TORONTO – The spotlight is being shined on Toronto FC’s weaknesses as the team turns toward offseason self-examination.
There’s no surprise that the team’s defensive issues will get a close look.
“It doesn't take a genius to figure out,” captain Michael Bradley said. “When you look at the number of games played and the number of goals conceded, it's too many. It makes things very difficult if you're having to score as many goals as we did just to give yourself a chance.”
Toronto conceded 58 goals in 34 matches this season, an average of 1.7 per game, tied for most in the league alongside Chicago Fire and New York City FC. Yet when the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs came around, three goals allowed in the first half of their Knockout Round match last week proved an insurmountable obstacle in a 3-0 loss to the Montreal Impact.
Club president Bill Manning said improvement in that area is the No. 1 offseason priority.
“Have to,” Manning said. “Can't let up 58 goals and expect to compete.”
Manning said the front office is eyeing a 1.2 goals-against threshold for next season based on league history of successful teams, meaning, he said, they can’t give up more than 45 goals next season.
“We have to be a team that can win games 1-0 and 4-1,” he continued. “This team is going to score. It's not even wins and losses, it's goals conceded ... [concede] less than 45 goals a year, you're going to win a lot of games.”
General manager Tim Bezbatchenko said the process now is to identify whether the team needs to bring in new players or develop the ones in pace is the right path to fixing the problem.
“Easy thing is to say we need new players,” said Bezbatchenko. “That's TFC of old. The hard thing is to stay the course and build on the foundation, that's TFC of new. You have to start off talking about how you're playing that leaves certain positions exposed.” A “strong spine” is key for Bezbatchenko.
“We're looking to be more consistent across the backline,” he said. “Successful teams across MLS, have the same four to six players playing most of the games. We'll be looking to have that characteristic at TFC.”
The club will be holding exit interviews with the players over the coming days. And there are some certainties. All three Designated Players will be back, according to Bezbatchenko, but much is yet to be decided.
“It's too early. We have to meet with the players, figure out their mindset,” he said. That includes the goalkeeping position, where Chris Konopka and Joe Bendik shared time. “We weren't good defensively; goalkeepers are a part of that, maybe the most important,” Bezbatchenko said. “Would I prefer to have our go-to guy? Yeah. But I also believe there should be competition, there has to be accountability.”
Head coach Greg Vanney said there are pluses and minuses to look at across the entire backline. “If you go through each one, [there are] positive things and things we need to either improve or be slightly concerned about.” Vanney said. “If we find a guy who is amazing, we have to think about it.
“Very rarely do (international defenders) come in and light things on fire. Many have to adapt and adjust to the league,” he added, referring to international defenders Damien Perquis and Ahmed Kantari.
Josh Williams, who joined midway through the season, said time on the field together is an important factor, something TFC struggled with through injuries and international call-ups. “It's so important to play with guys over a long period, build consistency,” he said.
Re-signing Justin Morrow, the veteran defender whose contract is up after his second complete season with Toronto, is also a priority, Bezbatchenko said.
“[We] stopped negotiations until the season was over, so we're just starting up,” Morrow said. “Toronto has got to be up there within the top places to play in MLS. The team wants to win, so I'd like to be here. I'm looking for the team to show me that I'm an important part.”
Said Bezbatchenko of Morrow: “He has been one of most reliable, consistent players, in terms of minutes, in terms of who he is as person. He logged the most hours in the community. We hope a deal will be completed soon.”