Examining the state of Canada's MLS teams as 2021 season begins

Erickson Gallardo of Canada's Toronto FC and his teammates celebrate after Andres Mosquera of Mexico's Leon scored an own goal during their Concacaf Champions League soccer match in Leon, Mexico, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (Mario Armas/AP)

We're four months removed from the Columbus Crew lifting the MLS Cup after a trying 2020 season. Now it's time to fire it back up.

The 2021 campaign kicks off this weekend, and while life is slowly returning to normal in the U.S., Canada's clubs will be experiencing anything but normalcy as they're forced to relocate south of the border for a second straight year.

It adds another layer to what'll be a challenging campaign for all three teams after their respectively eventful off-seasons. Whether it leads to immediate success remains to be seen.

Here's everything you need to know about Canada's teams as their seasons begin.

Toronto FC

2020 record: 13-5-5 (2nd in Eastern Conference)
2020 playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Nashville SC
2020 top goal-scorer: Ayo Akinola, Alejandro Pozuelo (nine goals)
Coach: Chris Armas (1st season)
Home for start of 2021 season: Orlando and Tampa, Florida
2021 season opener: vs. CF Montreal on April 17

Biggest departures: Greg Vanney

Considering Pablo Piatti was the only major loss to the squad, and even that's debatable, there's no doubt that Greg Vanney's exit was the end of an era.

Losing a tenured coach is always difficult in the early stages, whether it's adjusting to new tactics or a squad overhaul. But with TFC retaining the majority of its squad, that should benefit Vanney's replacement, Chris Armas, as he attempts to implement the fluid, high-pressing system that he favoured with the New York Red Bulls.

Marquee signings: Chris Armas

While Toronto didn't lose many players, it also hasn't signed anyone of note, so Chris Armas remains the club's marquee addition to date.

Some fans might've been underwhelmed by the Armas hire, but he's proven he can maintain a team's high level of performance when he replaced Jesse Marsch at the New York Red Bulls. They won the Supporters' Shield in 2018 despite spending just shy of $7.7 million in annual squad wages that season, the fourth-lowest total in MLS.

Notably, in 2019, the club's expected goals (xG) for and against were almost identical to TFC's, per FBRef.com, even though the Reds' wage expenditure was more than triple what the Red Bulls paid its squad.

Now that Armas is contracted to a team that invests more into the roster, perhaps he'll get the attacking reinforcements he seldom received at Red Bull Arena. That could lead to the playoff success he's lacked at this stage in his coaching career.

Burning question: Will the youngsters receive opportunities?

Toronto FC's academy has churned out numerous players over the years, but few have become established members of the first team. That should change with Armas on the touchline.

We saw a glimpse into what the future could hold for the likes of Ralph Priso, Noble Okello and Jacob Shaffelburg, who started both legs of TFC's Concacaf Champions League round-of-16 matchup against Leon. Priso, still just 18 years old, was especially composed in possession as noted in his pass maps below.

Surely Jayden Nelson and 16-year-old Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, who is being monitored by some of Europe's biggest clubs, will have chances to impress this season as well.

CF Montreal

2020 record: 8-2-13 (9th in Eastern Conference)
2020 playoffs: Eliminated in play-in round by New England Revolution
2020 top goal-scorer: Romell Quioto (eight goals)
Coach: Wilfried Nancy (1st season)
Home for start of 2021 season: Inter Miami CF Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
2021 season opener: vs. Toronto FC on April 17

Biggest departures: Rod Fanni, Jukka Raitala, Maxi Urruti, Bojan

Not only did CF Montreal lose a few key players from 2020, Thierry Henry stepped down as coach in March. However, all of these losses were addressed in the off-season, so none of the departures should be detrimental to the club's chances.

Marquee signings: Kiki Struna, Kamal Miller, Djordje Mihailovic, Bjorn Johnsen

After a complete rebrand during the off-season, it's safe to assume no other team underwent as much change as CF Montreal.

Luckily for Montreal, it appears that all areas of weakness have been addressed. Longtime assistant Wilfried Nancy was appointed as Henry's replacement, meaning there should be a continuation of the team's 3-4-3 system from last year.

Nancy should have depth in quality, too. Aljaz "Kiki" Struna was acquired from the Houston Dynamo, then Canadian international Kamal Miller was brought in from Orlando City to help replace the outgoing Rod Fanni and Jukka Raitala.

Djordje Mihailovic should provide creativity after Saphir Taider left the club midway through the 2020 season. Montreal ranked 20th in passes into the penalty area and fifth-bottom in key passes in MLS last year, so Mihailovic – as noted in his statistical radar – should prop up those numbers.

Finally, there's Norwegian striker Bjorn Johnsen. Montreal has lacked a game-changer in the No. 9 role since Didier Drogba's arrival in 2015, so if Johnsen can match his output from the K League in MLS, that'll transform the attack.

Burning question: Will the squad turnover affect the team's start?

When a club makes no less than nine additions to a roster, it'll take time for everyone to gain chemistry, adjust to the tactics and see it translate on the pitch.

Throw in a global pandemic affecting player arrivals and a season relocation to Florida, it drastically affects how a team can perform out of the gates.

That's why it wouldn't be surprising if Montreal struggles to begin the season as players get up to speed. But seven clubs qualify for the playoffs from each conference, so a rough couple of months can be overwritten by a solid run of results.

Vancouver Whitecaps

2020 record: 9-0-14 (9th in Western Conference)
2020 playoffs: Missed playoffs
2020 top goal-scorer: Lucas Cavallini (six goals)
Coach: Marc dos Santos (3rd season)
Home for start of 2021 season: Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah
2021 season opener: vs. Portland Timbers on April 18

Biggest departures: David Milinkovic, Fredy Montero

Despite a late-season hurrah, Fredy Montero was allowed to walk during the off-season. Ditto for David Milinkovic, whose loan wasn't extended after the campaign.

Montero (0.5) and Milinkovic (0.3) were among the team's leaders in non-penalty expected goals (xG) plus expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes. On the surface, those would be major losses to overcome, but the incoming signings should address those worries.

Marquee signings: Bruno Gaspar, Caio Alexandre, Deiber Caicedo

The Whitecaps didn't use a Designated Player spot to sign a No. 10. That being said, the three major additions should help the team cope without a prototypical playmaker.

Bruno Gaspar gives the Whitecaps an injection of creativity along with defensive solidity at right-back that Jake Nerwinski hasn't provided. A partnership with winger Cristian Dajome could transform the team's attack down the right flank.

On the opposite flank, Ali Adnan has been one of Vancouver's most important players in build-up phases since his arrival in 2019. Now he has 20-year-old Deiber Caicedo on his wing to alleviate the burden. Plus, Caicedo won't step on his toes as the Colombian enjoys cutting inside to dictate games and darting into the box.

Caio Alexandre might be the most important player of the trio, though. In his statistical radar below, his deep progressions and expected goals buildup (xGBuildup) are notably high. In addition, Alexandre's pressure regains and tackling numbers show he'll be active off the ball.

Considering the Whitecaps were among the lowest-ranked clubs in many passing and attacking categories, Alexandre figures to be a key piece for Vancouver this season.

Burning question: Is the third season the charm?

This will be coach Marc dos Santos' third season with the Whitecaps. But this is the first time he's entered a campaign with little change to his playing squad.

With the majority of the team's spine established, that means fewer players to integrate, even though both Alexandre and Gaspar only acquired U.S. visas in the last few days.

For that reason, the Whitecaps might be slow starters but with the quality signings they made, surely this will be the year they can avoid conceding at least 20 shots every game while providing little attacking quality.

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