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2020 Season Preview: TFC looks to re-establish themselves as titans in MLS

We take a look at at the team’s strengths, weaknesses, the potential starting XI, and how the Reds want to shape the coming decade

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC
The 2020 Toronto FC season officially kicks off on Sat. Feb 29 in San Jose, California.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO, Ont.,—Toronto FC has seen it all—they have experienced years of irrelevance, suffered many missteps on the way to contention, felt the rarefied torment of losing the cup at home, and of course, known the all-consuming rush of being crowned champion. But in 2020, TFC will push to become what their entire history has been leading up to: more than merely a team, but an idea.

Football is a game of narratives. Professional sports in general are obsessed with story lines of all kinds—writing new chapters and going on Cinderella runs and building enduring dynasties. But more than any other sport, football is like theatre; it is perfectly paced to allow the audience to observe as well as participate in every discrete moment that constitutes a match. Every pass, shot, and cross happens at a speed that is both fast enough to maintain engagement, but also slow enough that the technical splendour and aesthetic elegance is never lost.

It is, after all, the beautiful game.

Let me give you an example. It’s November 29, 2017. The league-best Toronto FC is playing a feisty and formidable Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup Semifinal. The first half has been cagey in the way a sit-down with gangsters in a crime thriller is cagey—both sides have had chances, but nothing has yet to happen, and one can feel an anxious pressure building in every moment, just begging to be released.

Finally, at the 60th minute, it is.

A long ball is gracefully collected by Sebastian Giovinco, who calmly retains it despite two marauding defenders and back-heels it to Jozy Altidore. A slick one-two ensues, Altidore to Víctor Vázquez, who holds the ball for a moment that feels like an eternity, and then slides it to a surging Altidore who lets go a lithe, curling volley that glides past the opposing keeper and into the back of the net.

Swift. Graceful. Sublime. Like theatre.

The Fortress erupts. “This is my house,” Altidore yells whilst marching toward his fans with a confident, almost arrogant swagger. “This is my house”—in a way that suggests all of the prior trepidation was a child’s game, and that the ball was always going to find its way to the net, it was just a matter of when.

In that moment all of TFC’s stories converged into a singularity. The club’s disastrous incipient years, the anguish of falling to Seattle a year prior, the current squad playing all season like they have everything in the world to prove to the rest of the league and the entire universe, and—right now—the American who is announcing he belongs in Canada, and like the inevitability of the goal before him, is more than suggesting he was always destined to become its champion striker.

All of that in one moment. “This is my house.”

We know the rest of the story. That goal sees TFC through to the MLS Cup Final where they defeat the Seattle Sounders in a rematch to claim the domestic treble. But for Toronto, it was more than a story. In that moment Toronto FC created for itself a mythology. The greatest MLS team ever? Arguable. The most successful MLS team ever? Undeniable. In that moment Toronto FC was master over all it surveyed, like a god amongst men.

And then the unthinkable around BMO Field happened.

Just one year later, the most successful MLS team of all time did not even make the playoffs. Suddenly, the Reds’ claim as the team to be measured by was undone—their record-breaking success cast in a less everlasting light. They became a team that, to many, was just very good, once.

The gods had been cast out of Olympus.

Throughout its history Toronto FC has seen much change. But in all of it—all of the little and big stories—an unwavering idea has crystallized about not what the team has been or could be, but what it wants to be. The Reds have too often been defined by extreme highs and lows, but in 2020, TFC will strive, according to Greg Vanney’s dauntless vision, to become something more. Not just to win or be contenders, but to always win, always contend, always have a seat at the table of greats, and to—most importantly—always be in the conversation.

In 2020, Toronto FC will give everything to become consistently great.

Fixing Last Season’s Mistakes

2019 season was as beguiling for the Reds as 2018 was humiliating. Despite the momentous run to the MLS Cup Final showcasing that TFC still possesses the ingredients for greatness, it highlighted once more that their cardinal weakness since 2017 has been their lack of constancy and that momentum might be enough for a single campaign, but not for the reclamation, or defence, of a title.

