Believe it or not, there was a pitch invasion at BMO Field this year. It was the first one I had ever witnessed, but despite my lack of any frame of reference, I’m convinced it’ll be my favourite. The best part: not one of the invaders could have been over the age of 15.
Fans at BMO Field rush into the pitch after TFC 2’s playoff win tonight. pic.twitter.com/n4P3YuOAOJ— John Molinaro (@JohnMolinaro) September 25, 2022
In all likelihood, they were family members-nieces, nephews, siblings, etc. of current TFC II players, celebrating their older relatives’ MLS NEXT Pro Playoff win against Philadelphia Union II. The Young Reds would go on to push Columbus Crew II, the best side in the league throughout the regular season, to the very last minute of extra time before falling short in the Eastern Conference Final.
The second team’s newfound success leads, admittedly circuitously, to my conviction that the first team’s 2022 season was ultimately Mission Accomplished.
I get why I’m very much in the minority here, why many fans feel like the MLS side merely recreated the Dark Times of a decade ago. Second-last in the Eastern Conference, only scant improvement on our points total from last year, results stemming from our Swiss cheese defending, and impotent finishing.
But, the difference from 2011/2012 (shudder) and the disappointing 2018 campaign is clear: in 2022, TFC has decisively charted course in a new direction, one that can set us up for long-term success.
As is always the case, some of my evaluation of the side’s performance this year depends on specific expectations, but those expectations are also the main point. That’s what I argued at the beginning of the season and again a few matches in, and I’m sticking with it. 2017 was fun, but then it petered out. I no longer want a team that burns brilliantly and then quickly fades. I want a dynasty, I want perennial MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield favourites, continual CONCACAF Champions League contenders.
To do that, you’ve gotta start somewhere. Not just anywhere: you’ve gotta start precisely with the year that TFC just had. We should’ve started that even before the pandemic, but Ali Curtis and Chris Armas simply stood in the way. And I’ve gotta say, the “results now!” chatter that constantly surrounds Toronto sports teams didn’t help either.
So, what did we do right this year?
Continuing the circuitous route: TFC II was able to enter a new league and compete with the best in the continent at their level. That was impressive enough after being unable to play last year for logistical reasons, but even more so given the second team’s floundering in USL 1 – the league below most other MLS “farm” clubs – before the hiatus. The biggest takeaway is that it shows a vastly improved investment in developing the second team and its young players. That change doesn’t happen overnight, but can only occur in an environment up at the BMO Training Ground in which the organization’s staff and front office put in the time and effort to develop players that could be the future of the first team.
We also played our kids on the first team in the present. Deandre Kerr, Luca Petrasso, Ayo Akinola, Ify Achara, Noble Okello, Lukas MacNaughton (a tad older but still a newcomer): all of them got meaningful MLS minutes. All of them got chances in the starting XI and off the bench, got time not just to show what they can do but also to grow into their potential. If TFC fielded this roster in the CPL, it would’ve easily passed the young Canadian minutes rule.
I’ll admit that Jacob Shaffelburg and Ralph Priso’s lack of playing time, especially at the beginning of the season, were head-scratchers. Shaffelburg especially is thriving for playoff-bound Nashville SC. The best guess I have for his lack of minutes in Toronto was the need to establish a slot for a certain new player to fill on his arrival midseason (more on him shortly).
Yet, the clearest piece of play-your-kids evidence, and my clear choice for most-improved player, has to be Jayden Nelson. The 20-year-old started the season as the Prince of Giveaways, clumsy and often clueless with the ball and irresponsibly out of position without the ball, making a big contribution to that Swiss cheese defending. But as the season wore on, he found his footing. He developed the mind to go forward, the vision to make key passes in attacking buildup and the effort and awareness to track back in defence. He clearly grasped the tremendous opportunity to learn from the veterans around him, and he made the most of that opportunity.
Which brings me to the second major task facing TFC this year, and it’s second major success. Two of those veterans were a pair of Neapolitans named Domenico Criscito and Lorenzo Insigne. We knew Gli Italiani were on the way, that the club on and off the field would have to integrate Insigne, Criscito and Federico Bernardeschi half-way through the season.
That kind of change was always going to have its disruptions to a young team in midseason form. The best TFC could do was prepare to make things as smooth as possible and execute when the time came in July. To my mind easing this transition was Michael Bradley’s most important contribution this year. The captain hasn’t regained the step that he lost, and our defending still needs work. But his Italian fluency and critical leadership experience meant he could keep the communication open on and off the pitch. He continued to provide an established presence for both young Canadians and newcomer Italians to look to and hold everyone together.
The new signings were also clearly committed to the team project, a commitment we could see on the pitch. Bernardeschi shone the brightest, dominating play on the right-hand side, impressively linking up with Kerr, Jonathan Osorio, newly traded Mark-Anthony Kaye, and newly returned Richie Laryea. Eight goals and two assists in 12 appearances is prolific, making us salivate for next season’s longer sample size. And he’s been a fan favourite from day one, pumping up the crowd at his press conference and ingratiating himself ever since.
Insigne and Criscito’s integration was on display through a heightened level of intricate play throughout the team. They provided an impressive contrast to Pozuelo and Soteldo, who habitually ignored Laryea and the rest of the team and offered a tepid attack as a result.
Insigne especially could have come in with a smug dismissal of his inexperienced Canadian teammates, but he showed the opposite. Again, Nelson’s improvement is the key example here: Insigne and Criscito consistently involved him in their build-up and final-third play on the left, trusted him to join their attacking triad of intricate passing and confident finishing. The three of them genuinely had chemistry, one that suggests a lot of patient instruction and detailed effort at the BMO Training Ground.
So where do we sit now? We need a consistent striker, a solid defender and a reliable goalkeeper. Kaye and Osorio haven’t been healthy enough to work out: do we wait for them to recover from Qatar and heal up, or do we add another midfield piece? We still need Captain Bradley on the field to lead and ensure open communication, but is a fresher, more skilled defensive mid the answer to our concerns at the back?
But these are specific questions, clear points for Coach Bradley and the front office to focus on. They are relatively small fixes that could improve game-by-game results and over the season propel us back into the playoffs. And bringing in star talent to fill our remaining DP spot and influence the team’s overall play could be more than a “small” improvement.
Bradley and co. can get to work on those clear points of improvement now that the ship is decidedly heading in the right direction. The 2022 season was about setting TFC on that path, about righting the ship itself. We now have a core of young players with an added year of first-team experience. We have a second team with the feel of playoff success in their bones and a nose to compete for those first-team spots. We have world-class talent from across the pond, now settled in this world-class city and world-class organization.
In 2022, Toronto FC began integrating young players and talented veterans, tailoring to their individual needs while making the club more than the sum of its parts. The choices made in 2022 show me that this club is committed to winning long-term, to building a juggernaut. Bring on 2023.