At times during the seven seasons they have existed, Toronto FC have had decent backlines, although they are a rare breed. During the 2010 season, Adrian Cann and Nana Attakora centred a defensive unit that is debatably, and statistically, the best in club history. If there is any debate, it is a result of the past campaign's unit, a by-product of Steven Caldwell. At other times TFC have had decent goalscorers. Dwayne De Rosario was fairly prolific during his time with the team. Danny Koevermans was kind of like the Joffrey Lupul of Toronto FC, when he was healthy he was one of the league's best.
But one thing that the reds have never been able to assemble is a well-organized and balanced midfield. They have had decent midfielders, De Rosario, De Guzman and Frings to name a few, but it was also a weakness for the overall squad. A lot of this had to do with misplacement: Frings was forced to play large parts of his tenure at centreback because the club was so poor defensively. But even the former German international could not transform the middle of Toronto's park into a consistent and cohesive unit.
However, this past season represented the first steps to oppose that narrative. At times in 2013, Toronto's midfield showed creativity and quality that has been nonexistent in the club's brief history. Jonathan Osorio was the revelation of the season. His confidence and control in his debut season was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Before going down to injury, Mathias Laba appeared as though he was fully worth the DP risk the club took on him. Alvaro Rey did well for himself on the wing, beating players with moves that actually worked (!) and giving Toronto some midfield width and creativity. Even Jeremy Hall was in on the act this year as a depth defensive midfielder.
Heading into year eight, Toronto have so far retained the services of all of the aforementioned players. The only departure is Bobby Convey, who while effective was undoubtedly the most replaceable midfielder. If all goes to plan, Rey and Osorio will improve as they did over the duration of their first MLS campaigns. Laba will stay healthy, and once again return to providing an effective buffer between Toronto's defense and attack.
But, understandably, TFC management was far from content to leave the prospects of their midfield to improvement from within. They began by acquiring Jackson from FC Dallas. The move is largely to aid the depth of the midfield, an unheard of concept for the club. He is also a highly flexible player who theoretically still has his best years ahead of him, making him ideal for the role he will most likely play. Finally, he has MLS experience, something Toronto FC seemed to consider a nasty disfigurement for most of their existence. Despite the speculation, he is far from simply Toronto's dressing room ambassador for DP Gilberto.
Then came yesterday's news that Toronto's prodigal soccer son, Dwayne De Rosario, had returned to finish his career in Toronto. The narrative is almost perfect, minus the fact that when De Rosario left the club in 2011 his "father" was a 46 year-old Dutchman who made actual money claiming that he could teach Terry Dunfield and Matt Stinson how to play Tiki-Taka. It is now a Kiwi who is only one year his senior.
Surprisingly, Dwayne De Rosario is the first player to ever return to a club that has had an astronomical number of players in just seven seasons. But as a first returnee he makes sense, he maintains the club record for goalscoring with 32. Again, he is another player with significant MLS experience, something the midfield currently lacks. In fact if you looked up "MLS experience" in the dictionary you would probably find a picture of De Rosario shoving Landon Donovan.
De Rosario may be old, but he still has plenty of ability. He will provide a solid link between Toronto's midfielders and whoever the strikers are when the team takes the field for its first game of the season. Judging by recent performances with the Canadian National Team and DC United he still has enough flair to remain a dangerous player. Even if he steps on the shoes, metaphorically or literally, of some of the club's other attacking talents, he can be used in a depth role. Having the ability to bring De Ro off the bench late in games is an image that is as attractive to TFC as it is worrisome for their opponents.
For the first time in the club's history they have the pieces to assemble a midfield machine that might actually run successfully. It is a collection of new parts, unproven but by all accounts have been effective so far. Now, with Dwayne De Rosario, the club has a reliable engine around which to build their middle. After seven long years, the less may finally be shed from the word shape in describing Toronto's midfield.