The squad’s major weakness lacked in two key areas: a dynamic offence that could create and capitalize on chances, and a resilient defence that could nullify counterattacks.

This video below has illustrations of both.

In the clip at 0:30, TFC starts the attack with pace and some fluid ball movement, but the Sounders’ defence quickly converges, clogging the field and stymieing forward momentum. A few clean passes are found, but the play ends with Osorio in a box, forced to take a rushed strike which never has any real chance of becoming a goal.

A modicum of heightened awareness would have found Justin Morrow completely unmarked farther up the pitch.

In the clip at 1:05, the Sounders send a lovely ball over to Lodeiro on the wing. From this point on, a chase—not defence—follows. Although there is some semblance of form from TFC, the opposing striker Ruidíaz, like a drop of water inside of concrete, is in a position that nullifies most of the Red’s defensive line.

A quick move allows him to collect the ball and connect with a shot, which is, fortunately for TFC, below his standard.

It is in these vulnerable areas that Greg Vanney and the organization have worked to improve. The idea is to have TFC’s XI working as a cohesive whole when they play. In that regard, there are two notable losses to the roster as the season commences: Michael Bradley and Pablo Piatti.

Bradley is unambiguously the leader of the Reds both on the pitch and in the locker room, and is expected to be sidelined until May after undergoing successful ankle surgery. The obvious problem this presents is that he is in many ways the linchpin that keeps the entire squad in tandem. Without his defensive acumen and ability to distribute, TFC will simply not be functioning optimally.

The La Liga veteran Piatti, on the other hand, was TFC’s big designated-player signing this season, brought in as a replacement (and upgrade) for one of last year’s heroes Nicolas Benezet (who now plays for Colorado alongside former Reds’ captain Drew Moor) on the wing. Alongside Pozeulo and Altidore, he represents huge potential; make no mistake—if all three are able to play together, the Reds’ will possess a dizzying attack.

The problem is that Piatti has history with injuries; case in point, he has already strained his hamstring and will miss the start of the season.

So while the Reds’ theoretically have everything they need to play a dominant game of football, they cannot actually use all of their components yet. Vanney will have to find ways to mimic the two players’ intended contributions on the field.

The Starting XI

The Reds have a great deal of experience and depth this season, and it will be an invaluable resource in dealing with injuries, or setbacks in general.

Our projected 4-3-3 starting lineup for match day:

Potential Toronto FC Starting XI for Feb. 29, 2020 vs. San Jose
(Graphic Made by Jeffrey P. Nesker)

The overall trouble with too many injuries is that some players have to move out of their select spots, which in turn throws off the squad’s natural balance.

Pozuelo and Osorio, for instance, pair well when it comes to creating offensive plays that start in the midfield. However, they both have to actually be playing in the midfield to do so. Last year, whenever one was pushed to a winger role, it skewed not only their ability to create meaningful plays, but also the entire team’s ability to defend and adapt properly when the opponent found a counterattack.

Hence, with both Piatti and Bradley missing, TFC will need to lean on the skill of the rest of the team—and almost certainly some scrappy wins—to be in a good position upon their return.

In terms of defence, TFC will once again rely heavily on the back four—who have demonstrated their mettle last year in the playoffs—to mitigate opposing assaults. Vanney has also been working specifically on improving the elasticity and natural play-killing ability in his defensive line, since this was a sore spot for the team in 2019.

The midfield will also have a large burden to bear until the return of MB4, as they will not only need to work as the engine of distribution, but also replicate Bradley’s defensive mindset. Osorio and Delgado have proven resourceful in the past, and the youngster in Fraser has also caught the coach’s eye (although Vanney has said that while his distribution is strong, his defensive awareness can improve).

