Entering the June international break, Toronto FC has been riding a roller-coaster of a season that is now 41% completed (14 of 34 games are now in the books). After stumbling out of the starting gate without a win in their first three games, TFC then put together a four-game unbeaten run, which included a victory over last season’s MLS Cup champions, New York City FC. However, the rematch with NYCFC, a 5-4 defeat, saw TFC begin a run of five winless games, before entering the break with a draw and a win. Yet, it is important to note that despite this inconsistency, TFC has 15 points and remains only three points out of seventh spot, and the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
At this point, TFC have had a sufficient number of games played to provide a relevant sample of how the team has fared so far into its most significant re-build since the club was founded. In one month, the summer transfer window officially opens. Moreover, coinciding with the opening of the summer transfer window will be the resumption of TFC’s roster overhaul. Despite improvements to the team, especially when compared to where TFC stood after 14 games played last season, it is apparent that additional pieces to the team are required. Fortunately for TFC and its fan base, the club is still sitting on a mountain of general and targeted allocation money (GAM and TAM), with several unfilled roster spots to fill.
As Bill Manning and Bob Bradley plan for the upcoming transfer window, let us review how the team has fared so far. As my Waking the Red colleague Christopher Fung has pointed out recently, criticisms of TFC’s play so far this season, however warranted, must be placed in perspective. A year ago, many were clamouring for the TFC house to be burnt to the ground and management heads to roll. The club evidently heard the clamour, and 19 players from last season are gone, with only 14 players returning for 2022. Neither of last season’s coaches, Chris Armas or Javier Pérez, nor GM Ali Curtis are with the team. But a rebuild of such magnitude cannot reasonably be expected to immediately produce a championship calibre team. By no stretch of the imagination is the current iteration of the team a finished product.
‘PLAY THE KIDS’
The call to play the kids was heard throughout the summer and autumn of last season as TFC all but mathematically took themselves out of the playoff race by the first week of July. (Remember to consider that last season started late, and that by this year’s standards the team would have been out of contention by mid-May). Alas, playing the kids did not happen enough last year. However, this year under Bob Bradley is markedly different. Let us take a look at the kids so far as there are a lot more of them in the first team fold this year. As the roster continues to take shape, TFC will need to make decisions by year’s end as to who sticks or not. If there are recurring themes to describe the the youngsters, it would be inconsistency coupled with honest hard work.
Last season’s darling, Ralph Priso, has been eased back onto the field in 2022 after last year’s season-ending ankle injury. However, Priso has found it difficult to find his rhythm despite the nurturing manner in which Bob Bradley has been re-introducing Priso to the lineup. Some might call it a sophomore jinx, but whatever you name it, Priso hasn’t been the same player as the one brimming with potential, and more importantly, confidence, that closed out last season on the injured list.
Noble Okello appeared to have been handed the keys to one of the midfield positions to start the year, but inconsistency and injuries have played havoc with his season of late. Okello has been highly touted for some time now, and despite being just 21 years of age, he might not be considered a young prospect for much longer. A return to health and a run of consistency may determine whether he ever reaches his potential.
Kadin Chung made the considerable leap to MLS from Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League and is currently TFC’s only natural right-back. He has performed admirably at times, generally playing within his abilities, although he, too, has been held back by injuries early on. Overall, Chung has not been a noticeable downgrade from the loaned out Auro Jr, and at considerably less cost. However, and this is not meant as a criticism, Chung is no Laryea.
Luca Petrasso has been a pleasant addition overall. Initially playing in a more advanced position as an out and out winger down the left side, he has recently been trotted out as a traditional left-back, where he was expected to play when he was signed from TFC II this winter. Petrasso is is the only player logging the same minutes as many of the veterans, being the only youngster of five players with over a 1000 minutes played in MLS. A lack of consistency, especially with his defensive duties, has occasionally let him down, but this is expected from a rookie logging so many minutes early on.
Centre-back Lucas MacNaughton is, perhaps, not exactly a youngster any longer at the age of 27. MacNaughton also made the jump from the CPL to MLS, along with Pacific FC teammate Kadin Chung. It is safe to say that MacNaughton plays with his heart on his sleeve. He has had some strong outings thus far, but as with other younger or new to MLS players, he has been plagued with inconsistency. Signed for a backing role at centre-back, a combination of either injuries and suspensions to Chris Mavinga and designated player Carlos Salcedo has resulted in Bradley Sr having to pencil him into the lineup on more occasions than he would have expected to.
A natural right sided midfielder/winger, necessity has seen Kosi Thompson playing significant minutes as a fill-in right-back of late. It is not surprising that Thompson has looked uncomfortable at times with the defensive responsibilities required at full-back. While the effort is there, Thompson’s lack of experience at right-back has cost TFC on a few occasions. Similar to Shaffelburg, Thompson’s game and development would benefit with a return to playing in a position he is more comfortable with.
