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Opinion: Toronto FC season wrap-up

Where did it go wrong in 2022?

Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

The 2022 MLS Cup Final is now in the rear-view mirror, and Toronto FC’s last game was more than a month ago. Sufficient time to reflect on the season that just passed.

After the year that was 2021 the great TFC tear down and re-build was expected. After shedding an unprecedented 21 players from the 2021 squad any sane follower of the club knew there was going to be a lot of hurt and suffering as the team was reconstructed.

However, the early season’s relative success raised expectations that a playoff drive was possible, if TFC could just keep in striking distance of the last playoff spots. With the promise of Insigne’s pending arrival in July, along with other high end talent, the scenario of capturing a playoff spot seemed possible.

Against the odds, a plucky under-manned TFC squad found themselves as close as just four points from a playoff position in mid-June. But just when a playoff push was supposed to gear up, the wheels came off.

There was no singular situation or blunder to point too. There were plenty of issues to point at throughout the season. However, there were a few notable issues that stuck out. These issues were not isolated, but oftentimes they blended into another until failure seemed inevitable.

Lack of experienced full-backs to begin the season

With Justin Morrow’s retirement, Richie Laryea’s move to Nottingham Forest, and Auro Jr’s loan to Santos in Brazil, the only recognizable full-backs under contract with TFC were Kadin Chung out of the Canadian Premier League, and academy product Luca Petrasso. Its true that Domenico Criscito was expected to join up with the club earlier than he did but TFC management had no viable backup solution when Mimmo opted to delay his arrival in Toronto until July.

As the season began, it became evident that new TFC manager and sporting director Bob Bradley had a plan to utilize several of TFC’s youth prospects, for at least the the first half of the year. It is doubtful anyone anticipated what panned out over the season. ‘Play the Kids’ was the mantra from the preceding lost season, but in 2022 TFC executed this strategy in hyper-drive.

Nobody foresaw that so many TFC youngsters and rookies would play so much, often at the same time, and often at positions they were not familiar with. In particular, Bradley’s insistence on playing young wingers and midfielders as fullbacks, that quickly turned into TFC’s achilles’ heal.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union
Marshall-Rutty controls the ball against Philadelpia
Kyle Ross / USA TODAY Sports

No matter who Bradley stuck on fullback, whether it be Jakheele Marshall-Rutty, Jacob Shaffelburg, Petrasso, or Kosi Thompson, opposing managers saw the weakness and attacked it relentlessly. As the defence got shredded along the wings, the centre-backs became equally exposed, contributing to the league’s third worst goals against.

For a time Bradley Sr attempted to deal with the issue by adopting three man back lines for several games. In fact, of TFC’s first 14 games, half employed a three man back line and half used a four man back line. The club’s early to mid-season form, while still outside the playoff spots, still found the team within striking distance a month before the arrival of Insigne and other mid-season reinforcements.

By the time TFC re-acquired Laryea on loan and Criscito settled in, the season was lost.

Pozuelo’s trade to Miami in mid-season

Alejandro Pozuelo immediately became the new face of the franchise upon his arrival after Giovinco’s departure. After a spectacular first season in 2019, Pozuelo followed this up by winning the 2020 Landon Donovan MVP Award. Pozuelo was TFC’s undisputed star and the catalyst for the offence, but a nightmare of a season both on and off the pitch in 2021 put Pozuelo’s status in a precarious position entering 2022.

Pozuelo came into 2022 healthier and happier than he had been in over a year. However, Bradley Sr’s insistence on the team adopting his vision of his preferred 4-3-3 often rendered Pozuelo’s skill set incompatible with his manager’s ideas. To Bradley, Pozuelo’s presence in his 4-3-3 posed a dilemma as the designated player relished a free-roaming role behind the front line, whereas Bradley wanted a traditional two-way midfielder. This conflict was seen as another source of the team’s early to mid-season struggles.

With the impending arrival of Insigne, there was much anticipation of how the two offensive minded stars would link up with one another. However, this was a combination nobody got to witness.

Pozuelo challenged by three FC CIncinnati players
Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

Bradley Sr’s solution to his Pozuelo dilemma was to trade Pozuelo to Inter Miami CF for a fist full of Garber bucks.

Sure, Pozuelo was a pending free agent at the end of the season but the return on the trade hardly helped TFC with its drive to the playoffs. Yes, there was the impending signing of Designated Player Federico Bernardeschi and the club needed a DP spot opened up for that deal to cross the line. However, this need not to have happened as it did had management dealt with the long saga of fellow DP Carlos Salcedo’s departure in a more timely manner.