In terms of offence, last year’s Japanese import Tsubasa Endoh has also quickly adapted to TFC’s style of play, which will certainly relieve much of the stress of Piatti’s absence. And, of course, the return of goal-hungry Altidore to the pitch alongside Pozuelo (who single-handedly carried the offence in several games) is nothing short of a godsend for the Reds.

TFC will be required to put much faith in their collective depth to see them through the beginning of the season. But even if the stars are reluctant to align for TFC (apropos player injuries), the breadth of quality players ensures that the Reds will always be fielding a competitive side.

Strengths, Weaknesses, and a New Decade

One thing is very clear: If TFC is able to play for an extended amount of time without injuries, they will be an absolute force in the East. Their natural style of maintaining possession will serve Piatti, Pozuelo, and Altidore exceptionally well in laying siege to the enemy goal, and if Bradley is able to create a strong, resistant defence from both the midfielders and backs, many counterattacks will be absorbed and outright attacks neutralized.

In short, they will have few weaknesses.

But that is not yet the world we nor the Reds live in. With Bradley and Piatti out, the actual value of the defence remains in question and the midfield will need to get a lot done in each and every match. Further, counterattacks may very well still be an Achilles heel for the squad. While the return of some offensive power in Altidore is certainly a bonus (and we’re both assuming and hoping he, too, stays healthy), a contest between scoring more than you get scored on is a dangerous one.

Ultimately, the biggest change Toronto FC can make going forward is a less obvious one. TFC found many solutions last year, even with a host of problems thrown at them, but there was one solution they could not find, and it proved to be the one that mattered most. The big obstacle for not just short term, but also—and especially—long term success, is balance.

And therein lies the rub. What needs to change for the Reds is not only on the field—players or strategies or the rehabilitation of injuries, although of course those things are all necessary—it is a change in the spirit of the club itself, and that spirit is no less tangible than the people passing and shooting the ball.

Toronto FC is endeavouring on all fronts to become a consistent team, and through consistency, we all presume, greatness. However, all truly great football teams are able to find a balance no matter what the state of the battlefield. True warriors—as the moniker The Fortress implies—are able to fight any adversary because they believe it is their place to fight.

DC United v Toronto FC - First Round
The faithful show their support against DC United in a first round playoff game

We caught a glimpse of that belief in last year’s playoff run, and leading up to the MLS Cup Final, we were all beginning to feel divine again. But something happened against Seattle. After the hapless own-goal, we began to doubt, and by the second, our belief was diffusing into the cool Toronto evening; one could see the visible dejection on the players.

And yet, this is the power and magic of Altidore against Columbus on that night in 2017. Jozy was telling everyone, after his goal, that we needed to stop doubting and start believing that we belonged—not only as contenders, but as champions; not once, but always. It is no coincidence that Altidore was the only goal scorer in last year’s Final.

Winning was never solely about redemption for TFC—it was about rediscovering the respect that comes from being, objectively, the most successful team in MLS history.

Sometimes you aren’t invited to the table. Sometimes you have to brazenly stake your own claim. But to stay at the table demands that you believe you belong there. Toronto FC has a strong team this season, but regardless of circumstance, every player and every fan needs to believe it is their rightful place to be there.

The injuries will come and go and rarely will things be perfect. But if TFC can balance its undeniable skill with that unwavering belief (as well as a little luck from on high), they may very well find themselves in the MLS Cup Final again, irrespective of who is watching from the sideline.

Last year’s run reminded everyone what it felt like to be as gods. But the funny thing about gods is that, in mythological stories, they are always shown to be greatly flawed—speciously grand, but intrinsically blinded by their own hubris.

SOCCER: MAY 15 MLS - DC United at Toronto FC
The Fortress
Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“This is my house.”

In 2017, The Fortress was the house of gods. In 2020, it can be the home of warriors.

Toronto FC will kick off its season on Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes at 5:30 EST. Waking The Red will have all of your coverage leading to—and after—kickoff.