A year ago I wrapped up my 2015 Toronto FC preview with the expectation of playoffs and the slogan of "Just Win". This came from the acknowledgement of management having a strong off-season in bringing players like Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, although as a suffering TFC supporter there were still concerns that despite the largest budget in the league that the club will fall short once again. In the end, Toronto FC got their playoff game, but the season had a number of issues including a very poor end of the season stretch and playoff game many will want to forget.
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Toronto FC 2016 season preview.
The Reds had another strong off-season heading into 2016, yet not game changers or really exciting players, but consistent MLS veterans who fill in roles where Toronto FC struggled in the past. Toronto FC let go of players who I suggested in my end of season review and brought in upgrades to those positions, which should make the Reds competitive in the Eastern Conference, but worries still exist especially in a playoff scenario. The biggest issue is how the team gels as a unit and can they have the humility to get most out of each player instead of relying on outstanding individual performances.
Toronto made major changes in net by letting both Joe Bendik and Chris Konopka go. This area has been a weakness for the Reds since allowing Stefan Frei to leave, which was noticeable by both Bendik and Konopka having poor save percentages. Unfortunately, their main replacement Clint Irwin has also struggled in this aspect of the game. Irwin did have a save percentage in 2015 at .698, almost 70 points higher then Bendik, although in 2014 Irwin was the only keeper with a lower save percentage than the new Orlando City goalkeeper.
What I do like about Irwin is the effort he has taken and character shown to become a number one keeper in MLS. Irwin worked his way through North American semi-pro soccer playing in the CSL with Capital City, USL with Charlotte, before getting his opportunity with Colorado. After an Injury, Irwin became the Rapids starting keeper and kept the role the last three years despite being up against keepers Matt Pickens and Zac MacMath. There was also an outcry by Rapids fans when he left, so it looks like Irwin has better intangibles than past Toronto FC keepers, but to be honest I'm not sure how many more goals he will prevent.
Irwin's backup currently is the combination of Homegrown keeper Quillan Roberts and GA Draft pick from last year Alex Bono. As it stands heading into 2016, Roberts has been named the official back-up for first kick, while Bono has been sent back down to TFC II. Skill-wise both Bono and Roberts are comparable to Irwin, although don't have the experience despite getting a lot of action with Toronto FC II last season. So it is Irwin job unless Toronto FC can find a way of bring in a another keeper with limited cap room left.
Toronto went out of their way in the off-season to bring in a proper Right Back and allow Justin Morrow to play in his traditional left back role. Morrow has been a consistent player since joining the Reds and has also been asked to play multiple roles in the back which has sometimes affected his play. Morrow is a defender TFC rely on getting almost 40 touches a game and making over six key defensive contributions over 90 minutes of play. With Morrow starting on the left it means Ashtone Morgan will be continue to be the odd man out, which is disappointing from a Canadian perspective, and despite Morgan's above average offensive ability as a full back his defensive play has yet to develop him into the complete package.
Toronto traded for Steven Beitashour where the Iranian International player had two strong seasons with the Whitecaps and regarded expendable because of his contract. Beitashour's numbers with the Whitecaps were similar to that of Morrow where more was expected from him on the defensive side of the game then the offense. This lack of wing play could hurt Toronto's ability in creating offensive chances from out wide but should help Toronto in controlling possession as well having greater defensive awareness from the back four. Toronto has Mark Bloom and Daniel Lovitz as depth in these position who have become the forgotten men due to injury and TFC are hoping that both Morrow and Beitashour remain healthy as they would be automatic picks for the starting eleven.
Despite a number of off-season moves position-wise this could still be Toronto FC biggest issue this season. Toronto signed free agent Drew Moor who has been a very consistent MLS player in his career, although performance-wise 2015 was his weakest season. Historically Moor's greatest attributes are more as a full back, including a strong crosser and passer of the ball. He's antiquate at aerial duels despite being a smaller defender, but struggles with his tackling and prefers to knock the ball out of play than disposes the attacker. As a center back, Moor will be more of a ball possession defender and allow Damien Perquis to handle more of the heavy lifting.
Perquis core data was quite strong last season. He had very good control in possession, averaged over 30 touches per game and had an impressive 10.5 key defensive contribution per 90 minutes. What hurt Perquis was a lack of concentration and discipline, which meant almost a play every game he put his club in danger. As I mentioned in last year's preview, this has been a constant concern for the Polish International which cost him his career in Spanish la Liga with Real Betis. Perquis and Moor's potential replacements Josh Williams, Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund, and Clement Simonin played well when given minutes last season, although like Moor and Perquis, are not players you have the greatest amount of confidence in, and with the release of Ahmed Kantari there might still be a chance Toronto could bring a more consistent center back. One interesting option is American-born and Premier League veteran Brede Hangland, as the 34 year old who currently plays with Crystal Palace is out of contract in May.
In the past, regarding holding midfield, I would bring up Michael Bradley and the ongoing issues with him not performing to his potential at this position. Although I now resigned to the fact that Micheal Bradley feels he is an attacking midfielder despite my feelings his greatest asset on the club would be as a defensive midfielder like the role he played with Roma in Italy. Toronto do have depth in this position with Benoit Cheyrou, Colin Warner, possibly Jay Chapman, and the signing of Canadian International Will Johnson.
Cheyrou, as expected, played very strong last season using his experience from many seasons in France's Ligue 1 to his advantage. Cheyrou touched the ball over 55 times per game. He contributed more defensively than Bradley and the most surprising skillset was his passing ability, which led to seven assists last season. The one aspect where Cheyrou did struggle was his shooting, only hitting the target seven times from his 33 shots taken. The other concern regarding him is he's 35 years old, which raises fitness and stamina concerns, especially for a player Toronto relies on both on offense and defense.
