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OPINION: Put away that Panic Button

With a roster chock-full of young players, what can we realistically hope for this year?

Sean Pollock/Waking The Red

On our most recent Tunnel Club call-in show on Twitter Spaces, our intrepid hosts braved the question, “When is it time to hit the panic button” for Toronto FC’s 2022 season?

It was a timely thing to ask, a day after getting trounced 4-1 by the New York Red Bulls in our home opener. I gotta admit, that game felt eerily similar to last year’s “campaign’. Our defending was a curdling mix of concrete sludge and swiss cheese. Our attack yo-yoed between all-too-intricate dilly-dallying and the vanilla tactic of “run-up-the-wings and cross in plus hope”. Add in a new coach, not named Greg Vanney?

As if on cue, TFCland raised the shackles, and began lamenting a season they felt was already a waste and a failure. The post-mortems came in thick and fast.

Now, I’m not here to tell you how to feel. That wasn’t my aim a month ago, and it isn’t now.

Get upset, complain all you want, have your panic button at the ready, if that’s what you feel you should do. And even if you no longer feel the need to break out that panic button, if the flames have subsided a bit over the past week, I suspect this will all come up again. and again. And again.

And so I am here to ask some questions, and at least answer the one I raised in my lede.

First: what, practically, would it mean to hit that panic button, whenever that may be? What would we, informed and committed TFC fans that we are, realistically expect MLSE, Manning and co. to do? Overhaul our roster again, just like we did this offseason? Fire Coach Bradley outright, like we did last year when the consensus against Chris Armas and Ali Curtis became universal?

Or maybe more sensibly, do we split Bradley’s role, bring in a new GM and formally designate Bob as our Head Coach? Or, and part of me hopes this happens anyway, do we call on MLSE to double-down on their financial commitment with a new spending push that brings more talent in—within MLS rules, of course?

“Hitting the panic button” can mean many things when the status quo is understood to be unsustainable; a failure, a waste, not worthy of continuing.

This brings me back to the first question, which I will venture to answer this time: When should we hit the panic button? Underneath that lies a more positive, and more important one: what should we, informed and committed TFC fans that we are, reasonably expect from this season? What would define a successful 2022 campaign?

The simple answer is that we can reasonably expect it to be better than last year.

A low bar, but the real conversation gets into the thorns of how it might be better than last year. I understand why we’re strongly tempted to point to results, spots in the standings, to answer this. Frankly, that misses the point, misses what it means for this to be a rebuilding year, a rebuilding club. If we think anything less than a home playoff spot is a waste, then ask me about my Star Wars podcast some time, where I discuss similarly fantastical concepts. Even with the arrival of Insigne this summer, I honestly don’t think “playoffs (at all) or bust” is the best way to define success for 2022.

Jonathan Osorio debuted for TFC in 2013, and has had a decent number of appearances throughout his time here (closing in on 300 in all comps, actually - ed.). The only significant dip in his minutes occurred in 2017, when our roster was too crowded with too much talent and on-field success. But it took until 2018, five years after his debut, for him to develop the level of composure, game management and attacking talent that allowed him to break through that crowd. He clocked in 2603 minutes through 30 starts, scoring 10 goals, 7 assists and 20 shots on target. Those stats backup the eye test, our impression that he was our best player in a relatively disappointing season.

We also know Richie Laryea’s story. He paid his dues for Orlando City B in USL, was brought on to their MLS side in 2017 and given some decent playing time for a few years. He came home to Toronto at just the right time: his blinding speed, eye for offensive damage and defensive responsibility had developed to a level that earned him consistently solid first-team minutes from 2019 to 2021. Both Oso and Richie became integral to our surprise run in 2019, were bright spots in our otherwise lackluster 2020 and 2021 campaigns, and will both very likely be boarding a plane to Qatar this October.

The Toronto FC of 2022 is full of very young players loaded with more raw talent than Richie and Oso had at their age. JMR, Priso, Nelson, Shaffelburg, Petrasso, Akinola, Achara, Chung, MacNaughton: to a man, they have the potential for stunningly brilliant careers. And to a man, they’ve fit into the team culture wonderfully. As a collective, they have the potential to turn TFC into a major contender in coming years, if they’re given time and experience to develop. They want to attract European attention: and those scouts are looking to see how these players contribute to team success. It’s why Laryea was able to make the move to England when he did (his lack of contribution in Nottingham notwithstanding.).

Simply put, these young players just weren’t given that opportunity last year. Curtis and Armas reneged on their commitment to TFC’s future, remaining “unfathomably” stuck in the past. And despite this, Shaffelburg and Priso especially had long stretches of play that have earned them regular starting spots at the beginning of this year.

And as for this past Saturday’s home loss: yes JMR and Nelson were especially weak defending, Shaffelburg and Priso weren’t at their best. Those are real concerns—areas for growth—and at the same time it’s possible for all of them to happen to have a bad game at once. Remember that Marshall-Rutty earned MLS team of the week honours merely days before this game.

So, to answer the question: when do we hit the panic button? If we go the way we have the last two games, I’m gonna put it at about late-summer 2023, maybe even 2024. Honestly. This is the big shift that we as informed, committed TFC fans have in front of us: to see this year, this very young roster, as an opportunity for long-term success rather than a problem right now. This club can finally start creating a culture and an institutional memory that is adept at developing young talent for years to come. We’re used to the high-flying, flash-in-the-pan roster that can suddenly win a treble or squeak into the final but then peter out. What if this newfound investment in young talent is the recipe for a dynasty, a juggernaut?

Saturday’s game merely felt like last year, but just under the surface the difference was night and day. 2021 was a failure not simply because we came in second last, but because we did so while looking backward to a reality that no longer exists. We got trounced in the 2022 home opener because we started a bunch of kids with metric tons of promise who had bad games. And we played the energy drinks, who will have our number for the balance of this campaign, at the very least. They may have the league in their pockets if they can play at that level consistently.

This season may be painful at times. Or frustrating. Or it may be brilliantly surprising. We do need to bring in more pieces, especially Insigne and (maybe?) Criscito, and I hope Salcedo continues to shore up our backline. We can also look at formation, structure and mindset changes to address our defensive weaknesses. I’ll be immensely happy if we make a late-season push for a playoff spot, whether or not we get it. But my deeper hope for this year is if we make clear strides toward future success on an individual, team and organizational level.