Toronto FC head into the 2014 MLS season with almost an entirely new look in the attack thanks to some fresh faces in their forward group. Out from last year's roster are Justin Braun and Robert Earnshaw. In for 2014 is a pair of designated players in the form of Jermain Defoe and Gilberto. They have also added further depth with the signing of Jordan Hamilton to a home grown player deal with draft pick Kene Eze also capable of playing forward should he make the roster out of preseason.
Toronto FC have parted ways with a pair of forwards who managed to score 10 combined goals last season. The bulk of that came from Earnshaw who scored a team leading 8 goals despite being incredibly streaky. Replacing them was not that big of a task though and the team should easily have brought in more goals with the additions of Defoe and Gilberto.
Jermain Defoe will certainly be the focal point of the attack for the team in 2014. It will be interesting to see how he lines up early in the season but with Nelsen likely to use two forwards on a regular basis there is a good chance that we will see Defoe doing the majority of his work by running off the shoulders of defenders and getting in behind the backline. If the club can provide him with service into those danger areas that would allow him to be at his best and be a real threat to score. Defoe brings the luxury of being able to play other roles as well though if he needs to be more of a creator. He will never be a back-to-goal forward but he has consistently proven that he can create for teammates and drop into the hole when that is what is needed.
His likely partner on a regular basis will be Gilberto, the other new DP. He is the biggest question mark of the group of forwards heading into the season as he was a relative unknown before his signing. Gilberto is coming off a great scoring season in Brazil and will hopefully carry that form over to MLS in his first season. If the plan is to have Defoe running in behind the defenders that would likely mean seeing a fair bit of Gilberto dropping into the hole to link up with the midfielders, hold the ball up, and hopefully either play Defoe through or take advantage of the space created by those runs to create a chance for himself. Gilberto is not overly big or strong looking but if he can bring that physical presence it could provide the basis for quite the strike partnership.
Behind the likely starters, TFC do still have a number of other options to give things a different look. The first name off the bench will likely be Bright Dike unless he is sold before the start of the season. The big forward was starting to look good towards the end of last season as he was working his way back from knee surgery and a full preseason under his belt could see him return to being a dangerous threat this season. He should also be quite motivated to make an impact this season as his hopes of making the Nigerian squad for the World Cup will hang on his performances. Coming off the bench Dike will provide a different look as his big frame and decent pace cause a lot of problems for defenders. He could be used to create room for the other forwards against more physical defenders or as a late game change of pace when the team needs someone to hold the ball up.
After Dike the options become a bit less reliable but even the fourth choice striker, Andrew Wiedeman, brings something to the table. He is not really a proven scorer in MLS but his work rate is high and that effort often leads to chances being created. His minutes will likely be limited in 2014 but when he does get into the game he should make the most of it. Another late game option off the bench or coverage for injuries/suspensions/World Cup absences are his most likely roles this season.
After Wiedeman on the depth chart come Emery Welshman and Jordan Hamilton. The two Canadians are unlikely to have much of a role to play this season and could actually wind up spending the majority of the summer down in Wilmington. Hopefully a loan will hope them develop more than sitting in the box at BMO Field would as if they stick around with TFC that is their most likely role outside of potentially seeing minutes in the Voyageurs Cup.
If those options are not enough for Ryan Nelsen to work with their is draft pick Kene Eze but he seems to be a very long shot to even make the roster coming out of training camp. With six other forwards on the roster there seems to be no space in the team for Eze.
Nelsen also has some midfielders who can serve as forwards if they need to. The main candidate for that would be Dwayne De Rosario who has played some forward in his career and can be just as effective there as he is in the midfield. The good new is that with so many options it is unlikely that Nelsen will ever have to do that.
The trick for Nelsen this season will be to find a way to get the most out of all his forward options this season. He could easily have three forwards capable of scoring 10 plus goals this season which gives him far more options that he had in 2013. The simple fact that he has so many options to work with should ensure that we see TFC lining up with two forwards more often then we did last season when they often went with Earnshaw as the only true forward on the field.
If Nelsen is feeling confident in his attack he could even line the team up in more of a 4-3-3 with Gilberto and Dike playing out wide but that would leave a fair bit of space in the middle of the field for Michael Bradley to cover as it would mean the team dropping the attacking midfielder. It seems unlikely but at least the option is there given the talent the team has to work with.
Toronto FC scored the second lowest number of goals in the league last season as their 30 was tied with Chivas USA and ahead of only D.C. United. The lowest goal total for any team that made the playoffs was 41 (Houston Dynamo) while the average for the 10 teams that made the playoffs was 49.6. That leaves a lot of catchup for TFC to do but at least they seem to have the options to work with now.
*Unsigned draft pick