By Aaron Nielson (@enbsports)
After years of ineptness Toronto FC finally has become a competitive club in MLS. Never afraid of spending the money, the Canadian side's results on the field never reflected the club’s ambitions for making the playoffs. They finally made it for the first time in 2015 and followed that up in 2016 by hosting the MLS Cup Championship game, though they lost to the champions Seattle. Toronto FC's success relied and will continue to rely on their three DPs: Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. The three players have a combined salary of over $20,000,000 per season and Toronto FC will be dependent on them if they expect to repeat their success in 2017.
In 2016, Giovinco again led the league in combined goals and assists and the Italian now has 39 goals and 31 assists in 61 regular season MLS games. Although 2016 was a bit more of a struggle than 2015, with Giovinco missing six games through injuries and opponents forcing him to take more difficult shots. His overall xG+xA was 23.48 which was second in the league behind David Vila. Giovinco also had difficulty in the MLS Cup Finals and it will be interesting to see how clubs defend him in 2017 and if can he have the same impact.
If teams do find better luck defending Giovinco it could leave more opportunities for Jozy Altidore, especially if he can remain healthy. Altidore came under some criticism last year for not playing up to his contract, which wasn't helped by missing a number of regular season games through injuries and US National Team call-ups, although it could be said he was the most effective player in TFC's playoff run, giving hope for a strong season in 2017. Altidore has the potential to be a 20 goal scorer a season in MLS, but to achieve this he needs better service from his teammates as his xG was only 6.76 during the 2016 regular season although he still managed to score 0.6 goals per 90 minutes of play.
Offensively Michael Bradley actually dropped off in 2016, only generating 3.13 xG+xA during the season. This was mostly due to a positional change with Bradley playing more in a defensive midfielder role, as shown in his shooting statistics where he averaged 50 shots per season in 2014 and 2015 but only had 12 in 2016. Bradley was very effective in 2016 having 14% of Toronto FC's overall touches and being the key player in the transition from offense to defense.
Overall Toronto FC defense did improve in 2016, giving them the highest expected goal difference during the season and second only to Dallas in overall defense based on expected goals allowed. This despite the fact their keepers Clint Irwin and Alex Bono underperformed compared to expected goals allowed with the league average. Toronto's biggest improvement was in the centerback position with free agent Drew Moor leading the defensive line along with the added defensive role Bradley played. The Reds also saw improvement by their younger center backs Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta.
Through Moor's and Bradley's influence in their own half, Toronto FC changed their overall formation moving from a 4-3-1-2 formation into a 5-3-2 with full backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitahour playing more of a wing back role. This gave Toronto some much needed width where outside midfielders Marco Delgado and Jonathan Osorio struggled to be effective combining for less 9 xG+xA on the season. One would assume they will continue playing this 5-3-2 formation with Osorio playing in more a center midfield which fits his skill set better.
Toronto has had a slow 2017 off-season, though they did lose Will Johnson to Orlando and added a left sided defender in Chris Mavinga who trained with Liverpool FC before a career in France and Russia. The 25 year old is expected to replace either Hagglund or Zavaleta in a left center back role, covering Morrow who is expected to play even further forward in 2017. Toronto also made two significant late season moves in 2016 in the signing of Armando Cooper and Tosaint Ricketts. Cooper is not the most consistent player, but has strong technical skills in the midfield and provided an effective passing matrix with himself, Bradley, Giovinco, and Altidore upfront. Based on his expected goal results in 2016, Cooper should also provide five or six much needed goals that Toronto FC midfield was lacking in 2016.
Ricketts is the first option off of a fairly weak bench. Ricketts played previously in Finland, Turkey, and Israel, and has shown an ability to scoring off the bench and could also replace Giovinco or Altidore if either get injured or are away on international duty. Benoit Cheyrou would be the second option, and although he had less of a role in 2016 his experience can help TFC in certain situations (like the goal he scored in the MLS Eastern Conference Finals to make it to the Championship game). Also probably coming off the bench is new signing Victor Vazquez. He'll have a impact although is unlikely to be an everyday starter.
The rest of Toronto FC's bench is mostly younger - either former college or homegrown developed players. Jay Chapman might have the highest upside and could get more minutes in 2017 with Johnson leaving. Toronto top draft pick Brandon Aubrey could challenge Hagglund or Zavaleta for the third starting Center Back role. Jordan Hamilton, Mo Babouli or Tsubasa Endoh will provide some offensive options on the bench although are a large downgrade from the starters.
Toronto FC should be one of the favourites going into the 2017 MLS season although they have three major concerns in terms of repeating their 2016 success. First being that despite the talent Toronto has, they still have a tendency to underperform. This was less a concern in 2016 although they still finished fifth overall in points despite the best expected goal difference. The second concern is that they are very DP dependent. If Giovinco, Altidore, and Bradley miss a significant amount of minutes they'll struggle. Finally, although it was expected that Toronto would have a quiet offseason, this has cost MLS teams in the past as shown with both Columbus and Portland missing the 2016 playoffs despite being in the 2015 Championship game.
I expect Toronto FC to make the playoffs in 2017 and they are the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. It's possible that the 2017 MLS Cup will also be held in Toronto in December, although if opponents can diminish the effectiveness of Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley like Seattle did in the MLS Cup final I don't expect Toronto FC to have the talent to overcome it.