Toronto FC 2014 Season Preview: 4 Things to Watch for This Season
Toronto FC will have a new look in 2014, but what additional storylines will complete your season preview?
In part three of our 19-part series, we will take an in-depth look at the most intriguing plots surrounding the Reds this season. The number and player to watch, as well as the match that should immediately be circled on your calendar, will be delved into with great detail.
Read on for your comprehensive guide to 2014.
Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, credit all statistics to Squawka. All data collected is licensed from Opta Sports.
Before we preview the coming year, here is MLS's complete list of the offseason acquisitions and departures that helped mold this season's version of the club.
|M||Jackson||Trade from FC Dallas|
|F||Gilberto||Transfer from SC Internacional|
|D||Justin Morrow||Trade from San Jose|
|M||Dwayne De Rosario||Re-Entry Stage 2|
|F||Jermain Defoe||Transfer from Tottenham|
|M||Michael Bradley||Transfer from AS Roma|
|D||Bradley Orr||Loan from Blackburn Rovers|
|GK||Julio Cesar||Loan from Queens Park Rangers|
|M||Michael Thomas||Option Declined|
|M||Darel Russell||Option Declined|
|F||Robert Earnshaw||Option Declined|
|F||Justin Braun||Out of Contract|
|F||Danny Koevermans||Out of Contract|
|GK||Stefan Frei||Trade to Seattle|
|M||Bobby Convey||Trade to New York|
|D||Richard Eckersley||Trade to New York|
|M||Matias Laba||Traded to Vancouver|
Players Out to Injury:
|F||Bright Dike||Torn Achilles|
The Story to Watch: They Have the Players, but Do They Have the Coach?
Much like D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen, Ryan Nelsen will be facing increased pressure in 2014.
The former defender was hired with raised eyebrows in 2013, still actively plying his trade for Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League. The bizarre decision forced Toronto to be without a tangible coaching presence for the 2013 MLS SuperDraft and the opening of training camp.
When Coach Nelsen finally arrived, he did so with zero coaching experience and no coaching badges to speak of.
In his first full season with TFC, Nelsen coached the club to a 6-17-11 record. His inexperience was reflected further by the 15 goals the club conceded in minutes 76-90. Epic collapses like the one suffered in Week 5 were habitually repeated throughout the season.
In the end, the year was bookended by a pair of 12-match stretches that yielded just three victories.
For the apologists, Toronto's lack of world-class players in 2013 can easily be used as a scapegoat. Not a single TFC player finished with double-digit goals or assists. With the expensive overhaul the club just underwent, that won't be the case in 2014.
But now that the talent is in place, can the same be said for the coach?
Can a coach with one year of experience and zero qualifications successfully handle the pressures of having one of the most expensive rosters in MLS?
It's not as easy as it sounds.
Just ask Sigi Schmid.
The Number to Watch: 73
According to Opta Sports, no club has used more players the last three seasons than Toronto FC. Since 2011, 73 different players have suited up for the Reds.
After a wildly entertaining offseason, that number will grow in 2014.
Club president Tim Leiweke fulfilled the offseason promise he made to his supporters. Three highly touted designated players will be trekking BMO Field come March, chief among them being U.S. men's national team star Michael Bradley.
More on him later.
Oh, and as a Valentine's Day gift, Leiweke even threw in the starting goalkeeper for the Brazilian national team. You know, a loan just for fun. The move, according to Kurtis Larson of the Toronto Sun, raised the club's MLS Cup odds from 14/1 to 10/1.
But an overhaul of this magnitude has a cost...and we're not just talking about the bottom line.
Due to the influx of DPs, TFC are now forced to part ways with midfielder Matias Laba. The 22-year-old played in 16 matches last season, buzzing about Toronto's midfield. His 57 tackles were enough to land him in the top 15 amongst midfielders despite only playing half a season.
According to Steve Bottjer on MLS's official website, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko is keen on retaining the Argentine. But even he is aware of the difficulty to do so:
It's going to be difficult, but we're trying. We are still looking at our options between the three that we have, keeping him here, the option of trading or loaning him within the league and also options outside the league. We have been sitting down with the player to talk about what he would prefer to do because we are trying to treat our players a little bit differently than in the past, and we would like consider what their preferences are. We are hoping to have a resolution on that in the next two weeks.
Even loaning Laba has proved to be a difficult task.
The Columbus Crew were offered his services, but Gregg Berhalter showed no interest. The rookie head coach wasn't sold on Laba's ability, let alone his price tag. TFC have until March 1 to move Laba and meet the roster compliance deadline.
After that, the real fun begins: Finding the continuity necessary to clinch the first-ever playoff berth in club history.
The Player to Watch: Michael Bradley
He's the most expensive player in MLS history. He's also the most divisive.
When MLS shocked the world and purchased Michael Bradley's rights for $10 million from AS Roma, they didn't just bring home the most important player currently on the U.S. men's national team. They created a firestorm of debate.
An American in his prime left Europe to play in MLS.
Commence said firestorm.
There is the side that believes bringing home an American talent in his prime to play in an American league benefits the future of American soccer. Being able to showcase high-profile names will increase the league's visibility and help fulfill Don Garber's promise of making MLS one of the top competitions by 2022.
There is also the side that believes bringing home an American talent in his prime to play in an American league will hinder his development. Playing against "meager" competition will ruin the sharpness synonymous with Bradley's game.
The USMNT will suffer as a result.
The fact is: An American player was offered a 600 percent pay raise to ply his trade on a continent with the culture he's known his entire life. It may be difficult for some to understand, but behind that player is a family—one with a well-being that must be considered.
There's more to life than inferiority complexes.
But whether you agree with the move or not, Bradley will be scouring the midfield in MLS this season. He completed 90.5 percent of his passes the last two seasons at Roma. That's higher than any MLS player in 2013 (Osvaldo Alonso—88.58 percent).
Don't act as if you're not watching.
If you take away the heavy American narrative, the player you want to watch is obviously Jermain Defoe. The English striker finished with 11 total goals and 31 total chances created in his last full season with Tottenham.
The Match to Watch: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
March 15, 2014.
You won't have to wait long for this one.
The two most expensive and highly profiled American players will be on opposing sides for the first time since 2005. The Seattle Sounders' home match in Week 2 was originally scheduled for local and web-based broadcasts, but that quickly changed following Bradley's signing with TFC.
The opportunity was just too salivating to pass up.
NBC Sports announced a decision to pick up the highly anticipated broadcast, leaving behind Colorado's visit to New York. For people like Alexi Lalas, the season doesn't even start until these two clubs face off.
But while the match will largely be hyped as a battle between Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, there will be other narratives to follow.
After all, 22 players play the beautiful game, not just two.
Overseas talents have long had difficulties acclimating to the pace and physicality of MLS. It took Tim Cahill more than half a season to silence the criticism created by his $3.5 million base salary. Will Jermain Defoe be able to jump out of the gate and immediately justify his lucrative contract?
Will pop superstar Drake be in attendance?
After all, the Toronto native played a role in scouting for his hometown club. How could he not be in attendance for one of MLS's most-anticipated, nationally televised broadcasts?
Let him sing the national anthem while we're at it.
This epic clash will not be devoid of narratives. Try not to have difficulties keeping up.
Eduardo Mendez is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and analyst for Opta Sports. Follow him on Twitter for more insight on a variety of sports topics. Follow @Mendez_FC