What now? Toronto FC enters the off-season.

The short answer to the title question is a simple “not much”. The Toronto Football Club has proven its quality this season-and that quality resides in the hands of players in their prime who are in no danger of falling off the cliff of diminishing returns due to age. It is no secret that the men in Red were the better team on Saturday night-one of the odd idiosyncrasies of the beautiful game is that the better team does not always come home with silverware. A good Coach knows to recognize when a loss comes not through lack of skill or strategy-but through mere bad luck. Aron Winters, after the Reds lost to Chivas USA 1-0, claimed that it was “bad luck”, adding that “we deserved to win because we were the better team”. This loss was the fifth of an MLS record eight straight loses to start the 2012 season. We did not hear this type of explanation for the loss from Greg Vanney in his post-game press conference, but the words certainly would have been more palatable coming from Vanney. One sportswriter described Toronto FC’s loss as a loss of inches-the inches higher that Altidore’s header needed to be to slide past Frei’s fingers. The inches lower that Morrow’s shot needed to be to deflect into the net. When a team comes inches from winning the Cup-that team can restrict itself to making inches of change.

What Will Stay

Everybody is saying it, and you won’t hear anything differently here: the core of Toronto FC will remain. Leading up to the playoffs, there was some discussion about whether or not the Reds still need Michael Bradley. His play hadn’t been quite up to par, especially given his expensive price tag of 6.5 million. Yet, after Bradley’s stellar performance during the playoffs, he will undoubtedly be one of the stalwarts of Toronto’s 2017 team. The amount of touches that he had each game in this fantastic playoff run served to illustrate just how important he is to the strategy and effectiveness of the team. If Bradley would have found the back of the net in the championship-deciding shootout, he would certainly have been the Playoff MVP.
Alongside Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore have both voiced their support for the team and their desire to continue. Giovinco has declared that he has goals at Toronto FC that he wants to achieve before fielding any questions about his future with the club. Considering he has already earned the Golden Boot and League MVP, as well as holding the franchise record for most goals-I’m sure that I am not the only person that eagerly anticipates what may come next for our Atomic Ant.

Clint Irwin will remain as the calm keeper between the posts. Fans experienced a moment of panic when Irwin’s name appeared on the unprotected list for the expansion draft, and again when he was selected by Atlanta as their third round pick. But Irwin would only belong to Atlanta for the three hours leading up to the trading window the evening following the draft-Toronto FC management had clearly worked out a deal. Irwin was traded back to the Reds for Mark Bloom and General Allocation Money. This quick trade meant that Toronto FC was able to avoid the lottery of the draft-and Atlanta was able to pick up a solid and experienced defender with the extra sweetener of GAM for their cooperation. Mark Bloom’s departure is no surprise, as his services were rarely called upon-and his $101, 849 salary made him a relatively expensive bench player, especially considering the depth of Toronto’s bench.

For the non-DP midfielders, expect to see a lot more of Armando Cooper. The Panamanian has impressed Greg Vanney with his athleticism and work ethic, and has become a favourite of the fans. Tim Bezbatchenko announced Cooper’s permanent signing on the same day as the expansion draft (he had previously been on loan from Arabe Unido). Alongside Cooper, Jonathan Osorio will certainly continue as a TFC mainstay. Osorio has grown into a quality attacking midfielder. Although he has some additional stretching to do-his finishing needs work, and he hasn’t quite learned when to shoot and when to pass; fans can expect to see more of Toronto’s local boy.

Justin Morrow, despite the crushing moment when he watched his shot deflect off the crossbar against Seattle-will continue to provide picture-perfect crosses for our start strikers to crush into the net. Morrow has shown himself to be the best left-back in MLS this season, and Toronto will protect him fiercely. In the centre back, Drew Moor will continue to control the Reds’ back line-likely with the help of Zaveleta and Hagglund. However, this is a place where-surprisingly, the Reds may look to find improvement. Undoubtedly, Moor’s acquisition has shorn up the defence of Toronto, and increased fortitude by Hagglund and Zaveleta have helped to elevate Toronto from having one of the worst defensive lines in the league to one of the best. Yet, both Hagglund and Zaveleta can be inconsistent at times. In particular, Hagglund has proven to be beatable on the ground-although his abilities in the air certainly lend strength to the argument that he is a valuable player on TFC’s starting eleven.

Expect to see Alex Bono remain as a solid backup goalie for the Reds, as well as Chapman, Endoh, Ricketts, and Hamilton for solid depth and off-the-bench power.

What Will Go

Already we know some of the players that Toronto FC will be losing in the 2017 season. Toronto neglected to pick up options on Simonin, Lovitz, Cheyrou, and Mannella. Likely the most noteworthy of these names is Benoit Cheyrou given his importance this season during Michael Bradley’s absence, as well as his appearances off the bench during the playoffs. Cheyrou’s departure creates a slight gap in Toronto’s bench when it comes to central midfielders. Some Reds fans have suggested that Johnson could step into that role-but Vanney has not demonstrated a great deal of confidence in Johnson, and the question also remains over how long Johnson will be willing to sit on the bench as a backupsomething we will discuss later in this article. Toronto does have depth in their midfield, and there is the possibility of seeing someone like Jay Chapman sliding into the role given time and training.

