TORONTO – As one season comes to an end, the next begins to come into view.
The offseason always brings with it some changes – that is the normal order of things. It will be no different for Toronto FC as the transition from 2019 to 2020 gets underway.
“You always have to get better,” said Michael Bradley. “That’s sports, that’s also, specifically, this league. Everybody is constantly trying to push the envelope, trying to get better, put themselves in a better position for the next year. Regardless of whether you don’t make the playoffs or win MLS Cup, everybody is in the same boat at the end of the season.”
The first move came in the hours after TFC’s end of season media press conferences when Jay Chapman was traded to Inter Miami CF for allocation money during the two-day opening of the offseason trade window.
The club submitted their protected list for Tuesday’s 2019 MLS Expansion Draft, the deadline for exercising contract options is later this week, while free agency and the MLS Re-Entry Process begins later this month. And then come January the 2020 MLS SuperDraft will be held in Baltimore – Toronto has two first round picks: 19th and 25th overall.
Much though changes are coming, having already gone through an eventful evolution over the course of this past season, they are expected to be relatively few.
“We all share a belief that there is a correlation between success and consistency,” began Ali Curtis. “To the extent we can, maintaining a core going into next year is important.”
“It’s not always easy in this league: we have an expansion draft coming up, we have re-entry, free agency. There are a couple different decisions with regard to options – not a whole lot, but there’s a few. Michael’s contract situation that we need to sort through,” he continued. “We’re going to do the best job we can to keep this team consistent going into next year. There’s opportunities to improve team as well, a lot will be going forward as opposed to defending the net.”
“Keep the team intact and have some consistency, but we also would like to add maybe one or two players to the team,” added Curtis. “It’s always good to bring in new life, new energy, new personalities to the training ground, that helps with the final product in matches. We don’t see those as challenges, but as opportunities.”
Bill Manning called this the “fine tuning” stage.
“I’m expecting to see more tweaks than a lot of player movement in and out of the club,” outlined Justin Morrow. “Our management will do a very good job of analyzing the season. We have to learn from 2017 – having such a good season and then what happened in 2018 – we have to rectify that, make sure we have another good year next year; not just taking it for granted that we had a good second half of the season.”
As Curtis suggested, the area of greatest focus will be the attack.
“We have a great core group, it’s just going to be subtle changes,” concurred Greg Vanney. “We all would like to add a little bit of punch in our attack in front of goal, and continue to add to some of the dynamic individual play on the wings – being able to beat people one-on-one, get behind teams, things like that – that continue to open up spaces for players.”
Vanney highlighted midseason acquisition Erickson Gallardo as one expected to play a bigger role in 2020 and expressed his desire for Nicolas Benezet, on loan from EA Guingamp, to return.
“I like Nicolas, he’s an excellent soccer player,” said the TFC coach. “All players that you pick up midseason show you what they’re capable of, but they always have more because they settle in, they learn the league.”
“They’ll go through the adaptation process, like all good players do, to figure out, ‘OK, this is league is a little more physical, this is what I need to do,’ connecting with the principles of our team, players around them,” detailed Vanney. “He provides us with some quality on the wings that we’ve been looking for. Hopefully this is something we can get figured out.”
“We’d like to keep this team together as much as possible,” he added. “Continue to add pieces that we think are going to take us to another level.”
But it is not just through addition that the team can improve.
Having seen Omar Gonzalez, Gallardo, Benezet, Patrick Mullins, and Jacob Shaffelburg added to the team midseason, Vanney will also be looking to continue developing and solidifying the team’s identity on the training pitch.
More shutouts is one of the demands being laid in front of the group – Toronto kept just one clean-sheet through their final 10 unbeaten matches of the regular season; through the four MLS Cup Playoff games, Toronto did not keep the opponent from scoring.
“By midseason our collective commitment to defend helped us to become a better team, but as a group we need to pitch more shutouts than we did,” urged Vanney. “It was always that one goal that we gave up. We’ve got to be able to lock that down and win games 1-0 more often.”
“Some of that is the nature of: we’re an attacking team, we’re going to come at you, and sometimes that leaves you vulnerable on the defensive side, but I would like for us to still be able to be that way and get more shutouts. That’s a collective mindset,” he continued. “I don’t necessarily think that is about us going out and getting a lot better, or changing what we do defensively or who we have.
The challenge for 2020 has been laid out: find a way back to the final.
“Four finals in five years... It’s something that is an early goal for our group,” stated Manning. “If you know anything about this team, sometimes when they set their mind to it, they can get there.”