Out of all Toronto sports teams in 2016, the most successful has been without a doubt Toronto FC. To lose in penalty shots in the MLS Cup Final is a harsh ending to a wonderful season. To lose that game after not even allowing a single shot on net was absolutely heartbreaking. So what possible options does this team have in 2017 and which direction should they take? Quite simply… they just keep doing what they are doing.
Truth is, there is very little for this team to decide on. The main core will return from last year and no significant improvements are required. Their offence is outstanding, midfield solid and their defense (although awful at times) was still the best in the Eastern Conference giving up only 39 goals. This upcoming year will be the first one in Reds history where fans are already looking past the regular season and towards the playoffs. They should have another long playoff run that hopefully will end this time with a championship. The most interesting question the Reds have to face this year is how to survive the long, grueling season made even more difficult with their involvement in the Champions League. What will be tested this year won’t be the strength of their lineup but their depth.
If you recall the start to last season, we saw players like Tsubasa Endoh, Mo Babouli and Jordan Hamilton getting quality playing time. As the season ended however, new additions Tosaint Rickets and Armando Cooper were used more frequently. Gregg Vanney will need to balance his lineup throughout the year so that he can a) get a good seeding for the playoffs, b) have a long run in the Champions league, but also c) give his core players rest throughout the season so that they are fresh in the playoffs and give his youth valuable experience along the way.
That’s the juggling act that Coach Vanney will have to undertake. How to match the results from last year (by playing your best 11) yet also growing some of your younger talent for the seasons to follow. TFC may or may not win a championship but this is the time where you put in the building blocks for a dynasty. With your designated players being in their late 20s, there is great chance for this team to be successful for many, many years. If you recall, the past TFC season was extremely long starting in March and ending in December. To maintain that high level of play, year after year will take its toll. Many of the usual substitutes will be getting substantial playing time. It is therefore necessary in this day and age to have a solid minor league system so that you can plug up holes due to injuries and not only eat up minutes, but provide quality performances.
It’s that quality of depth that caused Will Johnson to look elsewhere this year, signing with Orlando. He wasn’t disgruntled when he left, but he did make it known that he and Vanney did not see eye-to-eye with the direction and playing time he received upon his return from injury. No offence to Johnson, who always played hard in his short tenure here, but there were many midfielders that could have started. You have your established players like Bradley, Osorio, Cooper and Delgado who have been solid, while Jay Chapman and newly-signed homegrown talent Sergio Camargo up to challenge them. Same can be said for the forward positions anchored by Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Not only can the youngsters play alongside them, but adding the speedy Rickets gives them flexibility to play different systems.
With the amount of money that the designated players are earning it is of the utmost importance to find cheaper, but good players to surround them. This obvious, easy solution to this is to have a proper farm system in place. As your substitutes challenge your starters for playing time, your academy and minor league team challenges the substitutes. That is why TFC II is very important to the overall success of its parent club. We already have seen the benefits that this two-year old squad has provided to its parent club. Not only was Mo Babouli called up and contributed, but most importantly Alex (I’m not the lead singer of U2) Bono played a critical role in net while Clint Irwin was hurt last season. The Reds didn’t lose a step with him manning the pipes and the team’s confidence will remain high should they need to call on him again.
MLSE and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko have done a phenomenal job in bringing TFC to the heights these fans have deserved. It will be their responsibility to keep this machine going for years and years to come by making sure they don’t neglect the youth and future of this club by allowing them to play and make mistakes during the regular season. The core will still need to perform and they should still get the bulk of work and still be as successful, but there has to be allowances made to ensure that TFC has a bright future ahead as well.
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