Whenever Jayden Nelson is mentioned, there is a longstanding adage that comes to mind that states, “you can teach defence but offence comes naturally.” Nelson is obviously a talented player, but consistently inconsistent. Defensive positioning and the knack for when to go in for a tackle eludes Nelson for long stretches in games. Offensively, he has speed and flair in spades, but has a maddening tendency to hold on to the ball for too long, and often appears situationally unaware of open teammates to pass the ball to. With Nelson, it is not so much a case of not being able to pass, rather, it is the many passes he does not make that result in far too many turnovers.
Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty was the focus of much discussion regarding Bradley’s experiment to convert the young attack-minded midfielder to a right-back. The experiment has had an auspicious start as Marshall-Rutty has shown flashes of understanding at right-back. However, it has often been punctuated by mixed play at the defensive end. Again, this is not unexpected of a 17-year-old playing professionally. What pressed pause on the experiment was a nagging leg injury that has seen Marshall-Rutty on the sidelines for the past two months. There has not been a sufficient sample to determine how Marshall-Rutty will fare at right-back in the long run. Rumours continue to make the rounds that upon his upcoming 18th birthday Marshall-Rutty, will be sold overseas, with links to Liverpool most heavily cited.
Even among the kids, new signing DeAndre Kerr is very much the new kid on the block, having just signed with Toronto prior to the start of the season. He plays a similar position and, in some respects, in a similar manner to Nelson. However, in the more limited opportunities given to him, Kerr looks to play with a more direct style. At this juncture, Kerr’s two goals so far lead the contingent of younger players in scoring. He, too, needs work on the defensive aspect of his game, and like the others, Kerr is showing some progress here.
Jordan Peruzza has not earned enough minutes to get into any rhythm, and has looked unpolished offensively. However, he has shown himself willing to run hard in the press in the closing minutes of games whenever called upon. He will fall further down the depth charts should TFC sign another experienced striker this summer, as is expected.
Ayo Akinola signed a new deal as part of the Major League Soccer U-22 Initiative over the winter while recovering from an ACL injury sustained in last summer’s Gold Cup. From rehab to his return to the field, Akinola has looked like a man on a mission, appearing fitter and faster than prior to the injury, with confidence to boot. As with Priso, Bradley has gradually re-integrated Akinola into the line-up, where his interplay with Jesus Jimenez up front has been steadily improving. His on-field productivity is bound to rise with the imminent arrival of Lorenzo Insigne in July.
Jacob Shaffelburg has had a very challenging 2022 due to Bob Bradley’s experiment with converting him into a left-back. With Insigne’s arrival beckoning, Bradley is trying to find a way to keep the speedy left-sided player in the lineup, knowing that minutes would be hard to come by if he could not find another position for Shaffelburg to play. However, Shaffelburg’s game at left-back has not been the best from a defensive stand point, and his interplay with Petrasso down the left side has been equally suspect. Now returning from a few weeks away on account of an injury, it will be interesting to see where Shaffelburg’s future position lies.
Ifunanyachi Achara is another player whose development, stumped by a long term ACL injury, appears to be struggling to make any kind of mark. Achara often finds himself in the right spaces, but is let down by a lack of finishing. With several options of a similar profile on the team, and likely reinforcements on the horizon, time may be running out for Achara to carve out a long term presence with the club.
Bradley is testing out who can flat out play, and where they can play. Those that he deems capable of fulfilling a role on the team will be integrated around the veterans both here and on the way. With this many youngsters on the team, it would not be surprising to see many either moved on or dropped. Any success this season is unlikely with TFC’s reliance on this many young players in the lineup.
BETWEEN THE POSTS
Bono or Q? Until this past week, Bob Bradley has gone exclusively with Alex Bono in net. Given the team’s erratic play, of which Bono is not himself blameless, change in net was somewhat overdue. This is not to say that TFC’s troubles lie solely with Bono. While his distribution skills are notoriously sub-standard, Bono is second in MLS in saves with 55 to his name. Bono is only three saves behind the leader, Real Salt Lake’s Zach McMath, who has played one more game. Clearly, he is facing too many shots for a team to succeed in the long run. This is a function of a porous defence that has oscillated between three-man and four-man back lines, lacks experienced full-backs, and has a revolving door of central defence pairings from game to game.
However, the insertion of Quentin Westberg in the week before the break was welcoming. A clearly exasperated Bono was beginning to shed what confidence he may have had. Although Westberg was not stellar in his first two games of the season, there did appear to be a change in the manner in which his TFC teammates played in front of him. It remains to be seen after the break whether the goalkeeping change is temporary or for a longer duration. Whichever direction Bob Bradley goes, do not expect Greg Ranjitsingh to see any action unless an emergency arises where neither of Bono or Westberg are able to go.
There are not many veterans on the team in the first half of this season. Given their penchant for injuries and suspensions, the veterans have been supplanted by perhaps too many youngsters on the pitch at the same time. This is an area that Manning and Bradley Sr are expected to address more in the upcoming transfer window. But until then, let us evaluate the veterans as we have looked at the youngsters.
