It would be hard to blame Toronto FC fans for getting a little restless at times this offseason. Coming off a trip to the MLS Cup final, the club was quiet for most of the winter transfer season. There were few rumours, and even fewer moves.
This has been anything but the norm for the club of late. In 2014, Toronto made global headlines when they acquired Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto. A year later, they brought in Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Even last year, while the names were not as flashy, TFC made four high-profile MLS moves.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Monday’s signing of Victor Vazquez is Toronto’s first, and likely only, big signing of the offseason. It is indicative of a team that has finally achieved a semblance of roster consistency and is a good omen when it comes to continuing their recent success. TFC’s roster is finally looking like that of a contender.
In Major League Soccer, having a core group that is familiar with one another is paramount to success. In a league where acquisitions of flashy big-name stars steal all the headlines, it is often the teams who stay the course with a group of players that win.
For evidence, consider the rosters of MLS Cup winners since 2008 - essentially the start of the league’s designated-player era. Looking at those team’s key players (those who started at least 20 regular season games), on average 84 per cent played for that team in some capacity the year before they won MLS Cup.
This shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise; roster consistency allows a team to develop chemistry both on and off the field. Players become comfortable in their surroundings as well as with their teammates. Coaches know their players better, and therefore have to make fewer tactical adjustments.
It also comes as no surprise that Toronto’s roster consistency has been dismal over the years. Of players who started 20 or more games for Toronto FC in any given year, only 56 per cent on average were on the team the year before. On top of this, TFC tends to have fewer players who even reached that 20-start threshold.
Even last season, undoubtedly the best in franchise history, Toronto was still making adjustments to their roster. They added two key players in Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour, while Will Johnson and Clint Irwin were only one appearance away from the 20-start criteria due to injury.
This year, Toronto goes into training camp with an already established identity and a clear core group: Irwin, Moor, Justin Morrow, Steven Beitashour, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
To that group they have made only a couple of additions in Vazquez and potentially Chris Mavinga, as well as making Armando Cooper’s loan deal permanent. These were additions meant to support an already successful core, whereas last year Toronto was still making the signings needed to establish one.
This is all by design, and president Bill Manning has spoken at length about the importance of establishing and building around a core group. That’s exactly what Manning helped to create during his time with Real Salt Lake and as can be seen in the above chart, when RSL won the 2009 MLS Cup all nine players who started at least 20 games were on the team the year before as well.
That kind of consistency doesn’t only help on the field - it also helps to cultivate a fanbase. Having a group of talented players that fans can easily identify from the team’s MLS Cup run, where they were viewed by record-breaking audiences, will only help Toronto continue to grow in popularity this season.
So at this juncture, a quiet offseason is a good offseason for TFC. Their current group knows the city, knows the system and knows each other very well. That is a proven recipe for success; now they just have to make sure the ingredients mix as expected.