With core in place, Toronto FC in a position of strength


Toronto FC's Michael Bradley (Michael Perez/AP)

TORONTO – As far as off-seasons go, this has been one of the quietest on record for Toronto FC.

Aside from Sebastian Giovinco being linked with a move to the Chinese Super League—China’s transfer window closes at the end of the month, but don’t expect the Italian to be sold off—not much has been going on with TFC this winter.

There has been some player movement. A few departures. A few additions. Some minor tweaks. But all in all, not much has been going on with the Reds. And coach Greg Vanney and captain Michael Bradley are just fine with that.

Coming off a historic 2016, TFC entered pre-season training camp for the upcoming Major League Soccer campaign in a very strong position, retaining the majority of players who powered the team’s magical run to last year’s MLS Cup final.

Yes, midfielder Will Johnson signed with Orlando as a free agent. Right fullback Mark Bloom was traded to Atlanta as part of the deal to get goalkeeper Clint Irwin back from the expansion franchise. Defender Josh Williams was picked by Columbus in the re-entry draft.

But the Reds also bolstered the back line with the addition of free agent Chris Mavinga, a French-born defender who can play both on the left and in the middle of defence. Critically, the club also locked up three important contributors from last season when it signed Irwin, veteran midfielder Benoit Cheyrou and Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts to new contracts. Panamanian international Armando Cooper, who was on loan with the Reds last year, was inked to a permanent deal. Canadian Sergio Camargo and top draft pick Brandon Aubrey look to be solid depth additions.

With such little player turnover this winter, Vanney believes TFC is in a better place as a team than it was a year ago.

“There’s more camaraderie as a base-line group because they’ve been together and had many experiences now, especially good experiences at the end of [last season],” Vanney said.

The regular season is a little less than a month away—the Reds open up away to Real Salt Lake on March 4—and Bradley has high hopes for the new campaign in light of so many returnees from 2016.

“The core group from the last few years, and certainly last year, remains together. I think that part was very important for all of us, to feel like [we could build on] the progress that we made last year,” Bradley offered.

That being said, the team’s captain warns against complacency, and wouldn’t be opposed to roster additions being made before the start of the season.

“The club did a really good job of [keeping the core together], but obviously the other part to it is you have to improve, you have to add the right pieces, you have to know the right ways to make your group better. I think we’ve done that in certain areas, and I would expect that the club would continue to look do to that even as we move forward into the season,” Bradley offered.

GM Tim Bezbatchenko has hinted at possibly adding a central midfielder—a creative playmaker who can score goals and effectively link up with Giovinco and fellow forward Jozy Altidore.

But Vanney warned no such signing is imminent, and from the sounds of it, he wouldn’t be too broken up if the team failed to add a central midfielder before the season opener.

“If we find the right guy for the right position and the right scenario then we’ll push hard to make a move, but we don’t feel like it’s a mandatory thing right now,” Vanney offered.

The re-signing of Cheyrou was an important move for Toronto in light of Johnson’s departure. With the Canadian international off to Orlando, the team was short a defensive midfielder and someone who can cover for Bradley when he is away on U.S. national team duty. Cheyrou can fill both roles.

Johnson was a key figure for TFC during the first half of last year before losing his starting spot down the stretch and in the playoffs after picking up a mid-season injury. He wasn’t too happy about the lack of playing time, and he tested the free-agent waters this off-season before signing with Orlando, who were eager to welcome the veteran and two-time MLS Cup winner.

Bradley wasn’t surprised that Johnson, not only a former teammate but also a childhood friend, decided to leave Toronto.

“I’ve known Will for a long time and I think at a certain point the situation here was not entirely what he was looking for. He was an important part of what we did last year—even when he wasn’t playing he was somebody who was very good for the group. He made sure that the mentality was what it needed to be,” Bradley explained.

“But I always knew in certain moments that if things stayed a certain way that he was going to be looking elsewhere.”

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