TORONTO, Ont.—In just a few days, Toronto FC will officially kickoff their 2020 Major League Soccer season, four months removed from reaching the 2019 MLS Cup Final.
It’s been a short offseason for the Reds, but one that the team views as an overall success.
Ali Curtis and co. were able to bring back the majority of their roster that got to the Final for the third time in four years (including captain Michael Bradley on a significantly cheaper contract), lock up a few of their talented youngsters, and on top of that, add a third designated player into the mix in Pablo Piatti.
However, something still doesn’t feel quite right.
Maybe it’s the lack of preseason coverage, or again, the brief offseason, but something feels a bit off as we get set to embark on yet another campaign. So, let’s try and figure out why.
Here are five question marks surrounding the Toronto FC roster as the team begins the year in two days.
What does the club do with Alex Bono?
I broke down this situation earlier in the offseason, and for now, it appears that the club is willing to keep backup goalkeeper Alex Bono in the mix despite his significant salary budget charge. After getting to chat with those around the club and getting to check out a few practices, it quickly became apparent as to why.
While Bono doesn’t necessarily make the impact on the field that most fans may want to see from a player who earned $382,000 in guaranteed compensation in 2019 (according to the MLS Player’s Association), he’s everything you want in a player—and person in the soccer community—off the field.
He’s involved in growing the league; he’s a big advocate of advancing the game in Toronto; and, by all accounts, he’s very well liked by his teammates and coaches. It never hurts to have a player like Bono, a proven winner who backstopped the Reds to their only MLS Cup, in the dressing room.
But, as I mentioned earlier in the offseason, at what cost?
In 2019, the 25-year-old appeared in just seven MLS matches, most of which came prior to Westberg establishing himself as coach Greg Vanney’s clear No. 1. With TFC out of the Concacaf Champions League this year—and Westberg beginning the season as the team’s clear starter—playing time appears to be even farther out of reach for Bono in 2020.
With Westberg signing a new and improved two-year deal (plus an option) to stay in Toronto, are the Reds being patient and waiting for the right time to move Bono? Or do they believe that their team is that good that they have the luxury of paying their backup the 10th most on the roster? Or maybe... they really just really believe in their 2015 sixth-overall SuperDraft selection.
Regardless, in my opinion, that money can be—and probably should’ve been—better allocated.
Who is our starting RW?
With Toronto FC once again set to lineup in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, most of the spots on the Starting XI are already penciled in, barring a few injuries. However, one position in the Reds’ attack that remains a question mark around #TFCLive is the starting right-winger role.
Entering camp, all signs pointed to 23-year-old TAM-signing Erickson Gallardo as the front runner. He even scored a beauty in the club’s first preseason game.
But then, for no apparent reason (at the time), Gallardo disappeared. Well, as we learned yesterday, he suffered a groin strain and has since returned to training fully.
A popular candidate for the TFC’s breakout player of the year, Vanney, Curtis, and those around the club are extremely excited about what this season has in store for their Venezuelan attacker.
The question marks start to arise if Gallardo can’t lay claim to the starting RW role. Does Tsubasa Endoh get a fair look? Is it Nick DeLeon’s, who is also dealing with back spasms that sound a bit more concerning? Will Alejandro Pozuelo or Jonathan Osorio be forced to once again play out-of-position on the right wing? Or will a youngster like 2020 first-round pick Ifunanyachi Achara, who earned a first-team contract in camp, step up?
There’s certainly a lot of options there that Vanney can try, but in my opinion, Gallardo’s got this.
What is the deal with the fourth fullback?
I’ve been kicking myself because I didn’t get to ask Vanney about this during our conference call yesterday, but the backup left-back spot still remains a question mark on this Toronto FC roster.
With three of the more talented fullbacks in the league on the roster—in Richie Laryea, Auro Jr., and Justin Morrow—expected eat up most of the minutes down the flanks for Toronto FC in 2020, and DeLeon as a safeguard if necessary, Vanney spoke about the luxury of being able to take on a younger fullback as the team’s fourth, perhaps either Luca Petrasso or Terique Mohammed.
Both players, born in 2000, got significant looks at camp and appeared to play well, while Mohammed was subsequently named onto the Canadian 50-player provisional list for the Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in March.
With DeLeon already injured, one early knock to Morrow or Auro, and we may see one of these guys—who have yet to play in an MLS game—called into action sooner rather than later.
Can Toronto FC stay healthy?
I don’t need to provide too much background information about this one because it has been well documented, but here are a list of injuries that we know about since the start of camp.
Michael Bradley (Ankle Surgery)
Pablo Piatti (Hamstring)
Jozy Altidore (Sore Hip)
Jayden Nelson (Hamstring)
Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (Concussion)
Erickson Gallardo (Groin Strain)
Nick DeLeon (Back Spasms)
Again, I emphasize that we know about part because players tend to pick up knocks all the time, and a lot of them aren’t reported. Most, if not all, of these were specifically asked about, which is likely why we received an injury-update on them.
Now Bradley and Piatti aside, the amount of muscle or ligament-related injuries is concerning, something that ownership has been trying to address. And after reaching out to those within MLSE and bringing in the resources of Kitman Labs, the club’s injury worries don’t appear to be shrinking.
So how do they fix that?
Well, different from previous seasons, Toronto FC does have a load management plan in place for a few of their players, including Piatti and Altidore. But this is also where the problem, and glaring question mark, lies for me.
Who replaces them, especialy Altidore—and what happens when Jozy is forced to miss a few games in a row? Is the team good enough to earn results even without these significant pieces in their lineup?
In soccer, players can get hurt at any moment, regardless of whether or not they played a week ago or two weeks ago. Take Altidore’s injury last season that held him out until the second half of the MLS Cup Final. I’m not too sure load management is preventing that.
Having run into injury problems at crucial times of the year in the past, Toronto FC are taking a real gamble here, one that the club hopes will pay off in November.
Was Michael Bradley’s money well spent?
The multi million-dollar question, one that will be scrutinized all season long.
When captain Michael Bradley decided to take a significant paycut to return to Toronto FC—one that will see his salary drop from $6.5 million to $1.6 million—it came with a promise from ownership that his money would be spent.
Thus, prior to the start of the season, the team made a splash, signing 30-year-old Pablo Piatti from Spain’s La Liga. Extremely talented, the Argentinian also came with serious injury concerns after suffering a ruptured ACL just one year ago. As such, it was a real bummer to those around #TFCLive to find out that Piatti had already injured his hamstring, just days into camp.
After failing to bring in anyone else from outside of the organization, Piatti will be the only tool of measurement (for now) that we can use to see if Bradley’s money was well spent.
And right now, that’s a biggest question mark heading into the 2020 MLS season.