is really there, and I couldn’t say that as much last year.”
As ever, TFC’s hopes will lie at Sebastian Giovinco’s feet. The 30-year-old recorded 17 goals and 15 assists last year, despite missing six games towards the end of the regular season due to injury. Provided he stays relatively healthy, Toronto will be expected to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference.
“I think they were ready to get back to work the day after the final last year,” Vanney said. “It’s important, this season, to recognize that it’s important to put down building blocks over the course of the season, to get better throughout the course of the year. We understand that, and we can’t make up for a lost final by just turning around this year and winning the final. We actually have to get ourselves there and take those steps through the season.
“The year before, two good teams made it to the final, one of them won, and neither of them made it to the playoffs the next year. You can’t take it for granted at the start of the season and hope you can just turn it around. It’s important to approach a season with the right mindset from the start.”
Here is a closer look at the 2017 Toronto FC team:
TORONTO FC SEASON PREVIEW
2016 FINISH: 14-9-11 (3rd in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga
KEY LOSSES: Will Johnson, Mark Bloom, Josh Williams, Daniel Lovitz
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Victor Vazquez
TFC boasted one of the league’s most lethal attacks, but the team was frustrated on a few occasions by opponents who sat back and absorbed pressure. The 1-0 loss to the 10-man Montreal Impact at home on Aug. 27 immediately comes to mind, as does the MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders. Vazquez has a reputation for unlocking defenses with his passing. The Spanish midfielder has great vision and technique, which should help Toronto in these games. However, the 30-year-old has battled knee issues throughout his career, so it will be worth monitoring him early in the campaign to see if he acclimatizes to the physical nature of MLS.
PRESSURE IS ON: Jozy Altidore
Every Toronto player will be under pressure given the raised expectations in 2017. However, Altidore finished 2016 on a high with five goals and four assists in the playoffs. He also had 10 goals in 15 appearances after returning from a hamstring injury last July. Prior to the knock, the U.S. international was heavily involved in every area of the pitch, but struggled to score. It’s important for the 27-year-old to piece both of those together in 2017. Of course, that is dependent on the striker staying on the field for the majority of the campaign.
The additions of Vazquez and defender Chris Mavinga bolsters an already deep midfield and backline for TFC. This means it should be well-covered if there are injuries, suspensions or international call-ups during the year.
The familiarity between players should also give them a major advantage over other sides in the league, like the New York clubs, who made some major changes during the offseason.
Like the rest of the league, Toronto’s three Designated Players will be key to its success. However, with Altidore and Bradley set to miss a handful of games while they’re on U.S. Men’s National Team duty, head coach Greg Vanney may have to rely on young players and reserves during the dog days of summer.
It worked out for TFC last year, as Canadians Jordan Hamilton and Jay Chapman were particularly impressive when called upon last summer. Now the likes of Raheem Edwards, Liam Fraser and Shaan Hundal could be the next crop in line for some appearances with the first team.
“That’s going to be my biggest challenge this year,” Vanney said. “We have some very talented young players who are trying to continue to emerge as players and we have to get them some minutes to continue to allow for that development to take place. At the same time, we have some veteran players that don’t necessarily like to come off the field. They want to play all the time and, for me, that will be a challenge.”
As always, Giovinco will be the key man for the Reds. The diminutive forward will surely be an MVP candidate yet again in 2017, but there was some doubt around his future earlier in the offseason when his agent received two offers from China. The Italian rejected the moves, and he should play without distractions, but it will still be worth watching the former Golden Boot winner to see if he remains focused throughout the year.
If Giovinco plays as expected, Altidore should be free to run wild, much like he did down the homestretch of 2016. Altidore’s goalscoring run through the postseason was historic and, while the forward can’t be expected to match it in 2017, it does appear he turned a major corner.
“I think Jozy in particular, as he came back and was fit, healthy and feeling good, I think he just let loose and went for it,” Vanney said. “What we all witnesses was what we knew of Jozy, which was how difficult he can be for individual defenders and team defenders to handle when he gets going at full speed. He was able to build on that momentum and carry it through the playoffs.
“No player starts the next year exactly where they were the year before, so it will be a process for all of our guys, including Jozy, to build back up.”
Barring an injury bug infecting the whole squad, TFC’s key players should be in form throughout the season. The team’s tactical flexibility will also come in handy again as the players have the ability to play in a few different systems depending on the opposition.
This is why Toronto should be one of the favorites to win MLS Cup in 2017.
“We feel like we lost an opportunity (last year) for sure, and it’s something we want to try and achieve again,” Vanney said. “For myself, and I can speak for the staff and I think I can speak for the players based off of our discussions, we feel like we moved forward as a team in some very important ways since last year from the experiences of last year.
“There are a lot of things that were positive to take from last year, and particularly down the stretch when we were healthy and able to get our key guys on the field for a stretch run. It will be important for us to stay healthy this year, especially to keep some of our guys on the field for important games and have a little more consistency in terms of our top performance level.”