Pozuelo went on to help Inter Miami’s drive into the playoffs. New club teammate, Argentine star Gonzalo Higuaín, credited Pozuelo’s arrival with his mid-season resurgence and his eventual MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.

Meanwhile, TFC’s strikers, now starved of Pozuelo’s service went into a goal drought that saw Jesús Jiménez score just one goal after Pozuelo’s departure after scoring eight in the first half of the season.

Inability to integrate the new stars with the existing team

The arrival of the Italian stars was expected to re-invigorate the team and kick-start the charge to the playoffs. The first game with all the new additions, Insigne, Bernardeschi, Criscito, Laryea and Mark-Anthony Kaye together culminated in a convincing 4-0 dismantling of expansion club Charlotte FC. This is what we had all been patiently waiting for were the thoughts of many throughout TFC’s fan base.

But the game turned out to be a one-off. TFC steadily stumbled the rest of the year and missed the playoffs by 14 points. Inopportune injuries to consensus team MVP Jonathan Osorio and the newly arrived Mark-Anthony Kaye left TFC’s midfield woefully thin.

Newcomers Insigne (6 goals, 2 assists 11 matches) and Bernardeschi (8 goals, 2 assists, 12 matches) put up some good numbers in their half season with the team, but the team was not winning. Team defence and an extremely thin midfield shoulder much of the blame, but the inability of the two Italian newcomers to properly integrate with the rest of TFC’s offence was also an issue.

The team look rudderless all too often. On many occasions it appeared as though the two stars only sought each other out for a pass in many games. Signs of frustration with some of their young teammates would surface on a few occasions.

Bernardeschi and Insigne stand over the ball prior to a set piece against CF Montreal
Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

Opposing coaches learned to focus their defensive efforts on closing down the Italian duo with the confidence that TFC had no plan B to counter. Bradley Sr generally did not offer up an alternative game plan in such instances, and went through several games with questionable substitutions, if they were made at all. For the team to move ahead in 2023 this disconnect must be corrected.

So what is the common denominator in these problems? Unfortunately, the finger points to the individual hired to bring the team out of the footballing wilderness, head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley. The signings of Insigne, Criscito and Bernardeschi’s, had more to do with initiatives begun by team president Bill Manning. The team’s remaining personnel acquisition strategies were largely attributable to Bradley Sr.

While sweeping out 21 players from the previous year’s roster was an audacious undertaking, it was Bradley Sr’s choice to start the year with no full-backs. The team was thin at midfield without the injuries to Kaye and Osorio, but his mid-season moves did little to address the lack of depth.

MLS: Toronto FC at Charlotte FC
Bob Bradley
Jim Dedmon / USA TODAY Sports

Bradley’s insistence, bordering on stubbornness, that the team adhere to a 4-3-3 when the personnel at his disposal did not suit this structure, coupled with his inability to make in-game adjustments in the second half of the season gave off vibes of a coach who had run out of ideas to solve the team’s challenges.

The Road Ahead

TFC’s hire of Bradley Sr coupled with a huge investment in personnel is not in a unique situation in club football. A not too dissimilar project was begun by the English Premier League’s Aston Villa after the much heralded arrival of manager Steven Gerrard in November 2021.

Yet, after less than a year at the helm, Gerrard’s results were not reflective of the investment by the club over the recent summer, reportedly $71 million. Management’s patience with the on field performance did not inspire confidence that Gerrard could turn the team’s fortunes around and he was let go.

As for Bradley Sr’s tactical inflexibility, let us look at the tale of another manager over the past couple years.

Julian Nagelsmann’s high priced arrival at Bundesliga heavy weight Bayern Munich from RB Leipzig raised many questions about whether Nagelsmann’s style was a proper fit for the recent perennial champions. After all, Nagelsmann’s success with RB Leipzig was predicated on his use of a three man back line whether it be a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation. Bayern, on the other hand, had for years gone with a successful lineup based on a 4-2-3-1 system.

Nagelsmann tinkered with adapting Bayern to his preferred lineup but with results that were inconsistent and raised concerns among the Bayern hierarchy and fan-base. However, Nagelsmann displayed pragmatism over his preference for a three man back line. Instead of insisting on the players at his disposal continue to struggle with his past tactical preference, he recognized and utilized the strengths of the players he had and re-instated Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 for the majority of his match plans. Bayern’s overall success returned and questions over Nagelsmann’s future at the helm dissipated.

Looking ahead, Bradley Sr is likely to be given at least the winter window and the first half of next season to right the ship and show results. After-all, Insigne will be 32 next summer and TFC is looking to win now in light of ownership’s financial outlay. No matter how much money an organization spends, if the manager cannot make it work on the field then a change is generally warranted.