Toronto FC looks for answers to avoid 2019 repeat

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — The post-mortem has officially began for Toronto FC, whose disappointing MLS season ended Sunday ahead of the playoffs.

And while there have already been weeks to discuss this season’s fall from grace — from record-setting MLS champions with a 20-5-9 record to 19th place at 10-18-6 — conversations with five key players Monday suggested answers may take more time given the number of things that went wrong in 2018.

"There’s a lot to be discussed, a lot to talk about, a lot to figure out over this next stretch," said captain Michael Bradley, the heartbeat of the club.

"This is an important stretch for the club," he added. "Across the board, there are some big important decisions to be made. There’s some real honest conversations to be had and we’ll go from there."

Added Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio: "It’s difficult to point out one or two things. A lot went wrong."

Injuries, two years of almost non-stop play thanks to back-to-back MLS Cup final appearances in 2016 and ’17 and the disappointment of investing so much into the CONCACAF Champions League only to lose to Chivas Guadalajara in the final via penalty shootout have been cited as major factors in TFC’s disappointing league campaign.

The domino effect proved devastating. Healthy players were run into the ground covering for injured teammates. A frustrated TFC defended poorly as a team and made error upon error.

Toronto retained its Canadian Championship, securing a return trip to the Champions League. But the team never got out of first gear in its bid to defend its MLS title. TFC managed back-to-back wins in the league just once, gave up a franchise-worst 64 goals and posted a season-low three shutouts while finishing 33 points below last year’s record total.

A damning statistic was Toronto’s 1-17-1 record when giving up the first goal.

Toronto’s league-leading US$26.6-million payroll produced just 10 league wins, only four of which came against playoff-bound teams (Atlanta, Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia twice).

"The over-riding sentiment over the last few weeks is this club should never be in this position," said Bradley.

He offered another reason, suggesting that success came with a cost.

"When you have a run that we did over 2 1/2 years, it’s easy for distractions to start to creep in," he said. "By and large over the second half of 2016, all of 2017 and through April or May of 2018, the concentration and the focus and the commitment was clear. And in a group of 25 players and coaches and backroom staff — the motivation was singular.

"And I think this year, in too many cases, there started to be too many agendas. There started to be many things that crept in and became distractions. Ultimately when you talk about a team losing its way a little bit, then that plays a part."

Contrast that with the start of 2017 when Toronto, unencumbered by the Champions League, came into the season hungry to avenge its loss to Seattle in the 2016 MLS Cup final.

Osorio, who managed a career year in the midst of the turmoil, and Bradley were two of the players who soldiered through the long season without injury.

Asked how he did it, Osorio replied: "Commitment off the pitch."

A major decision is the future of Bradley and fellow designated players Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, who each have a year left on contracts that paid them a combined US$18.6 million this year.

Come the start of next season, Altidore will be 29, Bradley 31 and Giovinco 32.

All three have said they want to stay, although Altidore, who was not present Monday after undergoing ankle surgery, wondered openly several weeks ago whether he would be back.

Giovinco, the highest-earner in the league at $7.115 million this season, seemed unfazed by his contract status.

"This is their problem, not mine," he said, referencing the team. "Because if I am without a contract, I can leave."

"Every year I say the same thing," added Giovinco, who has bought a house here. "I’d like to stay here, I’d love to stay here. But it’s not only about me."

Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko, who is due to speak to media on Tuesday along with team president Bill Manning and coach Greg Vanney, declined to detail which other Toronto players are under contract for next season.

But the team has been diligent in signing the meat of its roster to contract extensions and new deals, with at least a dozen locked up for 2019. The team has an option of veteran defender Drew Moor, who will turn 35 in January.

Moor made $350,000 this season but only played in eight league games due to a serious quad injury and nagging calf issue. The team could decline his option and bring him back on a reduced rate.

Of the players that spoke Monday, the feeling was uniform that major personnel changes are not needed.

"This club has a pretty good roster and some pretty special players," said Moor. "And a very nice mix."

"We have a good base," added playmaker Victor Vazquez.

Keeping that base healthy will be key. Altidore, Moor, Vazquez and key defender Chris Mavinga missed 82 league games through injury or suspension.

The TFC players have been given the week off. They will return next week for post-season medicals and exit interviews. Training camp will start mid-January.

"The mood is things have to be better in 2019," said Moor.

A poor year does not seem to have affected the bottom line, although missing out on playoff gates will hurt. Toronto ranked third in attendance at 26,628 — behind Atlanta (53,002) and Seattle (40,641) — and has raised prices for most season-ticket holders for 2019.

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