Season Preview: Toronto FC / by Andrew Olsen

Toronto FC has been an enigma in their seven seasons in MLS. They have four Canadian Championships and a semifinals appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011, they had one of the strongest fan bases in their early years, and yet they have zero appearances in the MLS playoffs. But all signs point to an improved franchise as Tim Leiweke became President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, and promptly claimed he would make blockbuster signings. With the additions of three Designated Players in the offseason, the Reds are making every effort to end their playoff drought in the coming 2014 season.

2013 Finish: 6-17-11, 29 points; 30 GF, 47 GA. Ninth in Eastern Conference and 17th overall.

2013 Best XI

Toronto FC's best XI in 2013

Transactions

  Name Pos From where?   Name Pos To where?
In: Jackson M traded from FC Dallas Out: Michael Thomas M option declined
Gilberto M transfer from SC Internacional Darel Russell M option declined
Justin Morrow D traded from San Jose Robert Earnshaw F option declined
Jordan Hamilton F Homegrown Justin Braun F out of contract
Dwayne De Rosario M Re-Entry Stage 2 Danny Koevermans F out of contract
Jermain Defoe F transfer from Tottenham Stefan Frei GK trade to Seattle
Michael Bradley M transfer from AS Roma Bobby Convey M trade to New York
Bradley Orr D loan from Blackburn Rovers Richard Eckersley D trade to New York
Julio Cesar GK loan from Queens Park Rangers Jonas Elmer D contract terminated
Matias Laba M traded to Vancouver

Roster Churn: Toronto FC returns 55.6% of its minutes played from 2013 (9th in the Eastern Conference and 17th overall).

2014 Preview

Median age: 24 *Designated player

TORINFODo you remember back in high school when a rather ordinary girl that you barely noticed last year suddenly came back from the summer and was a complete knock out ? Well, Toronto FC is that knock out that MLS fans can't get enough of. For starters, NBCSN will showcase TFC's season opener against the Sounders on March 15. And even the infamous ginger (Alexi Lalas) has claimed on Twitter that he won't even consider that the league has started until TFC has played. Amazing how all it takes is a few transfers and you've suddenly got Garber's attention and deepest affections.

Toronto's 2013 season was forgettable to say the least. They were completely inept on offense---tied for second-to-last in total goals with 30 and also second-to-last in our new Expected Goals For 2.0 at 33.3---and ended their season with a miserable 29 points. But things started to point in the right direction with their first two off-season acquisitions: the speedy winger Jackson from FC Dallas and a strong DP signing in Gilberto. What happened next, though, no one could have foreseen.

Toronto picked up local hero and all-time leading scorer (32 goals) Dwayne De Rosario, who played for the Reds between 2009 and 2011, as a light warmup to what would follow. Then, in early December, rumors began brewing that Toronto was ready to open the checkbook and make a record signing for Tottenham striker and England international, Jermain Defoe. As that story was growing in credibility, in January Taylor Twellman unveiled a shocker that Toronto was also in the race to get USMNT star and Roma midfielder, Michael Bradley. Within days, Toronto FC had both players. It was like Joe Walsh joined the Eagles all over again---except the Eagles were already good and not in Canada, but whatever.

Many of us, myself included, scoffed at the idea that Bradley would return to MLS after claiming time and time again his desire to challenge himself at the highest levels of international soccer. But the lure of a new and distinct challenge, as well as a hefty pay raise (reports state Bradley received a pay raise of six times his salary from Roma), has Michael Bradley back in MLS. As a cherry on top, Toronto plucked Brazilian international Julio Cesar from Queens Park Rangers on loan---probably more a name than a top-level talent at this point---to finalize their off-season transformation from a basement dweller to a potential MLS Cup contender.

But basic math does not appear to a strong suit of the forever changing front office. Toronto already had one DP in Matias Laba, and three more made four total. Toronto had been trying for nearly two months to put Laba on loan, but Laba reportedly wanted to stay in MLS. Intra-MLS loans are a new thing---this year marked the first one in fact---but are indeed possible. However, the loan idea fell through, and as rosters were about to finalize on Friday, Toronto was forced to trade Laba to Vancouver for "future considerations." Though often ambiguous, future considerations in this case may very well involved them getting Laba back in 2015. But still, the perception of disarray in the Toronto front office (and back office, as Drew noted on our most recent podcast), was done no favors.

With all off-season transactions covered, Toronto now has to back up their talent-rich roster with results. Winning more often than it loses and making the playoffs would be a good start, though it's a long way to go from the Reds' status quo to MLS Cup contender. Only in 2009 were they remotely close to the playoffs, finishing 10-11-9 and three points out of a playoff spot in the East. Toronto has won no more than six matches in each of the past three seasons. There will be immense pressure with all the high-profile signings for the Reds to qualify for the playoffs, and qualify comfortably. But can Jermain Defoe adjust to a new league? Is Gilberto as good a finisher as advertised? And most importantly, can Michael Bradley be the key piece in the middle to lead the team?

Alex Olshansky (@tempofreesoccer) did an incredible write up on Michael Bradley, comparing his passing usage rating for the USMNT and his club teams. To summarize it quickly, Bradley is more involved in USMNT's attack and possession than he is with his club teams. And while many have criticized Bradley's move back to MLS, the new environment and his role with the team will likely be a greater challenge to him as a player. Bradley will now play the role of facilitator and key distributor, as well as meeting daily expectations to be the team leader for TFC, better preparing him for his role on the national team.

Soccer, as well as other sports, has shown us that adding a few great players does not guarantee success, especially on a pitch shared by eleven teammates. There is no doubt that Toronto is a better team, but an MLS Cup contender? We shall see. Regardless of where your allegiances resided in the past---as a Toronto fan, an American Outlaw, or other---things got interesting north of the border in the past few months, and everyone will have at least one eye on the Reds in 2014

Crowdsourcing Results

A plurality of ASA readers picked Toronto to finish third in the East this season (130 of 404 votes; 32.2%), and an overwhelming majority believes the Reds will make the playoffs in some capacity (355 votes; 80.7%).