As Toronto FC’s season limps slowly to its merciful end, thoughts turn inevitably to next year, and the hope of things better.
As bleak as things are right now, it’s only fair to wait and see what Paul Mariner can do after having an off-season to remodel the squad as he sees fit. In what seems to be a mantra adopted by all TFC coaches dating back to the Mo Johnston era, Mariner insists the Reds are close to being a competitive team.
More than a few times Mariner has said he thinks TFC are four players away. Earl Cochrane clarified that that would mean four starters, and that the teams also needs some depth players.
So let’s look at the squad and see who could be a part of the 2013 season for TFC.
In goal, all signs point to Stefan Frei being the number one next year, and he definitely qualifies as starter material. Behind him, there’s a question mark, with Milos Kocic currently in contract renegotiations. Kocic is undeniably backup quality, and I’d even say starter quality. But in a salary cap world, there’s only so much you can spend on a backup ‘keeper, so there’s a chance he could be gone. Freddy Hall certainly didn’t look convincing in his four-game audition, but I think at least one of those two will be back next year, with Quincy Roberts as the third goalkeeper.
Despite the repeated problems, there’s plenty of starting quality in the defence. Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley both contribute enough at both ends of the pitch to make a good MLS-level full back partnership. In the middle, Darren O’Dea seems like a very good pick up. It’ll be interesting to see what his salary is, as Eckersley is definitely overpaid for what he brings, which makes filling the rest of the squad difficult. But on talent alone, those three in the right positions are good enough to start, leaving only the other centre back spot to be filled.
As for depth options, Doneil Henry will definitely be back and Logan Emory is cheap and can cover a couple of positions so he will probably return as well. But given how Adrian Cann, Ty Harden and Dicoy Williams have been frozen out under Mariner, it seems unlikely they’ll be wearing TFC red next year. Jeremy Hall is a similar player to Emory, versatile enough to cover a few positions, but at a salary of $149,000, without a pay cut he’s just a rich man’s Dan Gargan. There has to be better value out there.
In midfield is where upgrades are needed. If Torsten Frings returns and is fully fit, he can definitely still do a job, though if TFC continue with this "no frills" style of football, his impact probably wouldn’t be worth the DP spot and cap hit. Luis Silva has shown he has the skill to flourish in MLS, so with a bit of wariness due to his experience, I’d say I’d be happy to see him in the starting lineup as well.
As for depth, Terry Dunfield, Reggie Lambe and Joao Plata (if he returns) are worth having in the squad but hopefully won’t be regular starters if TFC hopes to contend. Aaron Maund will probably be back as well and can hopefully develop his game, whether that’s at centre back or in midfield.
Hopefully Matt Stinson will be given a chance to return and develop, but I think we can safely say Eric Avila and Oscar Cordon will be gone. I’d guess that Quincy Amarikwa and Andrew Wiedeman will also not return, though familiarity and the number of new players already having to be brought in will work in their favour.
Up front, a lot will depend on Danny Koevermans’ health, but if he can return at his former sharpness, he and Eric Hassli would form a very interesting partnership, with Ryan Johnson providing adequate backup.
So, depending on the status of Frings and Koevermans, I’d say between 16 and 20 of the current squad will be back, with three to five starting places up for grabs, pretty close to how Cochrane described it.
There’s still the glaring, ever present need for a centre back, as well as a couple of midfielders, one defensive or box-to-box player, and a more creative presence whether on the wing or the more traditional number 10 type role. They also need to improve their defensive depth with the type of players you wouldn’t want starting too often but can provide the backup needed.
Obviously there’s more to building a squad in MLS than merely talent spotting and buying up who you want – there’s also the salary cap and because of MLS’ position in the footballing world, the best players are going to want to play in the top leagues. You have to be able to find talent at just the right level, good enough to shine without being good enough to move on to bigger and better things, and at the right price.
It’d be a huge task for even the most experienced coach in the best club situation to manage that well. Given the squad Mariner will be starting with, for TFC to become a competitive squad, he’s going to have to have a very successful off-season.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.