MLS presents 2014 Toronto FC season preview

{eot} Staff
3/7/2014 12:15:02 PM
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After making a huge off-season splash, Toronto FC prepares to start their eighth MLS season still looking for a first ever playoff berth. TSN soccer analyst Gareth Wheeler tells you everything you need to know about Toronto FC heading into 2014, while TSN soccer analyst Jason deVos tells you how they will succeed or fail during the new campaign.

Gareth Wheeler:

With great signings come great expectations.  Toronto FC went from afterthought to main focus in an off-season of change.  President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Tim Leiweke promised big things; a swift turn around in fortunes upon his arrival.  Momentum has shifted from a lifeless entity into a resurrected being with true hope and an ambitious future; no easy task for the most futile franchise in Major League Soccer history.  Seven years outside of the playoffs has taken its toll. 

Amidst the newfound excitement is an element of 'prove it to me'.  Big promises have been made before.  The shock of what has transpired with upwards of $100 million worth of transfer and payroll commitments hasn't sunk in with most.  Tim-squared, as in Leiweke and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko backed up their lofty words with decisive, calculated action.  On paper, this looks to be the best Toronto FC side the city has ever seen.  Now comes the hard part: sustained stability and on-field success.  Neither are guaranteed, but the blueprint reads much clearer.  The buzz is palpable across Toronto.  The question most often asked from passionate or casual supporters alike, how good will this team be?

There's no straight-forward answer.  It's easy to get swept up in the hoopla.  Tickets have been sold and the team will be playing in front of a packed house at BMO Field once again.  There's a lot to be excited about and failing to make the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year would be seen as nothing short of a complete failure.  Championship calibre talk however is premature. 

Striker Jermain Defoe and influential central midfielder Michael Bradley represent the two biggest moves of MLS off-season.  With name comes substance, with Defoe and Bradley easily becoming the best two players in franchise history.  They are that good and make TFC's roster comparable to top teams in MLS.  Brazilian duo, goalkeeper Julio Cesar and promising striker Gilberto are a step lower on the 'wow' scale, but entirely intriguing.  Manager Ryan Nelsen has raved about Gilberto and believes the 24-year old can score more goals than prized acquisition Defoe. 

The return of Dwayne De Rosario represents a chance to rectify the wrong surrounding his previous hasty departure. The club at the time painted De Rosario as the bad guy disingenuously.  Bezbatchenko has made clear this is a new TFC, set on doing business a different and better way.  Extending the olive branch to the hometown boy made too much sense.

Attempting to forecast how this team will do is fruitless.  A MLS season is a marathon to begin with, never mind the added wrinkle of this summers' World Cup.  Notwithstanding injuries and/or factors out of the realm of control, here are three keys to success for Toronto FC in 2014.

1) Goal scoring: Bezbatchenko has said to anyone who will listen; his first job was to find TFC goal scorers.  Sounds simplistic but only one team scored fewer goals than TFC last season.  Toronto has been in the bottom five in goals scored in each of the last four years.  The lack of a true finisher outside of the oft-injured Danny Koevermans was an indictment on team management.  Without top goal scorers there is next to no chance of competing with the top sides and having regular success.  It has been one of the many reasons for perennial failure to date. 

How many goals Defoe, Gilberto, and De Rosario will score will determine how far this team will go.  Gilberto has already set a lofty, most likely unattainable goal of 25 tallies this season.  Defoe should have little trouble adapting to MLS life, and 20 goals isn't out of the question.  TFC lost back-up strike option Bright Dike through pre-season injury, Dike would have played a key role.  Bezbatchenko would be prudent to bring in another goal scorer to compliment the bunch because you can never have enough goals in the team.

