Toronto FC and Chivas USA, both of which finished near the bottom of their respective conferences last season, clearly represent the failures of MLS. But while Chivas USA continued down their Hispanic-flavored mess of a season, Toronto entered a transition period that looks set to continue building in 2014. Last season began with Ryan Nelsen’s move from QPR’s back-line to Toronto’s dugout. With this being his first year as a manager, not a lot was expected of the rookie. His first game, however, showed a glimpse of promise as the Reds defeated Sporting Kansas City in the second game of the regular season.
This euphoria was short lived, as the game was sandwiched between the familiar feeling of loses, to Canadian rivals Vancouver and Montreal. In fact, the promise was short lived. Players such as John Bostock and Hogan Ephraim had come to Canada, presumably through Nelsen’s English links, and began to decline in their usefulness. Bostock in particular showed the most alarming decline in performances. Both were eventually let go, and showed more of Toronto’s worrying habit for chopping and changing constantly. In fairness to both Nelsen and the recently departed Kevin Payne, a lot of the personnel overhaul was for a reason, as Nelsen described the situation:
“It’s been a roller coaster ride and we have had some real ups and downs, but I can now sleep really well at night knowing the situation we are in now … I didn’t think we would be in this positive of a position [heading into 2014] because of the salary cap, contract, lots of debt and, at the time, no real foundation of core MLS players. Put all that together and it is toxic. If you take all the successful teams in MLS, they all have hardened MLS players and a good foundation of North American players who are complemented by game changers with their DPs.”
Nelsen’s talk of a formula also reveals what the ultimate goal of the franchise is. With results poor throughout the past season, Toronto have wasted no time strengthening in their look for progress in 2014. Nelsen’s desire for North American, MLS players, was answered by the new general manager Tim Bezbatchenko as Justin Morrow arrived from the San Jose Earthquakes, along with former player and MLS legend Dwayne De Rosario. The standard trading in and out was always going to be a part of the off-season for all clubs, but Toronto were heavily fixated upon their desires to bring in designated players, as Nelsen explained:
“DPs are so important and you have to get them right. It showed when we didn’t have our Designated Players. I do think once we add our DPs and two or three hardened MLS players – we do still need to get better beyond the DP scenarios – I think we’ll be quite a nice wee animal. It will be nice to sit on the sideline with a squad that will still have the ability to win games even when we aren’t at 100 percent.”
The trades turned out to be low key transfers compared to Toronto’s first designated player, Gilberto. Signed from Internacional as a designated player, Toronto have acquired a goalscorer of quality who turned down Mexican and German offers to move to Canada. However, Gilberto’s goal-scoring record is nothing compared to Jermain Defoe. To sign one of the Premier League’s most lethal strikers, 143 in 362 for Spurs, is a major sign of ambition. It’s easy for clubs to think goal scorers are always the answer, but this franchise has intelligently bolstered the midfield by also signing US International Michael Bradley from AS Roma. Bradley’s ability to control the game and sit in front of the back four adds the resilience and experience this side have desperately lacked.
Progress can be seen not just by who comes into the team, but who also leaves. Sadly for fans, Danny Koevermans was let go in the off-season. Once thought to be the answer to Toronto’s issues, his chronic injury problems led his status to become nothing more than an excuse for Toronto’s failure. Cutting him suggests Toronto are ready to move on in their ambitions for the playoffs and silverware. While in Canada it is clear a squad laden with talent is being formed, it can only go so far. Ryan Nelsen has to continue to develop as a manager and figure out how to get an inevitable Defoe and Gilberto partnership working. Behind them, he has to implement De Rosario and Bradley. Neslen has already spoken of his development:
“I learned more in this year than I probably had in many years. I have a few more grey hairs. Trust me on that one. But it has been very interesting. It was an incredible learning experience, which is something that I will probably never say again in my career.”
With a team full of stars and the pressure to succeed, it’s safe to say those grey hairs will continue to grow.