Toronto FC has learned a lesson early this offseason: there is a price to be paid for being a quality franchise in a parity driven league. You can’t keep everyone, and three players have already left the team just weeks removed from their MLS Cup final loss.
All three will hurt the club’s depth, but none more so than Canada international Will Johnson, who has signed as a free agent with Orlando City. Johnson, when healthy, was a consistent starter for Toronto. On the back of fitness problems at the end of the regular season, he started only one - but appeared in all six - of Toronto’s playoff games.
Johnson was tied for the team lead in goals (two) and assists (five) from a midfielder during the regular season. He was one of the most accurate passers on the team (81.8% passes successful), best tacklers (2.3 per match) and rarely made a poor touch (just 0.8 per match).
How successful of an offseason this is for Toronto FC will have a lot to do with how they replace him in the midfield. That is where the team is likely to undergo the biggest transformation in 2017.
Don’t expect Johnson’s replacement to necessarily fill his role, however. All word out of the club since the season ended points to the fact that Toronto wants to bring in an attacking midfielder, and add another threat to their offensive arsenal.
When looking at the 2016 season in review, it is pretty easy to see why: Toronto FC’s midfield didn’t contribute enough on the scoresheet. Below is a chart of their offensive contributions compared to the midfields of the four teams that finished ahead of them in the standings:
Evidently, the numbers aren’t perfect, though many of these teams played in formations more conducive to midfielders getting forward, or simply had more midfielders. Furthermore, no team in Major League Soccer has a strikeforce as talented as Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, and it is no surprise then that Toronto relies on them for offense.
At the same time, this was partially by mandate: Toronto midfielders were told to focus on defending first this season. That paid off in a big way, as the club allowed the second-least goals of any team in the league just a season removed from being the worst defensive team in MLS.
But with what seems like a sustainable defensive system now in place, Toronto’s midfield needs to focus on helping out their strikers. Acquiring a true number 10, something they were missing this year, to play behind Altidore and Giovinco would go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.
The club cycled through different options in 2016, but the most consistent attacking midfielder for the team was Jonathan Osorio. While the Canadian (hey, I can say that again!) showed signs of growth this year, he wasn’t a consistent enough attacking threat. During the regular season he scored just twice and registered just 0.8 shots per game, though he stepped up in the playoffs.
Toronto’s issues with breaking down teams in a variety of ways turned out to be their kryptonite in 2016. After falling behind in a match, the Reds only came back and won once in the entire regular season.
That was in large part due to their difficulty breaking down teams who were in a set defensive structure. This boiled over infamously when Toronto lost to a nine-man San Jose Earthquakes team, and consistently failed to pick up points when their short-handed opponents looked to kill off the game.
When they needed a goal, Toronto became predictable. Other than Giovinco, nobody on the team seemed willing to shoot from outside of the 18-yard box. This allowed the opposition to pack the box full of defenders and easily deal with Toronto’s crosses and attempts to pass their way into the area.
Unfortunately, the most famous example of this issue is also the most painful: the 2016 MLS Cup final. Despite not registering a shot on target in 120 minutes, the Sounders were able to hold off Toronto and beat them in penalties. If TFC had another creative midfielder on the field, would things have gone differently?
Who knows, but Tim Bezbatchenko and co. will attempt to answer that question this offseason. With Johnson, Josh Williams and Mark Bloom coming off the books, plus Benoit Cheyrou likely to come back at a discounted rate or not at all, TFC has some money to work with. Add in the influx of targeted allocation money the league promised for 2017, and they could potentially afford someone special.
With Michael Bradley having his best year in Toronto, Armando Cooper providing extra creativity, Osorio improving every year and Jay Chapman, Marky Delgado and Tsubasa Endoh providing depth, the Reds’ midfield is in a good place. But this offseason will be about finding the piece that makes it a truly well-rounded unit.