By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 11, 2020) US Soccer Players – The 2020 Major League Soccer regular season is over. We all know that means reckoning with the results. Plenty of clubs, whether they made the playoffs or not, will use the unique 2020 COVID-19 conditions of the season to justify the final standings. Ambition is a factor, of course. Some clubs won’t be satisfied with anything but a championship. Others will claim success on little more than a single postseason game.
MLS’s three Canadian teams run the gamut of resources, ambition, and achievement. How they view their seasons and what steps they take in the offseason will depend on how close each thinks they are to achieving the ultimate goal.
For Toronto FC, 2020 might still be a championship season. It hasn’t been easy for the defending Eastern Conference champion, but the regular season ended with the Reds in 2nd-place and awaiting the winner of a play-in round game.
The hiccup that was Toronto’s 2018 campaign, a season that saw the club miss the playoffs following a triple haul of trophies in 2017, is a fading memory. As TFC showed in 2018, barring calamity, like 2017’s injury and schedule-created disaster, the club is a perennial contender for honors.
Few in MLS have Toronto’s organizational competence, a trait the team built over several years. The test of any club is the ability to navigate changes in leadership. TFC manages the feat despite Tim Bebatchenko departing for Columbus and Ali Curtis taking over in Toronto as general manager.
Toronto replaced Sebastian Giovinco by signing Alejandro Pozuelo in 2019. That was an ambitious move that required spending significant money and weathering a dramatic tug-of-war over Pozuelo’s services. They also refreshed the roster with quality role players and younger new additions.
2020’s major addition was Pablo Piatti. The club largely stood pat with the rest of its roster. That meant trusting that the experience and depth already in place would have them competing for a championship.
Despite a rash of injuries, including a long layoff for Michael Bradley that forced head coach Greg Vanney to turn to alternatives in midfield, Toronto climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference. Any benefit the club got from playing only its Canadian compatriot clubs for the Phase 1 portion of the return-to-play was offset by the Reds decamping from Toronto for a temporary home in Connecticut.
Unlike the Impact and Whitecaps, Toronto thrived in their makeshift digs at Rentschler Field. The Supporters’ Shield was still in play on the final day of the regular season, only for the Union to beat them to the finish line. That disappointment won’t do much to dent the belief that Toronto is a serious contender for the title in 2020.
Toronto does have some looming questions to answer, no matter how this season ends. The rise of a few younger faces, including forward Ayo Akinola and midfielder Liam Fraser bodes well for a transition from the era of Bradley and Altidore into a new one. It will still be a difficult transition to manage.
Montreal is the other Canadian team to make the playoffs in 2020. While Toronto challenged for a trophy until the season’s final day, the Impact’s campaign was decidedly more up-and-down.
It was a learning experience for Thierry Henry in his first year coaching in MLS. Henry inherited a mixed bag of a squad that missed out on the playoffs by four points under Remi Garde last season. Exhibiting both ambition and an occasional naivete, Henry tried to turn a side most adept at counterattacking into one more comfortable playing with the ball.
The Impact has talent, but it has rarely come together to produce at the level of a championship contender. Bojan Krkic, signed in the second half of 2019 to a Designated Player contract, hasn’t lived up to his contract. In 17 appearances this season, he has just four goals and two assists. Those are numbers emblematic of Montreal’s struggles in the attacking end of the field.
To be fair to Montreal, judging the Impact is difficult because of the COVID-19 mandated schedule. The “Canadian round” of matches in phase one forced the club to play Toronto three consecutive times. The second phase required relocating to Red Bull Arena, taking the players away from home for the balance of the campaign. Montreal also lost key midfielder contributor Saphir Taider in October when he moved to Al Ain FC.
The Impact’s 9th-place finish almost reads as respectable with all those factors considered. It’s only Toronto’s success that makes Montreal’s narrow achievement look poor in comparison.
Following the playoffs, the Impact will again look at its roster and face questions. Presuming a return to normalcy and home games in Montreal, a frustrated fan base will cry for improvement. Henry won’t get much more of a grace period. Club leadership must decide if holding onto Bojan, whose contract has a club option for 2021, makes sense.
The timing of any moves is made more complicated with the Impact still alive in the Concacaf Champions League. That tournament resumes next month with Montreal playing a quarterfinal match against Olimpia of Honduras down 2-1 on aggregate.
The only Canadian team to miss the playoffs in 2020 was the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Caps find themselves exactly where they’ve been since 2016, sitting on the sidelines as the postseason begins. A second-year under Marc Dos Santos brought some progress, but not enough to push the club above the line in the competitive Western Conference.
Patience is wearing thin (again) in Vancouver and the task falls to club president Axel Schuster to turn the club into a winner. From the other side of the country, Schuster is an admirer of the Philadelphia Union’s success, citing the Supporters’ Shield winner as a model to follow.
Vancouver did show a dose of ambition before the season with the purchase of forward Lucas Cavallini. The realities of COVID-19 and the toll of the post-restart schedule dragged down the club. Vancouver went long stretches without training sessions and stumbled to the finish while playing home matches at Providence Park in Portland.
Like with Toronto and Montreal, it seems strange to pass much judgment on Vancouver’s season. Despite the more limited schedule, they won more games in 2020 (9) than they did last season (8). A more aggressive approach on the field delivered a feast-or-famine dynamic. Vancouver didn’t draw a game in 2020. That could bode well for a better 2021.
The Whitecaps will do what all teams do in the offseason and turn over a portion of its roster. Cavallini will be back. Dos Santos indicated after the season finale win over the Galaxy that the club will actively pursue another Designated Player for 2021. Vancouver won’t miss 2020, but it wasn’t without its bright spots.
More From Jason Davis:
- The Earthquakes get it together
- A quick reschedule and points-per-game complicates the Western Conference
- The Philadelphia Union plays for a trophy
- LAFC and NYCFC regroup around returning players
Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com