Toronto FC season preview: Character, commitment key to bounce-back season

Craig Forrest and James Sharman take a look at the Canadian squads heading into the latest MLS campaign.

It was a stunning and sobering assessment of what went wrong for Toronto FC in 2018.

Fresh off a historic, treble-winning campaign in 2017, TFC slumped through its MLS campaign last year, finishing in 19th place overall with a 10-18-6 record and failing to make the playoffs. How could the Reds go from MLS Cup champions to one of the worst teams in the league in the span of less than 12 months? Captain Michael Bradley laid the stark truth bare once the season was over.

“When you have a run that we did over 2 1/2 years, it’s easy for distractions to start to creep in,” Bradley explained at the time. “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.”

Four months have passed since Bradley dropped that bombshell, but a series of pressing issues still linger about Toronto FC as it kicks off the 2019 MLS regular season on Saturday in Philadelphia.

You can talk all you want about the off-season departures of high-profile stars Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez. You can wait with baited breath to see how TFC replaces those two key players who combined for 45 goals and 46 assists the last two seasons. You can worry about whether the addition of veteran Laurent Ciman is enough to bolster a defence that conceded a franchise-worst 64 goals in 2018, or whether Jozy Altidore, re-signed to a new contract this week, will remain healthy and effectively lead the Reds’ attack. You can pontificate to no end on the job that lies ahead for new GM Ali Curtis, and whether coach Greg Vanney has the players he needs to play in the new 4-3-3 system he has introduced.

Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo, expected to be signed as a designated player from Belgian club Genk in mid-March, could be the ideal replacement for Vazquez. The additions or one or two more marquee players using targeted allocation money, as club president Bill Manning has promised, could make up for the loss of Giovinco. The Reds can come up with all the correct solutions to the aforementioned concerns, and build a team that, on paper, is among the best in MLS.

But none of that will matter one iota unless the collective mentality and the overall commitment of the team gets back to what it was in 2017 when TFC showed an uncompromising will to win in brushing aside every opponent who came before them. Last season, the Reds played with a sense of entitlement, as though they were owed something after winning the MLS Cup the previous year. Outside distractions and personal agendas, as Bradley noted, led to TFC losing its identity as a workmanlike squad that would go to the ends of the earth to win a game every time it stepped onto the pitch.

Having skilled players is important. But in light of what this club went through in 2018, having “character players” is far more important at this juncture for TFC. The off-season transfer of Giovinco and the pending departure of Gregory van der Wiel, as well as the re-signing of Altidore, will hopefully end up minimizing off-field distractions ahead of the new MLS season.

An early exit from the Concacaf Champions League might be a blessing in disguise for a Toronto side that couldn’t properly balance MLS duties with its commitments in the continental competitions last year. But make no mistake, TFC’s elimination at the hands of modest Panamanian outfit Club Atlético Independiente de la Chorrera was a major embarrassment. Vanney’s admission that his players showed a fundamental lack of intensity in a 4-0 loss in Panama in the first leg, one of the worst performances in franchise history, raises serious questions about the team’s mentality on the eve of the new MLS campaign.

Still, Vanney maintains he is “very pleased with the character make-up of the group” and that outside distractions won’t be an issue like they were in 2018.

“This is a ‘no-nonsense, get to work’ group of guys. … As a broad group, I think there’s a real connection to each other. They see this year as a real challenge after last year,” Vanney said this week.

As much as Vanney will be on the hot seat this season, so will Michael Bradley. The American international can’t reasonably be held to account for all that went wrong behind the scenes with TFC in 2018. He’s one person, and even a captain can only do so much. But if the collective attitude amongst the players doesn’t change, and if distractions and agendas undercut the Reds’ 2019 MLS campaign, you have to wonder if Bradley, who is in the final year of his contract, will be re-signed, or whether TFC management decides new on-field leadership is needed.

For his part, Bradley likes what he has seen in the team from a character perspective during TFC’s pre-season.

“In terms of the group right now, where we are, I think the mentality day in and day out is very good. The guys who have been here are excited and motivated to make sure that we put things right this year. The new players [have] come in with their own energy; they bring fresh blood to the group. It’s coming together in good ways,” Bradley said.

Time will tell.

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