Toronto FC fills holes in starting lineup but questions remain about the team's depth
Toronto FC filled holes in its starting 11 and added experience in the off-season.
So the hope is the 2017 champion can return to its winning ways after two seasons mired near the bottom of the Major League Soccer standings. But depth is a question-mark as TFC kicks off the regular season Saturday at D.C. United.
The schedule-maker has pitted the league's two worst teams from last year in an Audi Field matchup that likely only devoted fans are looking forward to.
Toronto (9-18-7) finished 27th overall, seven points ahead of cellar-dwelling D.C. (7-21-6), in a 2022 season that ended with a whimper for both teams.
Toronto wrapped up the campaign with five straight losses, conceding four goals in four of the five games. D.C. won just one of its final 13 outings (1-9-3), a slide that ended with four straight defeats.
Toronto and D.C. have each lost a league-worst 36 games since the start of the 2021 season. But with a total of 26 players moving on from the two teams in the off-season, it's a new start for both.
Toronto coach and sporting director Bob Bradley continued his remake of the roster, with particular attention to the backline after a year that saw TFC tie a franchise low by leaking 66 goals.
Sean Johnson, a free agent from New York City FC, takes over in goal behind a revamped back four with newcomers Matt Hedges, Sigurd Rosted and Raoul Petretta joining incumbent fullback Richie Laryea.
Johnson had 23 clean sheets over the last two seasons with NYCFC, compared to just five for Toronto over the same period.
Captain Michael Bradley returns for a 10th season in Toronto colours. The 35-year-old franchise stalwart is expected to play alongside Canadians Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye in the midfield with Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi flanking newcomer Adama Diomande up front.
Osorio and Bradley have made a combined 609 appearances for TFC in all competitions.
Insigne (Napoli), Johnson (NYCFC) and Hedges (FC Dallas) are all former captains at their previous clubs.
'There's some added experience that gives up more intelligence on the field," said Bob Bradley. "I think that we've been solid with the way we've built from the back, moved the team forward, defended … We feel like we're going in a good direction and we're ready to start the season."
Added Kaye: "We have a lot of guys that now (as) we go into any given game, we can rely on to step up and take control of different situations … This year I think it's just a more experienced team, a more complete team."
There is a question-mark over the Toronto reinforcements, however, with 12 players aged 24 or younger waiting in the wings.
"Like a lot of MLS teams, we still feel that we can add depth in different ways," said Bob Bradley. "Depth happens in two ways. It happens sometimes where you bring someone in from the outside that fits a need. And then it happens when you see guys on the inside that are getting better every day.
"We're looking at both sides on how we can add depth to our team."
Toronto added defender Kobe Franklin to its first-team roster Friday, signing the 19-year-old to a homegrown contract through 2024 with options for 2025 and 2026. The Canadian youth international is the 32nd player in club history to sign for the first team from the TFC academy.
Diomande looks to be the tip of the TFC spear. The 33-year-old Norwegian international has a history of scoring goals under Bob Bradley at Los Angeles FC and Norway's Stabaek.
"He's a powerful player, smart player," said Johnson. "Dynamic. Makes good runs. And ultimately somebody who has a real nose for goal."
Diomande takes over from Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez, who was dealt to FC Dallas, with Canadian Ayo Akinola also available.
After a torrid start to the 2022 season that saw him score seven goals in his first nine games, Jimenez tailed off and scored just twice more in league play.
"In the second half of the season it was more difficult for him," said Bob Bradley. "Not really sure why. And as we talked to him and thought through things and looked at the salary budget situation (Jimenez made US$934,930 last season), it was a move that made sense."
Diomande had a hot start himself in 2018 with LAFC, scoring nine goals through his first seven games — only five of which were starts. He was the first player in league history to score five goals in his first five appearances.
Toronto will be without veteran midfielder Victor Vazquez, who is recovering from a shot to the ribs during a pre-season game. Midfielder Themi Antonoglou is out with a lower body injury.
Toronto showed flashes of real attacking flair last season after Insigne and Bernardeschi arrived midway through the campaign. But injuries and a uneven roster nipped that in the bud, as did a penchant to lose the ball in dangerous positions.
The team was a dismal 2-11-4 on the road.
Bob Bradley sees a brighter future.
"I think that there's a lot of things there that tell us that we have the chance to have a good team," he said.
With a designated player spot still open, Toronto has more room to grow, although Bob Bradley has suggested the team may use that for a young DP rather than a marquee name like Insigne or Bernardeschi.
Toronto's home opener is March 11 against the Columbus Crew.
Toronto FC at a Glance
Record Last Year: 9-18-7, 13th in the Eastern Conference (27th in the league).
Players In: Goalkeepers Sean Johnson, Tomas Romero; defenders Matt Hedges, Raoul Petretta, Sigurd Rosted; midfielders Brandon Servania, Victor Vazquez; forward Adama Diomande.
Players Out: Goalkeepers Alex Bono, Quentin Westberg; defenders Auro Jr., Domenico Criscito, Doneil Henry, Chris Mavinga, Luca Petrasso; midfielders: Noble Okello, Jayden Nelson; forwards Ifunanyachi Achara, Jacob Shaffelburg, Jesus Jimenez.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press