As the first kick of the 2017 MLS season approaches, three Waking the Red contributors - Tej Sahota, Charlie O’Connor Clarke and myself - got together to throw around a few predictions ahead of Toronto FC’s first game in Real Salt Lake. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Oliver Platt: Toronto FC begin the new MLS season on the road at Real Salt Lake, who finished sixth in the Western Conference last season. They’ve been successful on a budget before, but look like outsiders to be a playoff team again this year. What represents a good result for TFC and what are you predicting?
Tej Sahota: I think prior to the last exhibition game, I had TFC pegged for a 34-0-0 season. And then reality set in. The MLS is much like the NFL, in that parity exists between all the clubs, to the point that any team can beat any other team on any given day.
I would expect TFC to have a bit of a hangover from the MLS Cup still. I don't think that sting has completely gone away, and I wouldn't be surprised if it takes the club a few games to get going into full gear. As much as it pains me to say, I think a loss is coming this weekend. Although I'd LOVE to be wrong.
Charlie Clarke: I'm gonna disagree with Tej a little bit, in that I think if anything the MLS Cup will just make them more hungry to start winning again. If TFC truly do have their eye on being an elite team, these are the games that they have to win. The squad is healthy, which is a big deal, and they need to get off on the right foot this year and rack up points early.
RSL are no slouch of an opponent, but there's really no reason that Toronto should not be winning this game to be honest. Anything other than three points would be a disappointment, particularly against a playoff bubble team. If I had to put a number to it, I'd pick 2-1 TFC.
OP: I would hope there’s a bit of an advantage to be had in that it looks like Toronto will start the MLS Cup final lineup, whereas RSL will, naturally for a ninth-place team the previous year, be enforcing a few changes. If everyone’s fit and sharp they could overwhelm them.
The balance to the schedule is interesting - TFC don’t really play a known contender until May 6 (the Seattle rematch). It’s difficult to predict exactly who’s going to be good in any given year in MLS but as of right now the second half of the season looks a lot tougher.
CC: Yeah, they need to come out of the gate hot, with some weaker teams to pick on early in the season with a healthy squad. They aren't learning a new system like a lot of teams with more turnover; they're perfecting one that took them to the MLS Cup just a few months ago.
TS: I'm less concerned with a result from this weekend, and more preoccupied as to the personnel and formation. I think we will get a lot of answers to how Greg Vanney is approaching this season on Saturday.
OP: The start will be important, for sure. If there’s any doubts about their ability to be back as a contender this year, six or seven points from the first three road games would eliminate them. And that doesn’t look entirely unrealistic against RSL, Philadelphia (who are my pick to be bad) and Vancouver, which will be the toughest one.
CC: Realistically this team should be at a point where they consider a loss to any team disappointing, let alone non-contenders. We'll see if there's any fatigue after such a short off-season though.
TS: Yeah, if they want to color me impressed, five points is the minimum before the home opener. Six or more would be better.
OP: Charlie went 2-1, I’ll take an optimistic 3-1. Tej?
TS: Put me down for a 1-1. And taking a useful point on the road!
OP: How do you see the Supporters’ Shield race going? I see Toronto in a similar spot to last year, in second or third in the conference and with their eyes more firmly placed on the playoffs.
CC: Do they have the talent to win the Shield? Absolutely. I think that is going to be a little bit of a stretch though, especially depending on how healthy the team can stay. Really, I think the major goal for the standings this year should be to secure a bye past the knockout round - that's what really matters.
TS: Despite my earlier guarded pessimism to the start of the season, I think TFC wins the Supporters’ Shield this year. Once the team went to a 3-5-2, they went 5-1-1 over the last seven games of 2016. I think that carries over this year. I think they'll set a new standard for points in a season. Bez has hinted on radio appearances that internally the club is aiming for the Shield this year.
Previous campaigns were derailed when Bradley or Altidore were called away to USMNT duty. This year, having Vazquez will soften that loss to a great extent. And I think Cheyrou can step in as the on-field general. That will be key for stealing points during the summer schedule.
