TORONTO – “Why can’t we be great?”
That was the question former MLSE head honcho Tim Leiweke famously posed four years ago when Toronto FC officially unveiled Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe as its newest players during a glitzy, downtown press event.
Back then, the Reds were in very rough shape, coming off a seventh consecutive season in which they failed to qualify for Major League Soccer’s playoffs, and with fan unrest at precariously high levels. Leiweke’s question, along with the arrivals of Bradley and Defoe, hinted at better days to come after so many years of failure.
TFC finally lived up to the potential that Leiweke always saw in them last year when the club completed a historic season that included winning the MLS Cup, the Canadian Club championship and the Supporters’ Shield trophy, as well as setting a new league record for most points in a regular season.
Now that TFC are great, the question is can they do it again? Can the Reds duplicate the success they had last year in 2018? General manager Tim Bezbatchenko has no doubts.
“People keep [saying to] us, there’s no way you can do what you did last year. And we’ve said, why not? We think our roster is just as good, if not better. We have more experience. We have a nice blend experienced players and younger players that provide some energy in the locker room,” Bezbatchenko told reporters on Friday.
There have been a few off-season departures for TFC, including right fullback Steven Beitashour (signed as a free agent with LAFC), Canadian winger Raheem Edwards (selected in the expansion draft) and veteran midfielder Benoit Cheyrou (retired). Bezbatchenko has been quick to sign new recruits, most notably Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel and Brazilian wingback Auro.
With these new players in tow, Bezbatchenko is confident the Reds are set up for success in the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental competition that the team hasn’t competed in since 2012. TFC takes on the Colorado Rapids in the Round of 16. Leg 1 is Feb. 20 in Denver, while the return match is Feb. 27 in Toronto.
If TFC is serious about doing what they did last year, and possibly even going one better, than winning the Champions League is the next step.
“From a talent perspective, I think 100 per cent we can compete [in the Champions League]. … We’re as equipped as any team ever in MLS [has been] to compete in CONCACAF and possibly win it, and that’s our goal,” Bezbatchenko said.
It’s a very bold claim considering the strength of the Mexican teams in the competition and the spotty history of MLS clubs in the tournament. Only two MLS sides have ever reached the final (Real Salt Lake in 2011, Montreal Impact in 2015). Mexican teams have won the Champions League every year since the inaugural tournament in 2008-09, with seven of the nine finals being all-Mexico affairs.
If Toronto gets by Colorado, it’ll likely face Tigres, one of the top teams in Mexico’s top division, in the quarterfinals. More Mexican opponents – such as Club America, Tijuana and Guadalajara – would probably await them in the semifinals and the finals. And that’s assuming Toronto even manages to beat Colorado which, considering the Rapids play at altitude, is not a given.
Club president Bill Manning acknowledges the difficult path ahead for TFC in the Champions League, but he’s also confident they can go on a run in the tournament.
“You had two [MLS] teams go to the final in the last six, seven years. Last year, Dallas and Vancouver both made it to the semifinals. I think we’re stronger than either one of those franchises a year ago. I think it’s there for us,” Manning said.
“Colorado is a difficult place to play, and then if you win that you likely have Tigres, and if you win that, you likely have [Club America]. We’re talking Mexican heavyweights. It’s going to be a [difficult] journey, but at the end of the day you have to beat the teams on the field. I feel confident that we can be a team that can make a run and win it.”
NEWS AND NOTES
• Multiple Spanish media reports have stated that TFC has signed midfielder Ager Aketxe from La Liga club Athletic Bilbao. While Bezbatchenko neither confirmed nor denied that he’s been in talks with Aketxe, he did say those reports are inaccurate.
However, sources have told Sportsnet that TFC is in talks with Aketxe, and that the two sides are close to agreeing to a deal. Also, Athletic Bilbao confirmed on its website Friday that it has rescinded Aketxe’s contract so that he can join an MLS club.
• Bezbathchenko revealed that his hope is to sign two more players, including at least one midfielder, before the start of the season.
• Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts has been cleared to train again with TFC after missing most of the team’s pre-season camp due to a thyroid issue.
• Bezbatchenko confirmed that he is still in talks with veteran defender Jason Hernandez and Japanese winger Tsubasa Endoh about signing them both to new contracts.
• Noble Okello, a 17-year-old prospect who debuted for the TFC II farm club last year, recently worked out with Bundesliga side Wolfsburg. Bezbatchenko confirmed it was just a training stint, and that Okello is now back in Toronto.
• Toronto FC begins the 2018 MLS regular season on March 3 versus the Columbus Crew at BMO Field. It’s the first time in franchise history that the Reds will start a new campaign at home.