Toronto FC began their quest to reach MLS Cup glory in 2007, when the club was founded. It was the most junior of franchises. The “big guns” at the time were LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, with David Beckham, American star Landon Donovan and other big but fading names gathered from European football including Youri Djorkaeff, Robbie Keane, Juan Pablo Angel, and Thierry Henry over the years.
Toronto had losing seasons (more losses than wins) for a number of years but despite this, the club’s fiercely loyal fan base helped the franchise accumulate money that would be thrown at the squad. This was initially done in haphazard fashion with the likes of Laurent Robert, Mista, Thorsten Frings and Jermain Defoe to name an expensive few. A lot of these early purchases were met with plenty of hype, and fans with footballing backgrounds were familiar with some of the names. Most, however, were players past their prime and looking to continue their careers at a slower pace in MLS.
Nonetheless, just as the standard of football in the league improved over the years, so has Toronto FC’s recruitment. Instead of washed up veterans, the likes of Altidore, Bradley, and Giovinco are very much in the prime of their careers.
The club’s improvement in recent years reached a tipping point with the surprising acquisition of the littlest of forwards, Sebastian Giovinco, acquired from Juventus at the tender age of 27. Giovinco, along with current teammates Bradley, and Altidore, has made the biggest impact on the club’s history to date. The core trio have brought the Reds to the playoffs for two seasons in a row – feats that were both landmark achievements.
In 2015, the first year the club made the playoffs, Giovinco was the Most Valuable Player in MLS and the best player in the league by a long way – leading in both goals and assists. The club was able to overlook its terrible defensive weaknesses and score plenty of goals in fantastically entertaining games. One such example was a thrilling 4-4 draw away to NYCFC with Giovinco scoring a nine minute hat-trick (one of many records that the Italian has to his name).
Unfortunately, in the club’s first attempt at the playoffs, they capitulated in the first half of the single-leg knockout round against their cross-401 rivals, Montreal Impact (led by Didier Drogba). This was the bitter first taste of post-season football that TFC had seen in its short history.
Nonetheless, recognizing the side’s deficiencies the front office managed to strengthen the team’s defense the following year with MLS veterans like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin, leading to comfortable qualification for the post-season once again. The team relied slightly less directly on Giovinco, with other players like Altidore stepping up and and Tosaint Ricketts adding potent attacking menace off the bench. Michael Bradley also looked more anchored and pivotal in the Reds’ midfield orchestration.
The dream was not meant to be, however, as the 2016 MLS Cup saw TFC lose on penalties in heartbreaking fashion to the Seattle Sounders on home soil at BMO Field on a frigid night in Toronto, and despite dominating the game.
The club now have a task at hand – what will they have to show for their remarkable improvement under new management in recent years? Can they win the Supporters’ Shield? Can they get back to the MLS cup? Are they now a regular playoff team? Players like Giovinco, Altidore, and Bradley make up the core of the side and without them, the current identity of the club would be in peril. How long will they stay? These are questions that fans are asking before the start of the next MLS season.
Some believe that there is still a lack of balance in the squad. Despite attempts to balance attack and defense over the past two seasons, I think there is still an equilibrium that eludes the Reds’ play. The team should look to add at least two players during the off-season, without losing what they already have. Ricketts has been phenomenal off the bench, Beitashour has been good at right back, but perhaps a bit of competition would help. Bradley is a captain in the midfield but he has his short comings and could benefit from another midfielder that could complement his style, especially given the tenuous future of Will Johnson.
I also seriously believe that TFC need at least one strong central defender, especially one that can play out from the back. We saw Chad Marshall and Roman Torres in the MLS Cup playing vital roles for Seattle, and TFC could benefit greatly from having added strength and tactical nous at the back. A better defense should lay the platform for a more controlled, sturdy attack.
MLS teams have not reached the levels of collective defending (or “parking the bus”) witnessed in major European leagues. On the one hand this is extremely refreshing because parked buses are not fun to watch. On the other, with a stronger defense it is a gap that TFC could exploit should they master the art.
How the club responds to this latest setback will be fascinating to see. Here’s hoping that however it is done, another MLS Cup appearance is not far away.