Toronto FC, who I had listed as one of the favorites to win the MLS is Back tournament heading into the knockout stage, bowed out in the first round on Sunday. It was a surprising result: NYCFC, a talented team that hadn’t been able to put itself together under new manager Ronny Deila, bested TFC 3-1.
This early exit could signal big change for Toronto, a veteran team that lost in the MLS Cup final last year. While they remain one of the league’s premier clubs in terms of recent success and top-end talent, they’re starting to get old in some positions, and there are plenty of younger players in the squad who should get chances to prove themselves.
The remainder of the regular season, if it actually happens, will be a chance for some of those younger players. It could also represent a last gasp for some core guys. There is still enough talent on this team to make a run at silverware — as proven by their surprise run to MLS Cup last year — and if given a chance this fall, they’d surely love to have a shot at another run.
Changes coming for TFC?
It will be interesting to see how they proceed in the offseason, whenever that may come. This tournament saw underwhelming performances from vets like Michael Bradley, Chris Mavinga, and Omar Gonzalez, and injury-marred displays from Jozy Altidore and Justin Morrow. Center back Laurent Ciman, on the decline for years, can’t play without getting beat for a goal. There are questions at goalkeeper, where Quentin Westberg was below-average.
For manager Greg Vanney and general manager Ali Curtis, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s time to start investing in positions like center midfield and central defense. They’ve frequently spent money in attack over the past couple years and only come away with two successes so far: Alejandro Pozuelo, a true centerpiece of a creator, and Pablo Piatti, a clever winger who plays well off of Pozuelo. Piatti is 31 and was subbed off in the 57th-minute against NYC, two minutes after TFC fell behind by two.
Improvement from within
There are players on the roster now who could prove worthy of playing time. We’ve already seen the rise of 20-year-old Ayo Akinola, a striker with a nose for goal and promising passing instincts. His five goals in the group stage carried TFC, and the hamstring issue that kept him out against NYC proved particularly detrimental.
Vanney trusted 17-year-old attacker Jayden Nelson to make his MLS debut in place of Akinola. Longtime TFC contributors Marky Delgado (25) and Jonathan Osorio (28) have been borderline elite ball-movers in central midfield in the past. In a system that allows them defensive protection and encourages possession, they can thrive. Left back Richie Laryea filled in admirably for Morrow, and looks like a long-term answer at the position opposite Auro.
There are numerous bench players who have been given sporadic opportunities. 24-year-old winger Erickson Gallardo got 30-plus minutes off the bench against NYC after being signed in the offseason. Jacob Shaffelburg, a 20-year-old wide player, has great top-end speed and picked up an assist on TFC’s consolation goal. Players like Griffin Dorsey, Liam Fraser, and Tsubasa Endoh have been waiting in the wings for starter minutes.
Some profile as long-term contributors. TFC have done a good job of cultivating youth talent, and if Akinola and Laryea are any indication, they should have players ready to take on a bigger load. Given the talent already there, Toronto isn’t looking at any sort of rebuild.
If done well, they could take a jump next year with some new talent on defense and possibly another attacker. Bradley’s future won’t be easy to determine — he’s the captain and still just 32, and his struggles in this tournament don’t necessarily indicate a permanent decline. When the time comes, replacing Bradley will not be a simple task. He’s been one of the most important players in franchise history, and his skillset does not grow on trees.
Altidore still performs at a high level when he isn’t injured. At the very least, he’s a valuable super-sub and playoff scorer who comes through in the big moments. Akinola could be the guy up top on a week-to-week basis. TFC’s contending days don’t look like they’re ending. They’ll have to revamp and evaluate what to build on for the future.
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