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2018 was a horror story for Toronto FC. What now?

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Reliving the nightmare that was is painful, but cathartic. Now that it’s over, what should TFC’s management do?

Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Toronto FC at Guadalajara Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

I decided it’s fitting that, on Halloween, we relive the horror story that was Toronto FC’s 2018 season.

Actually, knowing I’d be writing in the wake of Toronto FC’s game against Atlanta United, I wholeheartedly expected this post-mortem to be a depressing eulogy over the nightmare year that was for the Reds. Perhaps oddly, though, things seem genuinely optimistic around the fans — on Twitter, at least.

It’s comforting to finally come to terms with the fact that the 2018 MLS season was unequivocally a failure, with pretty much across-the-board agreement from fans, media, players, and management. There’s probably not much frustration left to come this year. We know that everything from the last eight months is going to be addressed over the next four.

Right off the bat, club president Bill Manning confirmed that the grass surface is already gone from BMO Field, with a new hybrid pitch expected to be ready for the 2019 season.

We also know there are personnel changes on the way. Greg Vanney spoke extensively at his exit presser about a desire to improve TFC’s wide play, and it also sounds like the Reds are looking at making some additions both to the central defence and to the attack.

MLS: Toronto FC at Minnesota United FC Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

So, looking back, what happened this year? How, exactly, did the 69-point, treble-winning Toronto FC of 2017 turn into the 36-point, ninth-place TFC of this year?

Well, 47 competitive matches in 2018, and a total of 134 over the past three years (about enough games to have played one every single consecutive week in that stretch, with no breaks), probably had something to do with it. That, and maybe the four trips down to Mexico (including preseason). Pretty much every player missed a game with injury this year, including first-choice centre-back partners Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor, who started together twice this season.

All those are, of course, intertwined. Management and players have also pointed to mentality issues: Bill Manning suggested the club didn’t have the unified focus it did in 2017. Greg Vanney added that things like injuries and travel definitely became distractions as the year wore on.

Michael Bradley also mentioned “agendas” among the players this season that interfered with the squad’s mindset. Frankly, I really think there’s something to the theory that the lost shootout down in Guadalajara in the Concacaf Champions League final was the season’s climax. Imagine coming within inches of the greatest thing any team in your league has ever achieved, pretty much right at the beginning of your season.

This spooky clip is not for the faint of heart:

Be pretty hard to regroup after that, no?

Once the club turned their attention to MLS, they were already behind, and that horse was a lot harder to climb back up on with all their energy sapped. There were just too many moments where things went wrong for TFC.

Remember the first game back after the CCL, when the Reds blew a 2-0 lead to the Chicago Fire because Alan freakin’ Gordon scored? Or that time the struggling Seattle Sounders scored two goals way against the run of play at BMO Field? How about the boring 1-0 home loss to FC Dallas after Maxi Urruti’s 11th-minute goal?

This is cathartic, let’s keep going.

TFC lost in New England and Sebastian Giovinco got suspended for grabbing Wilfried Zahibo. They blew a 3-0 lead in Columbus within the last 25 minutes of a game. Alex Bono got chipped three times Darwin Quintero scored a hat trick in an embarrassing 4-3 loss to Minnesota United.

Guys, I’m only in July here.

San Jose managed to come back and draw 1-1 with TFC as the worst team in MLS. TFC had 61% possession against LAFC and still lost 4-2. And finally, pathetically, the Reds officially bowed out of the playoff race with a listless 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Christ, this season sucked.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So what now? Well, from what TFC’s management has been saying, it doesn’t sound like the team’s main core (including the DPs) will see much turnover. I think that’s the right move, for what it’s worth — all of Bradley, Giovinco, and Jozy Altidore probably have at least another year or so of value at their salaries, and they certainly all deserve another shot at some trophies for what they’ve done with this club. If Altidore and Giovinco had been healthy and in the lineup together all year, who knows what could’ve happened.

That said, a time is definitely coming when we’ll have to say goodbye to these players — and it might not be too far from now. Altidore could even be gone this off-season. TFC have probably already thought about how they’ll approach moving on from these club heroes.

The defence will, definitely, be addressed. A quality, experienced centre-back well above replacement level sounds like the major priority, especially since Drew Moor surely won’t be able to play every night, if he even does come back. Kendall Waston apparently wants out of Vancouver, and he could be a great option for the Reds (although it sounds like TFC might be more keen on looking outside of MLS for new signings).

It sounds like TFC want to have a deeper squad of players who can contribute — as many as 16 viable options for any given team sheet, according to Bill Manning. That seems to be the key to squad rotation during the Concacaf Champions League, in their view.

Something I really liked in a few of the moves TFC made over the past year (although not all of them worked out) is a move toward younger talent. Auro is 22, and both Ager Aketxe and Lucas Janson are 24. With most of the club’s core players over 30, I think youth is really the direction this club should start heading.

Look at Atlanta United, who gamble a little bit more with their money on less-proven young players, like 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco (jury’s still out), or Miguel Almiron (a bona fide superstar) — whom they bought at the age of 22. Further to that, Hector Villalba was 21 when he came to Atlanta, and even likely MLS MVP Josef Martinez was 23.

Yes, a lot of these players will be moving on to Europe soon, but hot damn if Atlanta isn’t a good team, with just a little more energy than an older one.

These next four months are critical to Toronto FC’s future. They have to make some major changes, yes. But they also cannot overreact, as silly as that sounds after a disaster of a season. Sure, the players who won them MLS Cup are a good bit older now, but we saw on Sunday that this team absolutely can still hang with anyone in MLS, if the circumstances are right.

As I’ve done on several (usually happier, but not always) occasions this season, I’m going to leave you with some poetry. Once again, it’s gonna be real pretentious and self-indulgent, but I actually think this Shakespeare sonnet is pretty beautifully applicable. It’s about aging, the end of glory days, and letting go of old loves. That’s been this year for TFC. But the poem is also hopeful. This is the natural cycle of things. Better days will return.

The sweet birds shall sing again. Here’s to 2019.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all the rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73