MLS champs Toronto FC looking to improve this off-season

Michael-Bradley

TFC captain Michael Bradley. (CP Photo)

There’s always room for improvement.

That was one of the many messages delivered by Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney on Monday when the Reds officially opened pre-season training camp.

The core of the TFC side that pulled off a historic, treble-winning campaign in 2017 – highlighted by a record 69-point total in the regular-season and an MLS Cup title – remains intact, so there is no need for a big overhaul or major tweaks to the roster.

But there have been a few off-season departures, most notably Steven Beitashour, Raheem Edwards, Armando Cooper and Benoit Cheyrou. And while TFC doesn’t have any gaping holes to fill, the club is looking a bit thin in some areas of the pitch, and it needs to add depth as it prepares to compete in both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League this season.

First and foremost, a replacement must be found for Beitashour, the Reds’ starting right fullback for the past two seasons. Out of contract at the end of 2017, Beitashour turned down a new offer from as it would have meant taking a pay cut. Instead, he explored free agency and ended up signing with expansion club Los Angeles FC.

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Beitashour joined TFC prior to the 2015 season via a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and quickly established himself as one of the team’s most consistent performers. He played in 56 regular season games during his time in Toronto, and started all 11 of TFC’s playoff matches as the Reds made back-to-back appearances in the MLS Cup final.

Beitashour is not easily replaceable. But the Reds are close to signing Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel, a player who, on the surface, is an upgrade on Beitashour. (Keep in mind the Dutchman, 29, is coming off terrible spells with Turkish club Fenerbahçe and in Italy with Cagliari, where he’s dealt with injury issues and made only a handful of appearances since joining the club last summer.)

If van der Wiel can get back to the form he showed in the lead-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where he started for the Netherlands in the final against Spain, then TFC would have a steady hand at the right fullback position. His arrival would also give Vanney some tactical flexibility, giving him the ability to switch from his preferred 3-5-2 formation to a system featuring a four-man defence, with van der Wiel on the right, and Nico Hasler (who deputized for Beitashour last year when he was out injured) playing further forward on that same side.

On Monday, Vanney hinted about wanting to add a few new players who could offer something different to TFC, and give the club a different look. When speaking to reporters later in week, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko revealed he is actively trying to sign another attacker to complement starters Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

Giovinco (31) and Altidore (28) have plenty of game left in their legs. But the club did rely heavily on them last season – they combined for 31 goals, or 42 per cent of the team’s total offensive output during the regular season. TFC’s GM would no doubt love to bring that percentage down by adding someone who could relieve his top two forwards from time to time and lessen the goal-scoring burden off their shoulders.

“We’re pleased with our group,” Bezbatchenko said during a conference call this week.

“The question is, is there someone who can push our group to be better? Hopefully that comes with sources from within [the current roster] – Jordan Hamilton and Ben Spencer continuing to develop, and [fellow forward] Ayo Akinola breaking into the first team and getting some minutes.

“But we are looking for possibly one additional piece that can provide a different look and variation than our group that we currently have.”

With the defections of Edwards and Cooper, you have to think adding a winger would be high up on Bezbatchenko’s want list, something he hinted at during the conference call.

“There’s not this target position like last year [with Victor Vazquez],” Bezbatchenko said.

“This year it’s more about looking at a variety of players who bring something different to our team, whether that’s an ability of a player to attack 1-v-1 on the dribble … [or] whether it’s a player who can get out wide and provide better service for our team.”

The retirement off Cheyrou in the off-season also means there is a lack of proper cover for Michael Bradley. TFC’s captain will once again log plenty of minutes this season, probably even more than usual in light of the U.S.’s failure to qualify for this summer’s World Cup. Still, the Reds don’t want to be caught short-handed should the American midfielder pick up an injury.

Bezbatchenko downplayed the suggestion that the team needs to go out an sign another central midfielder, explaining that they can use any one of Marky Delgado or Jonathan Osorio, or a combination of the two in a different formation. Right fullback Nicolas Hasler is another option, as is Canadian Jay Chapman. New signing Liam Fraser, still only 19, shows promise, but he can’t realistically by expected to see a lot of action this season.

Despite Bezbatchenko’s mild protestations, the Reds do need another engine in central midfielder, preferably one the same mould as Bradley and with young legs.

A year ago, TFC’s general manager was in relatively the same spot, needing to tweak his team with a few key additions, rather than making wholesale changes. He ended up bringing in Vazquez and Chris Mavinga, two players who became starters and key figures in the Reds’ run to the MLS Cup final.

What will Bezbatchenko do this year? Stay tuned.

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