2) Back four: Cheap goals conceded have plagued TFC in recent seasons.  The group last year was far too young, inexperienced and mistake prone.  The group worked hard, but lacked cohesion and didn't do anything particular well.  Justin Morrow and Bradley Orr were brought in to add experience to the back-line.  The strength, or lack thereof, of this young group will make or break this team.  Cesar as a leader at the back helps, as does Steven Caldwell as a steady, vocal force.  Can Nelsen get this group playing as a unit?  Does TFC have enough quality depth?  And can young Canadians Doneil Henry and Ashton Morgan makes strides, finding consistency in their game? If the answer to these questions is yes, TFC will be in good stead. Age is no longer an excuse.

3) Team tactics: Nelsen's first year as manager was a trying one.  With very little talent, depth and a revolving door, six wins and the third worst points total in the league (29) was a predictable outcome.  Evaluation of Nelsen as team manager is thus far incomplete.  It surprised some Nelsen remained in the off-season of top-to-bottom change.  And because of that, he remains the easy 'fall-guy' in case all doesn't go according to plan.  Another coaching change is the last thing this team needs - eight coaches in eight years speaks to the lack of vision or consistent direction.  Players, no matter how good, cannot achieve in a current state of flux.  It must be said the work-rate of the team under Nelsen was superior.  There's no question he's a natural leader and a well-liked figure.  His man-management and tactical approach will be tested now he has better players and a year under his belt.  The team generally lined up in a 4-4-2 last year.  A level of formational flexibility will be required to get the most out of his assets, particularly finding the best spots to play De Rosario and Gilberto as dynamic attacking players.

The hype is back at Toronto FC.  It's been called 'A Bloody Big Deal'.  The only way that manifests is if the wins follow.  For the first time ever at TFC, there is good reason to believe it actually will.

TSN Soccer analyst Jason deVos weighs in on how Toronto FC will succeed or fail during the 2014 season.

Jason deVos:

Toronto FC will succeed if…

…the stars align.

TFC have made the single biggest offseason spending splurge in the history of Major League Soccer. Nearly $100m has been spent to acquire the likes of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Gilberto, Júlio César and Dwayne De Rosario, and the burning question is this: Will this make TFC a contender?

On paper, the answer is yes. Toronto is significantly stronger now than it has ever been. They have the U.S. national team's best midfielder in Bradley, a top-class goal scorer in Defoe and Brazil's number one goalkeeper in Júlio César. You won't find a stronger spine to a team in MLS.

If those players live up to their reputations, Toronto FC will not only make the playoffs, they will be the team that everyone wants to avoid in the post-season.

Toronto FC will fail if…

….they put the cart before the horse.

Having better players is one thing; getting them to play together, as a team, is another. It will take time for TFC's crop of new players to gel, and until that happens, the microscope will be firmly focused on head coach, Ryan Nelsen.

The jury is still out on Nelsen's ability - as a second-year coach - to get the best out of the talented players he now has at his disposal. He tends to stick to his preferred formation (1-4-4-2), and has so far shown little interest in experimenting with various tactical approaches to the game.

This can work if the players are all on board (Real Salt Lake is a good example), but only time will tell if this will be the case for Toronto FC.

If the team struggles out of the gate, expect Nelsen to come under increasing pressure.

2013 finish: 6-17-11 (ninth in Eastern Conference). Did not qualify for MLS Cup playoffs.

Who's In?: M Michael Bradley (transfer from AS Roma) , GK Júlio Cesar (loan from Queens Park Rangers), F Jermain Defoe (transfer from Tottenham), M Dwayne De Rosario (Re-Entry Draft), F Gilberto (transfer from SC Internacional), M Jackson (trade from FC Dallas), D Justin Morrow (trade from San Jose), D Bradley Orr (loan from Blackburn Rovers).

Who's Out?: F Justin Braun (out of contract), M Bobby Convey (trade to New York), F Robert Earnshaw (option declined), D Richard Eckersley (trade to New York), D Jonas Elmer (contract terminated), GK Stefan Frei (trade to Seattle), F Danny Koevermans (out of contract), M Matias Laba (trade to Vancouver), M Darel Russell (option declined), M Michael Thomas (option declined), F Emery Welshman (waived).

SuperDraft: D Nick Hagglund (1-10), MF Daniel Lovitz (2-24).


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