OP: My main reservation is that Greg Vanney likes to change the team and formation a lot. That’s useful come playoff time - and even going into this season now the majority of the group has had a year together - because it gives TFC a flexibility not a lot of clubs have. But I do think his tendency to rotate, especially around September, costs them points in the regular season, for better or worse.
CC: I think depth will become pretty key during the summer, where we'll see how the Cheyrous and the Hamiltons etc can fit into what Vanney wants.
OP: Let’s assume they start with the MLS Cup lineup on Saturday. Who in the squad not currently in that XI will have earned a place in it by October?
CC: The obvious answer is Vazquez, who I think eventually ends up putting Jonathan Osorio on the bench, but I think Mavinga could edge out Hagglund by then as well. They'll probably at least platoon on that left side of the back three for now; I think he'll eventually take over there.
TS: I think by October we may see a formation change as well. In order to get the 11 best players on the field, it may necessitate a change away from the 3-5-2.
CC: I agree with that. With a guy like Vazquez in the mix, I could definitely see Vanney trying out the 4-4-2 diamond again. He'd slot in well there behind Seba and Altidore.
TS: Exactly. I think we could see Bradley, Oso, Cooper and Vasquez in some type of four-man midfield. We know we will see Beitashour, Morrow and Moor. I'm interested to see which of Mavinga, Hagglund or Zavaleta secures the other spot on the back line by October. (Full disclosure, I'll be using my platform at WTR to advocate for Hagglund every single chance I get!)
CC: That would be very interesting. The thing I like most about the 3-5-2 is the extra freedom for Morrow to join the attack, though. Maybe Mavinga can cover him, but that's my main reservation about swapping the 3-5-2.
OP: I wonder if they might try something like Chelsea play, in a 3-4-3, with Giovinco and Vazquez playing off Altidore and Bradley and Cooper the central midfielders. Might be asking those two to do too much running, though. I can see them using the diamond in spurts but it left them too exposed down the flanks too often.
TS: My ideal formation for this club is a 4-1-3-2 with Bradley guarding the defence behind Oso-Vazquez-Cooper.
CC: I do think Bradley's been more effective when he's allowed to hold midfield on his own.
OP: To answer the original question, I’ll go Mavinga. I think he might actually adapt quicker - Vazquez hasn’t played in a while and there’s less pressure to immediately get him in the lineup.
Jozy came through in the second half of last season to establish himself as a legitimate 20-goal threat in this league. Will Giovinco keep the club goalscoring crown this year or has Altidore found his groove for good?
TS: I pray for Jozy's hamstrings each night before bed so I’m cautious here, but I think he will have to lead scoring. Seattle and Montreal showed how to effectively defend against Seba and I wonder if that neutralizes him a bit.
CC: I still think Seba is the guy on this team. Jozy is certainly the target man, and the huge presence in the box, but the fact remains that Giovinco is the best player in MLS. As well, we've seen how Seba reacts to snubs, so I think he's going into this year with extra fire. He'll want the Golden Boot and the MVP trophy this season.
That said, Altidore can certainly put in 15-20 goals if he stays in similar form to what he was in the playoffs.
OP: I’m sticking with Giovinco, too. Altidore can absolutely have his biggest year yet with TFC but he’ll also miss time through the Gold Cup.
TS: I think we will see a few more goals from the midfield as well, and that may cut into the totals for Seba.
OP: There’s a lot of potential. Cooper could provide five or six, which doesn’t sound like much but is more than any of the midfielders contributed last season. Osorio looked more dangerous in the 3-5-2, and there’s Vazquez of course.
CC: Vazquez is really such an unknown quantity, too. He probably has the ability to be a perfect feeder for Seba, but he could also be the scorer himself. The one area I do think Seba should relinquish his grip on is set pieces though. I know he's not much of an aerial presence, but a lot of the corners he took during the playoffs last year were kind of useless.
OP: Vazquez will have a say there, I think. Although Seba comes up with a peach every so often, like on Cooper's Montreal goal!