Toronto FC exorcised a demon by finally making the playoffs last year. Now, it is all about building on that and achieving even more.
The 2015 season saw Toronto FC finished sixth in the Eastern Conference to book a historic first trip to the postseason. The nine-year wait for a taste of playoff soccer was finally over, but the club was eliminated quickly and embarrassingly, falling at the hands of the rival Montreal Impact in the first round by a 3-0 margin.
While the end to the campaign was disappointing, the Reds dazzled fans both at home and across the league. Sebastian Giovinco delighted in his first season in Toronto with world-class goals and play en route to winning the MLS MVP award, and fellow Designated Players Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore also had their moments.
The defense was admittedly weak, however. Toronto FC finished the year with a league-worst 58 goals conceded, and spent much of the offseason overhauling the back line and goalkeeper positions in an effort to build a more balanced squad.
“We’re confident with our defending group,” Toronto FC head coach Gregg Vanney told SBI. “Part of this is just going to be, with two new players in the potential back four and a new goalkeeper, continuity and repetition and getting these guys working together so that they read plays the same way and they work together as a unit.”
“As we become a better defending team, it will be about getting leads in games and getting ahead where you’re playing from a position of strength vs. a position of deficiency or behind.”
Much of the rest of the roster has been kept in tact in order to try and build on last year’s accomplishments. There might be some new faces sprinkled in here and there and even a new formation, but Toronto FC’s lofty goals remain.
Here’s a closer look at the 2016 Toronto FC:
TORONTO FC SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: 15-15-4, 49 points (6th in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Drew Moor, Clint Irwin, Steven Beitashour, Will Johnson
KEY LOSSES: Joe Bendik, Ahmed Kantari, Jackson, Robbie Findley, Luke Moore
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Drew Moor. Not only is the veteran centerback being counted on to provide his savvy and possibly his versatility, but the club also expects him to be a very vocal leader at the back. It might take some time for Moor to truly feel comfortable alongside his new teammates, but Toronto FC is expecting him to be a big part of its success.
PRESSURE IS ON: Jozy Altidore. The striker’s first season in Toronto saw him score 13 goals in 25 games, which is a decent haul, but the club wants even more production out of the Designated Player this year. He might currently be dealing with a hamstring injury, but has impressed the Toronto FC staff in training and exhibition games this year after showing up to camp 10 pounds lighter.
Toronto FC may have made the playoffs for the first time last year, but still fell well short of its ultimate goal of lifting an MLS Cup. The defense struggled mightily, and Sebastian Giovinco’s repeated brilliance could only overcome that so many times.
To address those issues at the back, Toronto FC made a number of moves for MLS veterans while keeping the rest of the roster largely in tact. The club traded for goalkeeper Clint Irwin and right back Steve Beitashour, and signed centerback Drew Moor via free agency. Additionally, Toronto FC added central midfielder Will Johnson in order to provide more defensive bite to the team.
Fixing the defense has been the No. 1 priority, but the big-spending club has also seen ways to bolster an attack led by Giovinco, Altidore, and Michael Bradley. The Reds have switched from last year’s 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 setup in preseason with the hopes that the tactical change can help them improve on both sides of the ball.
“We may or may not ultimately live there forever, but part of it is we start on the road,” said Vanney. “It’s making sure we cover the field the right way in terms of making sure we cover the width, that we protect the outside channels, making sure that we have the proper numbers in the middle of the field to oppose the opposition. A lot of teams that we play in this league play a version of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 so maybe sometimes those are match-ups.”
“We also know that teams over the course of last year really started to crowd Sebastian and send numbers to Sebastian and get people and bodies around him and crowd his space. It’s much harder to do that when a player is coming from a wide position, and if they send numbers out to a wide position then it’s going to open up the middle of the field.”
Just like last year, Toronto FC is set to play on the road during the opening months of the season because of continued renovations to BMO Field. The club will not play a home game until May 7, and will be on the road for eight straight weeks.
Kicking off the season like that is certainly not ideal. Unforeseen issues are bound to arise both on and off the field, whether it be bad bounces or delayed flights. Still, Toronto FC can lean on the experience gained from the start of the 2015 season to try and more successfully navigate through this grueling part of the schedule.
The time away will also provide the players with plenty of opportunities to come together. Most of the squad from last year has carried over into 2016, but chemistry can always improve and going through adversity helps with that.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I think it gives us a base to really find out who we are,” midfielder Will Johnson told SBI. “How quick can we come together and go into some of these hostile environments and get points early in the season? I think it’s an opportunity for us that if we can get a certain amount of points and you have your home games back-loaded on the schedule you can really make a push to a pretty high point total.
“It’s a challenge for all our guys to understand that it’s going to be a very difficult stretch, there’s going to be some really tough moments. We’re going to have weather storms, but it’s going to be put-up-or-shut-up time early in the season. We’ve got to understand that and use our experience and make sure that we’re up for every single battle and scrap and fight for every single point that we can in get those first games.”
Toronto FC has pieces to be successful, but will need to do a better job of being a more balanced team in order to surpass last year’s accomplishments. Giovinco and Altidore can still do the brunt of the attacking work, but will also need more contributions from the likes of rookie Tsubasa Endoh, who looks likely to start out wide, and reserve Herculez Gomez.
The midfield also needs to carry its weight. Toronto FC wants to evolve into a team that is tough to play against, and accomplishing that will fall at least in part on the shoulders of players like Johnson, Bradley, Benoit Cheyrou, and Jonathan Osorio. Then, there’s the defense, which has a number of new faces and will take time to truly jell.
There is enough quality on Toronto FC to make a deeper run this year than in 2015. Whether TFC can compete for an MLS Cup title, however, will depend on how the team does with its new additions and new formation.
“For us, we want to come together as a group,” said Vanney. “We’ve had more continuity going into this season than this club has ever had in the history of its existence in terms of carrying players over from one season to the next. We want to build more continuity, which I think builds relationships on and off the field that you ultimately need in this league to be successful, because the margins of victory are not big.
“We also want to improve on our edge as a group in terms of competitiveness, identity, and go through the process that the season is and stick together. We’re not going to win every game. As we go through our ups and downs, we want to be able to become a group that in the end has been hardened by the season and ready to compete for a championship.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP