‘The season doesn’t start until TFC plays’

Michael Bradley is the midfield general TFC has never had. Photo: Paul Giamou/Sportsnet magazine

This story originally appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of Sportsnet magazine

Toronto FC had just lost—again. And failed to score—again. Expansion teams struggle, but this was getting embarrassing. TFC’s 1–0 loss to D.C. United in August 2007 set an MLS record for the longest stretch without scoring: 642 minutes and counting.

As the post-match press conference dragged on, and head coach Mo Johnston’s silences grew longer and more uncomfortable, a soft-spoken young man in a TFC jersey stood up in the back row and boldly introduced himself. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to Johnston. “I’m a Canadian resident. I’m a forward. I can help you.”

Such was TFC in their first season. Johnston brushed the would-be striker off, but couldn’t brush aside the back-of-the-mind plausibility that this was a side weak enough that someone just might be able to walk off the street and onto the team—that scoreless streak went on for another 182 minutes. And that was just the beginning. The next six years played out like a clinic on how not to run a pro sports franchise, all false starts and fired coaches, miserable signings and missed playoffs. A long, lingering failure.

Then, suddenly, everything turned around. As of Jan. 13, 2014—with the unveiling of high-power designated players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, the “Bloody Big Deal”—TFC entered a new era. Once almost comically inept from the front office to the backline, TFC is now defined by big money, big ambitions, big drive and big dreams. On the cusp of the most hyped season in their history, now comes the hard part: making all this promise work on the field.

Getting to this point began with one man: Tim Leiweke, installed as CEO of MLSE last summer and charged with turning around the fortunes of a failing franchise. The man who brought David Beckham, Robbie Keane and two MLS Cups to Los Angeles is leading an overhaul on many levels. Not just signing Defoe and Bradley, not just the enlistment of Drake and LeBron and the marketing campaign, but also the lesser highlights of a busy and productive off-season: welcoming back Dwayne De Rosario, signing Brazilian designated player Gilberto, getting star goalkeeper Julio Cesar on loan from England’s Q.P.R. and making a series of smart moves to add depth players.

A transformation like this takes money. Lots of it. TFC spent a reported $100 million in transfer fees and salaries on the team’s three new DPs, and did it in defiance of the bottom line—Leiweke has already admitted the team will lose money this upcoming season. In the process, they’ve shifted the balance of power within MLS, shattered the league’s financial norms and made Toronto a franchise to be reckoned with. “A lot of people will criticize us for what they think is the amount of money that we’ve committed,” Leiweke says. “But I think a very simple saying from the Kennedys is appropriate: ‘Some people see things as they are and say, “Why?” Others dream of what can be, and they say, “Why not?”’ Why can’t we be great?”
There is no reason. Not anymore. This may be counting entire hen houses before anything even hatches. But there is absolutely no reason why Toronto FC can’t make the MLS playoffs this season and contend for the MLS Cup. All the moves mean nothing until they translate into on-field success, but right now, even though TFC kicks their campaign off a week after the rest of the league, they’re the team that has captured MLS’s attention. “The season doesn’t start for me until TFC plays,” says Alexei Lalas, a former Team USA defender and L.A. Galaxy GM.

When their season does begin, TFC’s challenge changes. While the front office won the off-season, it now falls on second-year head coach Ryan Nelsen to bring this diverse collection of stars together and mould them into a winning unit on the field.

The former New Zealand international has no room for error after coaching TFC to a lowly 6-17-11 record in his rookie campaign last year. He got a major vote of confidence from Leiweke last September just by keeping his job, while former GM Kevin Payne—the man who hired Nelsen—was shown the door. Nelsen has already started repaying that faith, playing a crucial role in bringing former teammates Defoe and Cesar to Toronto. He was also involved in the Gilberto deal, travelling to Brazil to scout the young forward. He’s shown the global contacts and networking skills needed to build a club. Now he has to prove his managerial acumen.

Though TFC’s pre-season has been longer on transfers than it has been on training, there are hints of how Nelsen will deploy his troops. Despite having a plethora of attacking options, Nelsen is unlikely to stray far from his preferred 4-4-2 formation and conservative style of play. It’s not surprising that, as a former defender, Nelsen stresses defensive organization on the pitch and the importance of keeping formational shape at all times. That won’t change.

What will change is Toronto FC’s formerly limp ability to compete in midfield, to win the ball and spring forward to create chances. Bradley is transformative for a team that was so easily overrun in the middle of the park last year. A tough-tackling midfielder, the 26-year-old made his bones breaking up opponents’ play, and during his recent stint at Roma in Serie A, he added another element TFC have so desperately needed: an offensive threat. Now a dynamic, two-way player who not only destroys but also creates, Bradley can launch attacks by threading passes to teammates in scoring positions. A natural leader and the captain of the U.S. national team, nicknamed “the General,” Bradley will be TFC’s commander on the pitch—that key midfield pivot who links the defence and the attack.

TFC academy product Jonathan Osorio, one of the league’s breakout players last season, will benefit from playing alongside Bradley. While the American will provide the muscle, the 21-year-old Canadian will be free to follow his offensive instincts and use his speed to make deep runs from midfield and challenge defenders one-on-one.

That Bradley-Osorio midfield axis will be supported by new acquisitions De Rosario and Jackson on the flanks. Both have plenty of speed, can skin opposing defenders with their trickery and are capable of moments of individual brilliance. They are game-changers. But this is a new, reduced role for De Rosario—he won’t be relied on to provide the bulk of the team’s goals as he was during his first tenure with the Reds. Instead, he’ll be asked to provide the team with attacking width, and to become more involved in the offensive buildup as a playmaker.
The benefactors of all this new-found midfield creativity will be the club’s new strike partnership. Defoe may be 31, but he’s a young 31 with plenty of life in his legs and the kind of professional attitude that defines successful veterans. The Englishman is at his best when played into space—using his speed to run from deep positions and latch onto through balls in open channels with a clear path to goal. A clinical finisher, once he has the target in his crosshairs, it’s already over. His 107 Barclay’s Premier League goals—the seventh most among active players—should be proof enough of that.

Gilberto, meanwhile, is a lightning rod, a whirlwind of mad energy and action. A less polished forward, the 24-year-old Brazilian boasts plenty of raw skill; he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet, possesses a tireless work ethic, boasts a piledriver of a shot and isn’t afraid to test goalkeepers from distance. He’s also dangerous from dead-ball situations, keeping defenders wary of committing fouls around their penalty area. But if Gilberto’s pedigree is less established than Defoe’s, his ambition isn’t—he’s stated his aim this season is to score 25 goals. That would be the fifth-highest single-season tally in MLS history. On paper, Defoe and Gilberto look like one of the most explosive one-two punches in the league.
All this is built on the bedrock of an improved backfield. Cesar is one of the top goalkeepers in the world, all but certain to start for Brazil at this summer’s World Cup. And TFC’s backline, while not getting the same injection of star power as the rest of the roster, will benefit from the additions of veteran fullbacks Bradley Orr and Justin Morrow.

From a team that’s become infamous for roster instability, TFC has finally made the all-over improvement they’ve been grasping at for years. “Every area of the roster, I feel like we stack up against the best teams in MLS,” says GM Tim Bezbatchenko. “Instead of being at the bottom, we’re at the top, and everyone is trying to catch up with us.”

For the first time in their history, TFC has to deal with front-runner status. Looking ahead to the first test of the MLS season, Nelsen takes heart not just from the quality of his team, but also from its character under pressure. “They love [the pressure] and thrive on it,” he says. “Trust me, all of us wanted to be in this position last year. This is what professional football is all about. They want to test their limits and try to win every game. You want everybody to go after you, and that’s what it’s now going to be.”

There are problems, though—the kind that come with such a major transformation. For one, the most high-profile addition hasn’t actually arrived yet. Defoe isn’t scheduled to join TFC until March 1, per his contract with Tottenham. That gives the Englishman just two weeks to settle in with a new club in a new country.

Worse, Nigerian international Bright Dike—who was expected to get plenty of minutes coming off the bench as the club’s go-to forward substitute—tore his Achilles in pre-season training. The 27-year-old will miss most if not all of the season and lose his spot at the World Cup this summer.

Meanwhile, the introduction of Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto means incumbent DP Matias Laba is surplus to requirements—a team can only carry three designated players to remain roster compliant. The young Argentine midfielder was TFC’s best player last season and seemed to have a bright future with the Reds. The club is scrambling for a way to keep him, but for the moment, Laba is the odd man out, and will likely be sold or traded, the sharpest growing pain of TFC’s development.

But right now, these all feel like bumps on a road that may finally lead to success. TFC has never been in a better position to take the league by storm. And you don’t spend the kind of money MLSE has, or make the moves TFC has, without expecting a major return on your investment. Failure is not an option. Securing the club’s first playoff berth is the bare minimum expectation in 2014, not just a goal to work for.

Of all the off-season moves that have kick-started this massive rebuilding project, that might be the most defining one—bringing genuine hope back to BMO Field. The buzz in the city and the team is back. When was the last time anyone could say that about Toronto FC?