Toronto FC's development, adaptability on display ahead of MLS Cup

Arun SrinivasanContributor
Alejandro Pozuelo has been a revelation for Toronto FC throughout the 2019-20 season. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
Alejandro Pozuelo has been a revelation for Toronto FC throughout the 2019-20 season. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

If the 2017 season was one prolonged buildup to their eventual coronation, the 2019 campaign has been a full display of Toronto FC’s organizational strength and development model, entering Sunday’s MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders.

Toronto FC essentially walked to the 2017 title as a wire-to-wire juggernaut, setting a MLS record for points (69), won a domestic treble and avenged a heartbreaking loss to the Seattle, after losing in 2016 on penalties. It was a season hell-bent on revenge and with Sebastian Giovinco leading a three-pronged attack alongside Jozy Altidore and Victor Vasquez, there was a veritable offensive identity for the team to hang their hat on. Giovinco, perhaps because of his pedigree prior to joining Toronto FC, injected the team with instant credibility and a player to hold the rest of his teammates accountable. Although it’s only been two years, an ocean exists between the 2016, 2017 clubs and this year’s version.

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The 2019 iteration is operating in stark contrast and never really felt like a team of destiny until Nick DeLeon’s wondergoal sent Toronto FC into the final against a familiar foe in Seattle, quickly becoming one of the best rivalries in North American sports even if your average talking head glossed over it. By all accounts, this team wasn’t supposed to get this far, finishing ninth overall in the table with 50 points, a plus-five goal differential and the absence of a leader that commanded fear, in Giovinco.

There is no Giovinco this time around. Hell, there might not even be an Altidore as the striker is battling a quad strain and is unlikely to suit up for Sunday’s final. And yet, Toronto FC remains unbeaten since Aug. 3, sneaking into the final with the chance to establish themselves as an unlikely dynasty. It’s a testament to head coach Greg Vanney, captain Michael Bradley and designated player Alejandro Pozuelo to lead this club into its third final in four years.

Vanney has been forced to be at his best since Altidore’s injury and his deployment of Pozuelo further up the field as an outright striker has paid off for Toronto FC. Pozuelo is filling the scoring void, notching both goals in the conference semifinal victory over New York City FC and though he’s no Giovinco, did what was expected of him with a team-best 12 goals during the regular season. Now operating as the key component of the offense as a false-nine, Pozuelo has the opportunity to put Toronto FC on his back and cement a place amongst club legends like Giovinco.

Richie Laryea’s development has been a fascinating development for Toronto FC and the Canadian international has become an increasingly important component. Laryea, castoff from Orlando City, puts pressure on the defence with his pace from the wing, emerging as a genuine super-sub. A darting run from Laryea drew a penalty against the NYCFC in the conference semifinal and his improved distribution could give the Sounders fits. In the form of his life, Vanney’s deployment of Laryea throughout the playoffs has been brilliant and Toronto FC continuing to exceed the sum of its parts is a testament to the head coach.

Toronto FC is on the verge of cementing a dynasty, despite lacking the base talent level of the 2017 powerhouse. It’s a testament to veteran holdovers like Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, the injured Altidore and Vanney’s tactical adjustments that Toronto FC could lift the trophy for the second time in three years. This is no longer 2017 but it simply doesn’t have to be, anymore.

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