There is almost no point in talking about the Toronto FC team from last year that had a first-year manager and finished the season 6-17-11. The lineup Toronto will put on the field for their much-anticipated March 15 opener against Clint Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders will be almost unrecognizable.
During the offseason, Toronto made wholesale changes to their roster. The players brought in are mostly big-name signings that are sure to have Toronto FC vying for a playoff spot this coming year.
The gem of the class was America’s own Michael Bradley. The summertime deal was the largest purchase in MLS history at $10 million and represented a 600 percent increase to Bradley’s salary. We can speculate on whether Bradley’s game will transfer to MLS, but it should be noted that previous successful European players have struggled in their first year.
If Bradley is half of the player he is when wearing the Red White and Blue, then expect him to be an All-Star come midseason. Joining Bradley is fellow designated player and Englishmen Jermain Defoe. Defoe comes to MLS by way of Tottenham and at the age of 31, he should still have some good years left in his tank.
Defoe, a 5-foot-6 striker, has made a living in England and brings a skill set that punishes defenses for mistakes. Also added in the offseason was the player expected to be his strike partner, Gilberto. The addition of the 24-year-old Brazilian means that Toronto changed all three of its designated players. Additionally, keeper Julio Cesar, Jackson and Dwayne De Rosario came over from QPR, FC Dallas and DC United respectively.
Management went out and paid for players, and now it is up to second-year manager Ryan Nelsen to bring the team together. Many questions will be asked of Nelsen after a dismal 2013 campaign. Nelsen looked every bit like a rookie coach, and his team’s record showed this. His team surrendered an astounding amount of goals after the 75th minute, leading many to question his ability to focus the team throughout a full 90.
It is safe to say that all the pieces are there and it is just a matter of time before they start playing together. But how long will it take for the pieces to come together?
Up top, Toronto will start Gilberto and Defoe, and have De Rosario waiting. Their preseason dark horse Bright Dike tore his Achilles, leaving Toronto rather thin up top. Regardless, Toronto should have a veteran group of forwards that will be able to score goals from all over the field. As the season progresses, expect to see a youngster step in and gain substantial minutes as Nelsen looks to rest some of his veteran players.
Bradley will man the middle for Toronto, and his ability to distribute the ball will be like nothing MLS fans have seen. He plays crisp balls that arrive at the feet of his teammates faster then any other player in the MLS. This allows teammates more time and space to create. It also has to be noted that Bradley has never been labeled a prima donna and should fit in nicely.
However, after Bradley, there are a ton of questions and little depth. Jermery Hall will surely be in the midfield. The youngster is looking to build off a successful 2013 campaign in which he logged the most games of any player. The rest is up to Nelsen, and it should be interesting to see his choice on opening day.
Last year this team let up goals and let them up at the wrong times. There were no changes in the offseason and could be the Achilles heel of the 2014 squad. It is expected that Nelsen will start Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry, Justin Morrow and Ryan Richter across the back with Julio Cesar in goal. Cesar brings a wealth of knowledge and professionalism and should be the driving force for this young group.
With all the new pieces in place, expect to see Toronto fall short of the media’s expectations but finish in a playoff spot. Toronto will surely struggle at the beginning of the season and their record will be purely based on how quickly Nelsen can bring the team together, regardless, I expect them to finish the season with a 24-9-11 record.