To help carry the load Toronto acquired Will Johnson from Portland. Johnson is coming back from a broken leg he suffered against TFC in 2014. He has consistently has been a strong MLS player and despite not being included in the MLS cup finals last year, showed signs of returning to form in games he played with the Timbers. Johnson has also performed well with the Canadian national team, a role he could duplicate at Toronto FC with Cheyrou playing the Julian De Guzman role and Bradley the Atiba Hutchison role or as Cheyrou's partner in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 formation.
Collen Warner played well last year when asked, deserving his role in the team this year as a replacement in holding midfield, as well as an option off the bench. Warner's athletic ability provides Toronto FC more pressure in the midfield, especially on the defensive end that they might not get from Cheyrou. Warner showed he was good in possession and had a higher passing percentage then Cheyrou and is also the most willing tackler in the team. Jay Chapman is Toronto fourth option in this position and is a player who I like to see play more, although it is difficult to see this based on the amount of central midfielders on the team.
One reason why Toronto struggled for consistency last season is their best two players don't have a defined role. Micheal Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco are incredible talents, especially in MLS, so it would be a mistake not to give them the ball as much as possible. However, the drawback is Toronto didn't use the whole width of the pitch and arguably the talent of other offensive-minded players were not fully utilized. Based on the current roster, it is hard to come up with a solution to this dilemma with the most likely option just accepting it and hoping they can overcome teams on talent alone.
One potential option is the club play a diamond formation with Johnson and Jonathan Osorio playing behind Bradley and hope the forward combination of Bradley, Giovinco and Altidore can work together and produce goals. I feel Osorio had his best season last year, although I still feel he needs to shoot when opportunities come to him. He was the club's best passer, completing 88% of his passes, had seven assists and touched the ball almost 50 times per 90 minutes.
There is also talk of a 4-2-3-1 formation with either Osorio, Marco Delgado who looked good in games last season, or draft pick Tsubasa Endoh playing one of the wide midfield roles with Giovinco playing the other. The issue with this formation is Delgado is the only true winger on the club with both Osorio and Endoh more central midfielders and Giovinco himself prefers to play more center.
No matter what formation Toronto elects to use, Bradley has to prove he is capable of playing in more of an attacking role by choosing his shots more carefully and reading the game better. Bradley did improve his offensive output last season scoring five goals and adding six assists. Games where he excelled at in this role were early season matches against Montreal, Chicago and Orlando, although the worry this season is games where Toronto struggled last year like the playoff game against Montreal were games where the opponent was able to control the center of the pitch taking both Bradley and Giovinco out of the game.
It is difficult to talk about Toronto FC and not mention the exceptional season Giovinco had last year, scoring 22 goals and adding 15 assists in 33 regular season games. When Giovinco came to the league I predicted a dominant performer who has the ability for both scoring and creating goals that only a handful of players are capable of doing. I expect Giovinco to have another successful season this year, although maybe not the same offensive output as last year because teams are more likely to try to close him down. There is also the risk, if he continues his current output, of Giovinco missing late June and early July with Italy at the European Championship.
If Giovinco score less goals this season I think they will replaced by Jozy Altidore, who when healthy I expect more out of him this year than the 13 goals he scored in 2015. Altidore could score 20 goals a season in MLS, however a team would have to make him the center piece of the offense, including crosses in the box, which is a weakness for Toronto. That being said, Altidore should know his role better with TFC this season and look for more openings as both Giovinco and Bradley attract the attention of most of the opposing teams. Like Bradley, it will be to Altidore's benefit that he plays smarter and not attempt things beyond his ability.
Herculez Gomez is the smarter type of player I refer to, and could play a role this season. He is not a outright goalscorer, with only 24 career MLS goals in 131 games, but is a player who can both challenge a defense, try to find open space and could potently play with Giovinco and Altidore in a three forward formation if needed. He is also a good alternative to Altidore as a technical forward. Finally, Jordan Hamilton has a lot to prove if he is going to be a long term MLS player, although even with him being named to the senior team roster, I would not be surprised if most of his opportunities in 2016 come with Toronto FC II.
Toronto made four significant signings of players who are expected to be in the starting eleven, so analytically it is important to understand the potential impact these players can have on the team. Specifically, in 2015 it wasn't poor plays in these replaced positions that cost Toronto FC games last season, especially in the playoff loss to Montreal. Instead, it was an inability to create a consistent starting eleven, to contribute as a team defensively, including not making mistakes, and producing a more cohesive offense of not only creating opportunities, but also taking advantage of them.
On paper, Toronto FC looks strong. My analytical model sees them scoring 58 goals and allowing 48 goals for plus 10 goal differential that sees them around a solid second place in the Eastern Conference behind the New York Red Bulls and competing with Columbus and Montreal for a first round playoff bye. This is the third year in a row I been positive about Toronto's potential going into the season, although the last two years have left me with a feeling of disappointment and missed opportunities.
I'm optimistic going into this season, although I still feel the club is doing a poor job in developing their side and clubs I'm more optimistic about such as the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, both short and long term, are in much better positions. What I can't deny is the ability and effort of Giovinco and I also feel the players Toronto signed this year came here not for the money but to win, and traditionally in all sports these are signs for a good season and a team expecting to win a championship.
Aaron Neilsen is a co-founder of Prospect XI (Prospect Eleven), a scouting network and online magazine dedicated to tracking/highlighting young players that refer to as "prospects" as well as their development pathways both within North America and worldwide. Follow PXI via www.prospectxi.com or on twitter @ProspectXI.