Other players who may or may not be on the chopping block include Quillan Roberts-Alex Bono has solidly taken the number two keeper position; Mo Baboulithe depth of strikers has grown since Babouli played alongside Giovinco early in the season, and his experience makes him have some value; Josh Williams; Marky Delgado; and Ashtone Morgan.

As a slight digression, I think it’s worth noting that out of the above, Mo Babouli, Will Johnson, Chris Mannella, Ashtone Morgan, and Quillan Roberts are Canadian: five of the nine players who may end up departing from Toronto. This certainly lends some evidence to the criticism of Toronto FC-namely, that it is a team in Canada, but not a Canadian team.

The Questions

Trying to cover all of the many questions and possibilities that will arrive during the short off-season in Toronto is impossible. One of the fascinating aspects of soccer in the North American market is that we are unused to the massive pool of players that are available to each team, given the many soccer markets throughout the world. This fact means that the fortunes of teams can swing from the bottom of the table to the top in one off-season, depending on the abilities of the manager. However, I will speculate on certain areas that we can point to and expect some moves.

In particular, I believe that Greg Vanney’s change to the 3-5-2 formation late in the season will be the driving force in what changes are made to the Reds’ roster. The 3-5-2 works, and it works well with the core group of players that are already at Toronto. It builds on the strengths of Toronto’s three DPs, as well as many of their other staple players. However, there are two areas in particular where some help is needed. First of all, likely the most disjointed player when it comes to relating to his new role is Steven Beitashour. He is an excellent player, and has worked hard to satisfy the demands of his new position. However, it is not a natural fit for him and his work at the top of the field is in stark contrast with Morrow. Of course, this comparison is a bit unfair, as Morrow is-as mentioned earlier, one of the best left-backs in the entire league. Yet, Beitashour’s difficulty in creating consistently good crosses, as well as his tendency to get caught too deep leaving Toronto FC open to the counter, has led the rest of the squad to play somewhat distrustfully toward the American right-back. The Reds’ movement up the left has thus become too predictable at times, and the right under-exploited. Don’t be surprised if Management looks to acquire a stronger right-back who is able to slide into the full-field position that the 3-5-2 calls for.

The second area that may see some expansion is the full-back players, as I have already alluded to. While Moor’s position is unquestionable, Hagglund and Zaveleta may be greeting some challengers to their position in the near future. The reason for this is, again-the 3-5-2 formation; which calls for strong centre backs who have a great deal of responsibility in protecting the box. Toronto FC lacks depth in their back line-expect Management to address this.

One other significant question-mark is the position of Will Johnson, as I mentioned above. Johnson is a quality player, and has the capacity to start on most squads in the MLS. Yet, Armando Cooper’s signing and Vanney’s confidence in Osorio has relegated Johnson to the bench. Johnson’s current salary is $395,333. A very high price to pay for a bench player who is brought in only for very specific situations. His contract ends during this off-season, and he has already expressed interest in becoming a free agent. I do not expect to see Johnson on the roster next season-but what makes this particularly interesting is the money that will be saved through Johnson’s departure. I say this somewhat cavalierly, but I should mention that I am partial to Johnson over Cooper as a starter. That, however, is an entirely different conversation. What is clear is that Johnson will not be content to ride the bench, and Toronto FC will not be content to have him on the books if Vanney continues to put him there. The median salary of the MLS sits at around $117,000-the average is much higher, but is a less accurate gauge given the massive jump between DPs and non-DPs. In other words, Johnson’s salary can pay for (and arguably already does in Johnson) a very high quality non-DP player; or a couple effective budget players. This means that, with the departure of Johnson and a few other players-Toronto Management does have the ability to make a large acquisition.

Pairing the savings gained through the departure of Will Johnson with the bump in General Allocation Money this season makes for an interesting prospect. MLS has announced that they will be increasing the Targeted Allocation Money by $400,000 per club, which means that the money Toronto FC has available to spend is verging on a full million dollars. At least $857, 500 of this could theoretically be fed into one player because of how the TAM works, or it could be spread out for the acquisition of a number of key players.

Conclusion

There will be changes during the off-season-we should expect and embrace this. Many fans, I among them, find it difficult to imagine improvements on a roster that has been so very good to them for a season. Yet there are always areas that can be expanded on. If Management is wise, they will work on enhancing the depth of this team. Depth not only provides staying power to a team, but also feeds into the future as that depth becomes the starting squad.

Toronto FC has the resources to expand on their already-strong base in ways that will make a strong run even more certain in the 2017 season. Given the success that Tim Bezbatchenko has already had as Manager, I anticipate some exciting news from the club in the next four weeks.

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Nathanael Martin

Nathanael Martin

Nathanael is a Political Theory MA graduate Not-For-Profit Professional who spends way too much of his time reading about, writing on, and watching the beautiful game. After playing soccer throughout childhood, his love was rekindled when Toronto FC gave him the opportunity to cheer for a local soccer team on the national stage. Since then, he has become passionate about Canadian soccer and the development of Canadian players through the Toronto Academy system and other branches of Canadian soccer.

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