A winner in the off-season, Toronto FC now has to produce on the field.
After making the MLS playoffs for the first time in franchise history, Toronto (15-15-4) fell at the first hurdle in a humiliating 3-0 loss in Montreal last October.
GM Tim Bezbatchenko did his job over the winter, acquiring goalkeeper Clint Irwin, centre back Drew Moor, fullback Steven Beitashour and Canadian midfielder Will Johnson. The newcomers plug holes while bringing the team some much-needed MLS experience with 723 regular-season games between them.
The hope is they will also help Toronto forge an identity, which has been lacking despite last season’s promise.
With new president Bill Manning looking on, much is expected of the team with the deep-pocketed owner that has everything but a plus-.500 season.
Head coach Greg Vanney, as cool as a long glass of lemonade on a hot day, exudes a quiet confidence going into Sunday’s season opener at the New York Red Bulls.
“I like our group,” he said. “I don’t think it will all be perfect on Week 1. We still have some things to grow together as a group that we’ve seen over the course of pre-season. But I like the experience we have in our group, I like the youth that we have in our group and I think as we get more and more time and experience together over the course of the season, we’re just going to get better and better.”
“They’re all here to try and win a championship,” he added. “For the city, for the club, for the ownership, they want to win this championship.”
With reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco once again looking to terrorize MLS defenders, a livelier supporting cast around the Italian and hopes for an expanded role for Jozy Altidore, Toronto’s offence should be firing on all gears.
Needing to reinforce a defence that tied Chicago and New York City FC in allowing a league-worst 58 goals last season, Vanney spent considerable time during the pre-season drilling the whole team on defending.
That will be key given Toronto, for the second season in a row, has been thrown into the schedule deep end with eight straight road games to open the campaign due to ongoing BMO Field renovations.
Beitashour, whose pre-season was interrupted by a quad strain, fills a void at right back. Moor becomes the defensive lynchpin, hopefully bringing some calm to mercurial centre-back partner Damien Perquis. The reliable Justin Morrow continues at left back.
Playing a 4-3-3 in pre-season, Vanney had Michael Bradley playing a deeper midfield role. The idea is to get the captain facing forward and in position to influence play.
“He has a great range of passing, he’s got a nice touch in terms of dropping balls behind players,” said Vanney.
Bradley, whose intensity burns like a welding torch, can also help the defence in that role.
“He fits for us in that position, he can really drive our team forward from there, I think,” Vanney said. “He’ll find his moments to get involved in attacks as we continue to go. But the first eight games on the road, we want to defend solid and we’ll get forward when we have the right opportunities ... and Michael is every good at picking those moments.”
Johnson brings some sandpaper to the team with the creative but perennially underrated Jonathan Osorio already showing a good relationship with Giovinco. Benoit Cheyrou is a veteran presence in the midfield and Marky Delgado is a useful squad player but there is little depth behind them.
Up front, Daniel Lovitz and Japanese rookie Tsubsa Endoh had fine camps and saw action on both forward flanks where Osorio can also play. A healthy Altidore, currently nursing a hamstring, will be the tip of the Toronto FC spear, with a roving Giovinco causing havoc.
Depth is also an issue up front with the departure of Luke Moore and Herculez Gomez. Promising Canadian forward Jordan Hamilton, who turns 20 on March 17, could see more action barring the acquisition of another striker.
“It’s definitely something that we’re looking at as we progress through the season,” said Vanney. “We’ll see what comes available really.”
Academy product Mo Babouli will add some flair on offence when, as expected, he signs a first-team contract.
While the roster has been strengthened, the balance in terms of depth seems somewhat off-kilter as the season starts. Of the 22 outfield players, 10 are defenders.
Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco are looking at extended international duty during the season. Beitashour will likely spend time with Iran.
The league will go on hiatus June 3-17 during the Copa America Centenario, which runs June 3-26. Euro 2016 runs June 10 to July 10.
After a rough start on the road, Toronto hosts its first game May 7 under a new canopy complete with upgraded sound and lighting systems. Fans will be holding their breath hoping the club is right when it promises that sharing the stadium with the CFL Argonauts will not impact the playing surface.Report Typo/Error