By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 15, 2023) US Soccer Players – By the time Toronto’s two biggest signings of the 2022 season changed the scope of the club’s attack in late July, it was already going to be a struggle to climb into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Defensive issues that had dogged the team all year lingered into the early fall, making the in-season reclamation project impossible for the 2017 MLS Cup winner and 2019 finalists. A five-game losing streak to end the season left Toronto in 13th-place, the same position as the year before but six points closer to the final playoff spot.
With an offseason to regroup and bring in crucial reinforcements behind one of the league’s most expensive attacks, the hope is back in Toronto. A pair of defensive additions stand out as possessing the potential to transform the team’s fortunes and to push it into a new successful phase of the rebuilding process.
Most MLS teams are works in progress through the opening portion of the season. It’s important to remember that the league’s primary transfer window is open until April 24, allowing clubs to shape their playing roster for months after the start of the regular season schedule.
Toronto ranked 26th in goals conceded at the end of 2022, coming in ahead of only the league’s two last-place teams, San Jose and DC United. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson arrives as a free agent, with the club adding two new center backs. Former FC Dallas player Matt Hedges will provide the veteran MLS leadership after signing as a free agent and Norwegian defender Sigurd Rosted will bring a European pedigree after years in Belgium and Denmark. Toronto also acquired a new option at left back in Raoul Petretta, joining from Turkish Super Lig club Kasımpasa.
The rebuilt defense will operate behind US international and club captain Michael Bradley. 2022 will be his ninth season in Toronto, making it all the more remarkable that 2022 was the midfielder’s top season for league appearances and minutes played at 34 and 3,049, respectively. Bradley won’t be asked to carry much of the goal scoring load, he had three goals in 2022, but he will be the key to unleashing the full power of Toronto FC’s expensive attack. He remains one of the best passers from his position in the league.
Last season, MLS got a taste of what Toronto’s new-look offense can do, but additions across the team and a fresh start should mean even bigger things in 2023.
Convincing Italian international Lorenzo Insigne to trade Campania for Ontario was last season’s big move for the club, but he didn’t come alone. Fellow Italy national teamer Federico Bernadeschi also landed in Toronto during the secondary transfer window in 2022 to play opposite Insigne on the right wing. Bernadeschi left Juventus to move to Toronto, and did so while still in his 20s.
The pair’s on-field debut was delayed by injuries last season, but once in the lineup, they made a significant impact. Despite playing fewer than one-third of Toronto’s regular season schedule with Bernadeschi appearing in 13 matches and Insigne in 11, the pair combined for 17 goals and accounted for 35 percent of the club’s season total.
But Toronto’s technical staff isn’t just building around their wingers. Jonathan Osorio returns after flirting with a move to Europe and MLS free agency and should start, but the center forward position got a boost in the winter. TFC acquired former LAFC striker Adama Diomande, reuniting him with, Bob Bradley, his coach when he scored 20 goals over two seasons in Los Angeles.
Spanish forward Jesus Jiminez is also an option, back for a second season after scoring nine goals in 2022. Bradley turns to Diomande in the hope he can serve as a focal point for Insigne and Bernadeschi to play off of.
TFC’s struggles near the bottom of the standings have always felt like an aberration. Since the club’s ownership committed to a program of ambitious spending to better compete for championships almost a decade ago, Toronto has been at or near the top of the league’s payroll rankings.
Spending on salaries in MLS doesn’t always guarantee success, but the big spenders rarely miss out on the postseason completely. This latest version of the club, with an accomplished coach, a pair of newly signed US internationals, a recently added duo of Italian maestros, and a smattering of additions in areas of need around the field, has the talent to compete.
That doesn’t mean Toronto’s rebuild is done. However, it’s a real reason to believe that this is the year that a club that once set the standard in Major League Soccer can reclaim a place among the contenders.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com