Toronto FC is returning all 11 starters from the MLS Cup final loss to Seattle. And it has strengthened its already deep roster with a few key additions.
Greg Vanney’s team will need all of those resources. The road back to the MLS championship game is sure to be harder in 2017 with deep-pocketed Toronto wearing a target on its back and rival teams having another year to scheme how to stop the defending Eastern Conference champion.
Since 2012, eight different teams have contested the MLS Cup final. Last season, neither of the 2015 finalists â€” Columbus and champion Portland â€” made the playoffs.
And since the league started in 1996, only nine teams have returned to the championship game the following season â€” just two since 2007.
Toronto (14-9-11 last season for a franchise-record 53 points) kicks off Saturday at Real Salt Lake and, unlike past seasons when BMO Field was being renovated, will play just three games on the road before opening at home March 31 against Sporting Kansas City.
Captain Michael Bradley says the front office has done a good job in adding to the Toronto talent pool, with the likes of Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez and French-born Congolese defender Chris Mavinga.
“We feel good about the group that we have and what’s out there for us,” said Bradley. “But we are very cognisant of the fact that it’s a new season. Everybody starts from scratch.
“What happened last year is in the past. We’ll want to draw on that and use those experiences â€” both good and bad â€” to help us. But nothing’s going to be given to us and we have to understand that. The difference between good teams and the best teams are the ones that can mentally put everything else aside and find a way to take it one game at a time, one week at a time and go for it in a fearless, aggressive way for 90 minutes at a time and not worry about everything else.”
After a smooth training camp, a sloppy 4-1 loss in the pre-season finale to Chicago was a reminder that mistakes will be punished.
The team seems to have one foot in the past and one in the present heading into the new season.
The new marketing push titled “Dawn of the Reds” followed a teaser that promised “A New Dawn is Coming.” But team president Bill Manning and others have talked about unfinished business in the wake of the painful penalty shootout loss to the Sounders that saw the eventual winners fail to put a shot on target for 120 minutes.
It was the kind of defeat that stays with you, a chilly evening filled with what ifs.
As Bradley notes, Toronto’s challenge is to turn that into motivation. And to continue the consistency of last season when, from mid-July on, the team went 8-2-5 to finish the regular season and 4-1-0 in the playoffs before falling to Seattle.
The Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the club with the best regular-season record, is a goal â€” tangible proof of the team’s desired consistency.
“Every match is important this year,” said Vanney. “We’re not just waiting for the end of the year or for the home games. We want to start this off the right way and we want to compete the right way from the start.”
Gone are occasional midfield starter Will Johnson and reserve defenders Josh Williams and Mark Bloom. Several other squad players were also cut loose.
Toronto re-signed veteran French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou and rewarded goalkeeper Clint Irwin and forward Tosaint Ricketts with new contracts.
For Vanney, it all starts with defence. Toronto gave up 39 goals last season, 19 fewer than the year before, to tie for second in the league with Los Angeles behind Colorado (32).
Irwin is a reliable, calming influence in goal with Alex Bono proving last year he is up to the task when called on.
Veteran defender Drew Moor, who played every minute of the 32 games he started, proved to be the glue in the Toronto backline in his first year with the club. The 33-year-old Texan was a rock alongside 24-year-olds Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta in Vanney’s preferred 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation.
Mavinga may well take over a starting spot once he is comfortable in the system.
Justin Morrow, coming off a career year with five goals and four assists, and the reliable Steven Beitashour are talented bookends at wingback.
Bradley will do the dirty work as defensive midfielder, looking to connect the dots once he gets the ball. Vazquez, once fully game fit, will add flair and creativity behind the strikers.
Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio will likely split the remaining midfield opening with Cheyrou and Jay Chapman next up. Finding minutes for all his midfielders will be a challenge for Vanney.
Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore remain a strike force to be reckoned with. Despite injuries, they combined for 27 goals and 20 assists, with Altidore playing like a man possessed in the final weeks of the season.
Giovinco, frustrated by cramping issues in the playoffs, was irked at being passed over in MVP voting after winning the award in 2015 and will likely use the snub as further motivation to torment defenders. Expect rival teams to continue to look to take away space from the Italian and to physically abuse him at every opportunity.
Injuries and international duty will likely be Vanney’s biggest concerns. He expects to lose his international players from three to five games this season.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press