Continuity and consistency are the buzzwords in 2020 for Toronto FC, which is looking to build on a second-half surge last season that carried it to the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years.
While Toronto lost the championship game 3-1 to Seattle last November, it returns virtually all of the key pieces of its roster (with the exception of respected veteran defender Drew Moor, now back with Colorado).
"The mood is good," Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. "Guys are hungry."
Fully healthy, Toronto is hard to beat. But Greg Vanney's side begins the season Saturday in San Jose with captain Michael Bradley a long-term absentee due to ankle surgery and questions over the durability of new designated player Pablo Piatti.
The 30-year-old Argentine winger has played just seven matches since undergoing knee surgery in February 2019 with Spain's Espanyol. His Toronto debut has been delayed by a hamstring strain.
The biggest question-mark is star striker Jozy Altidore, who missed all but 22 minutes of the playoffs with a damaged ankle. A beast when healthy, the U.S. international has played in just 35 regular-season games (30 starts) — with 18 goals — over the last two seasons.
Toronto goes as Altidore goes.
"Unfortunately last year ... Jozy didn't factor into the season as much as we would have liked him to," Vanney said. "If Jozy can be back in the equation, be fit, continue to give us what he's given through the course of pre-season, just that alone we're going to be a different team."
The good news is the big man is healthy and expected to captain Toronto in Bradley's absence.
Toronto relied on stylish Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo as a false No. 9 in Altidore's absence last season. The other choices at striker are veteran Patrick Mullins, 20-year-old Ayo Akinola and Nigerian rookie Ifunanyachi Achara, who earned a contract with an impressive pre-season showing that included three goals
After opening last season at 4-1-1, Toronto endured a 2-7-4 slump before going on a run from mid-July on. With its roster finally complete, TFC only lost twice in the 18 regular-season and playoff contests (10-2-6) leading up to the championship game.
Vanney is looking for a more consistent ride this season.
"We understand we're probably not going to be in top form in Game 1 but don't want any dips in our season. We want to keep building and if we happen to lose a game, bounce back, get on some runs where we win multiple games in a row.
"Just consistency in performance, consistency in outcome is one of the things we're looking for this season."
Toronto won playoff games at home against D.C. United and on the road in New York and Atlanta despite missing the injured Altidore. The star striker came on for the finale of the championship game, scoring a consolation goal in stoppage time.
With Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga anchoring the defence behind Bradley, and Pozuelo and Altidore triggering the offence, Toronto ranked seventh in offence (averaging 1.68 goals a game) and 14th on defence (averaging 1.53 goals against a game).
But in the 14 regular-season games Gonzalez started since coming on board in July, Toronto conceded 16 goals (1.14 goals a game).
While 16 different players scored for TFC in regular-season year last season, Altidore (11 goals) and Pozuelo (12) were the main offensive threats. The next leading scorer was midfielder Nick DeLeon with six.
Another question going into the season is can 22-year-old Liam Fraser help fill Bradley's shoes. The skipper, an influential figure on an off the field, is expected to be out until mid-May, some 13 or 14 games into TFC's 34-match regular-season schedule.
Midfielder Marky Delgado may also be worth watching in the last year of his contract. An important cog in his ability to keep the ball moving, the 24-year-old raised eyebrows with a pre-season tweet that read: "Final year let's enjoy it."
Bradley ankle surgery aside, the pre-season has been refreshingly free of drama — unlike the 2019 training camp when GM Tim Bezbatchenko quit to take over Columbus, star attackers Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez left for greener pastures and Dutch international defender Gregory van der Wiel was dismissed after a training camp bust-up.
"A lot less distractions, for sure," Osorio said.
"Guys are just working and doing their jobs and getting along," Vanney added. "I would say there's a really good energy and vibe amongst the group."
Quentin Westberg remains the team's No. 1 goalkeeper, with Justin Morrow at left fullback, Mavinga and Gonzalez at centre back and Canadian Richie Laryea competing with Brazil's Auro for the right fullback spot.
The departure of Ashtone Morgan, now with Real Salt Lake, leaves a hole behind Morrow. Auro could shift over to the left, if needed.
Bradley/Fraser will be joined in midfield by Osorio, Delgado, DeLeon, Erickson Gallardo, Tsubsasa Endoh or Jacob Shaffelburg with Pozuelo and Altidore leading the attack.
DeLeon is questionable Saturday with back tightness.
Fans will be looking to see what Piatti and Gallardo, a 23-year-old Venezuelan winger in his first full season with the club, bring to the table.
The Toronto roster combines an experienced group with a lot of youth. There are seven veterans 30 or over and a dozen players 24 or younger including 15-year-old midfielder Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press