Toronto FC coach Bob Bradley sees plenty of positives as players report for duty

TORONTO — While there are probably as many questions as answers when it comes to the Toronto FC roster, coach Bob Bradley was full of optimism Friday as players reported for pre-season medicals.

"We're going to be a good team," Bradley told reporters. "We're going to be able to compete with the best teams."

Time will tell, he acknowledged. And more player moves have to be made. But Bradley, who is entering his second season at Toronto's helm, sees plenty of positives.

"With the (personnel) discussions we're having and some of the moves that have been made and some of the foundation that got laid last year, yes, I think the goal is to be a really good team this year," he said.

Toronto (9-18-7) finished 27th in the then 28-team league last season, the second straight year it finished second-from-last in the standings.

Bradley believes a lot of the team's needs can be filled before it opens regular-season play Feb. 25 at D.C. United.

"We've got some clearly identified guys and there's been different kinds of discussions," said Bradley. "I've enjoyed speaking to a bunch of different guys about what we're trying to do and letting them know where I thought that they would fit in."

There is work to do. Toronto needs a starting goalkeeper, centre back and left back — as well as depth at forward and in the midfield. Free agent goalkeeper Sean Johnson, formerly of New York City FC, is one possible target.

But some important pieces are already in place.

Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi arrived mid-season, with Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye also joining via trade in July. Canadian fullback Richie Laryea rejoined the team in August on loan from England's Nottingham Forest.

While the team went on a 4-1-3 run after the arrival of the Italians, Toronto finished the season with five straight losses.

"Generally speaking … too inconsistent," Bradley said of the 2022 campaign.

Bradley says the discussions at the end of last season involved how to get better at different positions "and how do we bring in more of the right kind of guys.

"Guys that are excited to be here. Guys that feel good about the kind of football we want to play. Guys that know that there has been success here in the past and want to be part of an effort to have success again."

Consistency is already a buzzword at camp.

"We understand how much we let ourselves down last year," said Kaye, who was limited by injuries after joining TFC. "And we look around the locker room every day and we see the talent we have and we understand that there's a certain level that is required when you put on a TFC jersey.

"I can say there'll definitely be more consistency in our performances."

While Toronto has a designated player spot available, Bradley says there is no room in the budget for another marquee player like Insigne and Bernardeschi. TFC seems more interested in acquiring a so-called young designated player, a talent below the age of 23 who comes with a lesser salary cap cost.

Ten players under contract last season have departed, including first-team goalkeepers Alex Bono and Quentin Westberg and centre back Chris Mavinga.

Toronto elected not to exercise the 2023 contract option on Mavinga, a six-year TFC veteran who made US$1,037,500 last season. While contract talks continued, the Mavinga camp thought they were moving too slow and were open to an offer to join the Los Angeles Galaxy from former Toronto coach Greg Vanney.

Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, another TFC free agent, elected to stay put and signed a new three-year contract with a 2026 option last month.

A key newcomer is veteran centre back Matt Hedges, a former MLS Defender of the Year who spent the last 11 seasons at FC Dallas. And Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez is back in the Toronto fold after spending the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The 35-year-old starred for TFC in 2017 and 2018 before leaving for a club in Qatar.

Bradley needs to find a partner for Hedges, with returnees Shane O'Neill and Lukas MacNaughton also available, to shore up a defence that gave up 66 goals last season — tying a franchise worst.

There is both youth and experience on the TFC first-team roster, which currently stands at 23.

There are 10 players aged 22 and under, including teenagers Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (18), Hugo Mbongue (18) and Kosi Thompson (19). And five players 30 and over, with captain Michael Bradley and Vazquez the elders at 35.

The Toronto players are slated to undergo medicals before flying Sunday to San Diego for the start of camp.

The squad is scheduled to return to Toronto on Jan. 27 before returning Feb. 2 to San Diego. The team will then make the 235-kilometre drive to Indio, Calif., on Feb. 5 with friendlies planned against the Vancouver Whitecaps (Feb. 8), Los Angeles FC (Feb. 11), Portland Timbers (Feb. 15) and Los Angeles Galaxy (Feb. 18)

---

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press