How can Toronto FC top last season's success?
2017 Record: 20-9-5 (Supporters Shield Winners and record for most points in an MLS season with 69)
Playoffs: MLS Cup champions (2-0 over Seattle Sounders)
Season Opener: March 3 vs. Columbus Crew at 1 p.m. ET (TSN1/4/5 and TSN 1050 Radio)
D - Gregory van der Wiel
D - Auro
M - Ager Aketxe
D - Steven Beitashour
M - Armando Cooper
M - Benoit Cheyrou
F - Raheem Edwards
Three Big Questions:
What can Toronto FC do for an Encore?
Toronto FC has climbed the mountain. Eleven years in, the Toronto FC project hit its high note in 2017, becoming the preeminent club in Major League Soccer winning the domestic treble: Canadian Championship, Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup.
The year goes down as the best season in MLS history. The team produced a record 69 points, scoring a league-best 74 goals in 34 games with a dominating +37 goal differential. Winning the MLS Cup on home soil against the club that denied Toronto a championship a year prior provided the storybook ending to a miraculous run.
There is no complacency in the group – at least none they will publicly admit. There are too many players still out to prove something and the internal standard has been set incredibly high.
An early start in the CONCACAF Champions League should provide match sharpness the team lacked in starting the season 1-4-1 last year. The extra competition provides another benchmark for a team devoted to goal-setting.
And make no mistake, this team is built to win now. The top players in the team are in their professional prime. Sebastian Giovinco (31), Victor Vazquez (31), Michael Bradley (30), Drew Moor (34) and Justin Morrow (30) are all on the wrong side of 30. The signing of Gregory van der Wiel (30) – a proven winner across Europe with bags of talent and experience – further signals intent at the club to continue to win with this group rather than turning their focus on much younger recruitment that has become widespread in MLS.
Toronto FC has actually upgraded the talent in the squad with van der Wiel, Ager Aketxe and Auro making the move to MLS. There’s real reason to believe this year’s team can be better than last, as improbable as that seems. While the Eastern Conference is better than the West, Toronto has a team that can challenge their own record-setting season.
Is a quadruple in the cards? The CONCACAF Champions League will be the most difficult challenge, but this team is built to compete with the best within the region. With additional depth, flexibility and talent in the team, it’s difficult to make the case Toronto FC won’t be in the mix in every competition they play.
What is the Vanney’s best XI?
Head coach Greg Vanney has a challenge on his hands. This Toronto team legitimately goes 17-18 players deep; players you can legitimately argue should be considered best XI options. There is true competition for places in the team, to the point Vanney may see the group as 18 capable of starting, depending on the opponent and tactical approach. That’s saying something for a team in a league where filling out a proper bench is often a challenge. Keeping all parties involved and happy won’t be easy, but the internal competition for spots should keep the team sharp.
Toronto’s depth in quality and diversity separates them from the rest. Recruitment has been surgical and the group has proven tactically flexible. The formation may change, but the team plays the same way, bringing the full-backs high to add punch to the attack.
Alex Bono is a lock at goalkeeper. A back four of van der Wiel, Moor, Chris Mavinga and Morrow is as solid as it gets. Bradley at the bottom of the midfield diamond and Vazquez at the top are locks, with Jozy Altidore and Giovinco up front.
It’s the central midfield where it gets most interesting. The incumbents, Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado, were superb in the MLS Cup win and bring the age down of the group considerably. But with players like Aketxe, Auro, and Nicolas Hasler, there is additional quality and the ability to play with more width or attacking intent if need be. The only doubt in the team would be if they lose Bradley to injury for any length of time. A player of his ability and workload is irreplaceable.
Who or what can derail a domestic dynasty?
Back-to-back MLS Cup appearances have launched talk that Toronto FC is on the verge of becoming a domestic dynasty. The team enters the season as the bookmakers favourite to repeat as Champions. If they do, Toronto will enter the conversation with the late 90s D.C. United and the 2011-2014 Los Angeles Galaxy as the best MLS dynasty of all-time.
Atlanta United appears to be the only other team playing by Toronto FC’s rules. Tata Martino and Atlanta seem destined to be the Reds staunchest competition this year. The record-setting $15 million transfer fee for Argentine teenager Ezequiel Barco shows true ambition. The team has plenty of talent on the field, and drew a league best 48,200 supporters per game, with that number growing exponentially after making the move to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta was arguably the second-best team in its expansion season, before falling to the Columbus Crew in a shootout in the first round of the playoffs. Barco and the acquisition of Darlington Nagbe make Atlanta even better this time around.
The new breed of MLS teams is certainly worth watching. Toronto FC started the trend of a new group of MLS super clubs (Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, etc.) with verbose and committed supporters and backing of ownership willing to invest in the club and sport. Toronto has emerged at a time when traditional MLS powerhouses New York Red Bulls and the Galaxy have lost a step (or two). They’ve been trumped in potential and popularity by their local rivals in their own cities and are no longer the benchmark in league spending. Toronto has taken over that mantle.
With spending power and success come expectations. The MLS stars in the team are held to a higher standard and will always be scrutinized more. How long can this team be kept together? The front office has found ways to keep squad continuity while adding top players in a difficult salary cap climate. An extended run at the top of MLS is no given, but this team is well-equipped in the now.
In the meantime, the question will persist: How many MLS Cups can this team win? And if they don’t win another in the coming seasons, will Toronto FC be seen as a disappointment based upon the unrealistic expectations set by their own dominance? The pressure is on.