Has it been Bradley Sr’s intention to have Michael Bradley log the heavy minutes he has so far this season? Or has the plague of injuries to virtually every other midfielder, but especially Okello and Priso, forced Bob Bradley’s hand. Never fleet of foot, Michael Bradley has appeared to drop another step and fade out of games in the second half of matches. This is not unsurprising as the soon to be 35-year-old has played almost every one of TFC’s minutes this year. The veteran could use some help.
Designated player Alejandro Pozuelo, the 2020 MLS MVP, found the going tough last year and he has been inconsistent this year as well. After his recent man of the match game against Chicago, Pozuelo repeatedly stressed that he felt good that game and that it was the first time he had not felt physical pain all season. Suffice it to say that Pozuelo will need more games like the Chicago one, which also earned him his second MLS Team of the Week nod, to earn a contract next season. This is especially so if he wishes to remain a Designated Player and return under a new contract. If he can remain healthy, Pozuelo will be one of the key beneficiaries of Insigne’s arrival, as the Spaniard’s game tends to rise with the level of those he plays with.
Jonathan Osorio has been one of TFC’s bright spots this season, when healthy. He has proven himself to be among the two most valuable players on this team. Oso has often served as the link in transition, not just between the defence and the offence, but between fellow midfielders Bradley and Pozuelo. The recent Chicago game, where Osorio was forced out with injury after 12 minutes, bore witness to this. A healthy Osorio will be crucial for TFC in their quest to nail down a spot in the playoffs.
Jesús Jiménez is the other player that has become indispensable to the team over the past four months. His seven goals and three assists place him among the offensive leaders in MLS so far this season. His production has been as efficient as it has been clinical, as his xG and xA are just 4.5 and 1.4 respectively. Like Pozuelo, expect Jiménez’s production to get that much better when Insigne arrives. To date, Jiménez has been a steal of an acquisition and among the best newcomers to the league this year.
So much was expected of Chris Mavinga, TFC’s only returning defender from last season, but he has not delivered consistently yet. A poor start followed by a nagging hamstring injury has seen Mavinga play just four games in 2022. However, in those four games, there have been questions asked about how well he fits beside new designated player Carlos Salcedo, as both of them tend to play a high-risk defensive game. Mavinga needs to stay off the physio’s bench for the second half of the year or it could be his final season as a Red.
TFC’s first acquisition in this past winter window, Shane O’Neil has likely played more minutes than he was planned to by Bradley Sr. Solid in most games, despite not being blessed with speed, O’Neil has been pressed into action more than expected on account of Mavinga and Salcedo’s absences. Nevertheless, O’Neil has been a solid acquisition, but cannot be expected to carry the defence. That was supposed to be Salcedo’s job.
Carlos Salcedo has been an enigma so far this year. Signed as a Designated Player, Salcedo exudes a tremendous amount of confidence on the pitch, yet his play, when he has been available, has not met the same level. Troubles with COVID-19 and discipline (the yellow and red card kind) have prevented Salcedo from playing as much or making the defensive impact that was expected of him so far. While there has been some debate as to whether TFC may buy down Salcedo’s Designated Player contract with some of the targeted allocation money at their disposal in order to pursue another high priced attacker, the process is challenging and may not be worth the trouble in this window.
While much has been made of the number of young players and their amount of playing time hindering TFC, an almost equal measure of concern must lie with the lack of veterans and the minutes they have been available on the pitch.
While it may not look that way to some, it appears Bob Bradley has steadied the ship so far this season. Compared to a year ago, the team spirit remains buoyant, as seen by the vast decrease in drama that occurred in 2021. Given the state of the team rebuild, coupled with several injuries across the roster, it is not surprising that TFC has struggled in the standings. Yet, as noted previously, the team is just three points behind Inter Miami in seventh.
Bradley Sr has played the kids more than any previous TFC manager in recent memory, yet he is still reliant on veterans down the spine of his on-field product. There may be more youth in the lineup from week to week than Bradley may like, but injuries among veterans and youth alike have forced his hand so far. In the long run, this may work in TFC’s favour, as Bradley Sr figures out which players to keep within his system, and for those players to gain valuable MLS experience in the process.
What formation does Bradley anticipate using going forward? He has experimented heavily with a three-man backline early in the season, but has reverted to his favoured 4-3-3 of late. In fact, he has gone with exactly seven three-man backlines and seven four-man backlines in the first 14 MLS games this season. Resolving this tactical question will significantly influence management’s player acquisitions this summer.
Clearly, there is much work to do in the next eight weeks until the summer transfer window closes. Another central midfielder with MLS experience, a central defender that can marshal the backline and stay injury free, and an experienced right sided full-back top the list. Stay tuned and hang on tight as this roller-coaster is going to be turbulent for the next while.