Season Preview: Toronto FC

Toronto FC has been an enigma in their seven seasons in MLS. They have four Canadian Championships and a semifinals appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011, they had one of the strongest fan bases in their early years, and yet they have zero appearances in the MLS playoffs. But all signs point to an improved franchise as Tim Leiweke became President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, and promptly claimed he would make blockbuster signings. With the additions of three Designated Players in the offseason, the Reds are making every effort to end their playoff drought in the coming 2014 season.

2013 Finish: 6-17-11, 29 points; 30 GF, 47 GA. Ninth in Eastern Conference and 17th overall.

2013 Best XI

Toronto FC's best XI in 2013


  Name Pos From where?   Name Pos To where?
In: Jackson M traded from FC Dallas Out: Michael Thomas M option declined
Gilberto M transfer from SC Internacional Darel Russell M option declined
Justin Morrow D traded from San Jose Robert Earnshaw F option declined
Jordan Hamilton F Homegrown Justin Braun F out of contract
Dwayne De Rosario M Re-Entry Stage 2 Danny Koevermans F out of contract
Jermain Defoe F transfer from Tottenham Stefan Frei GK trade to Seattle
Michael Bradley M transfer from AS Roma Bobby Convey M trade to New York
Bradley Orr D loan from Blackburn Rovers Richard Eckersley D trade to New York
Julio Cesar GK loan from Queens Park Rangers Jonas Elmer D contract terminated
Matias Laba M traded to Vancouver

Roster Churn: Toronto FC returns 55.6% of its minutes played from 2013 (9th in the Eastern Conference and 17th overall).

2014 Preview

Median age: 24 *Designated player

Median age: 24
*Designated player

TORINFODo you remember back in high school when a rather ordinary girl that you barely noticed last year suddenly came back from the summer and was a complete knock out ? Well, Toronto FC is that knock out that MLS fans can’t get enough of. For starters, NBCSN will showcase TFC’s season opener against the Sounders on March 15. And even the infamous ginger (Alexi Lalas) has claimed on Twitter that he won’t even consider that the league has started until TFC has played. Amazing how all it takes is a few transfers and you’ve suddenly got Garber’s attention and deepest affections.

Toronto’s 2013 season was forgettable to say the least. They were completely inept on offense—tied for second-to-last in total goals with 30 and also second-to-last in our new Expected Goals For 2.0 at 33.3—and ended their season with a miserable 29 points. But things started to point in the right direction with their first two off-season acquisitions: the speedy winger Jackson from FC Dallas and a strong DP signing in Gilberto. What happened next, though, no one could have foreseen.

Toronto picked up local hero and all-time leading scorer (32 goals) Dwayne De Rosario, who played for the Reds between 2009 and 2011, as a light warmup to what would follow. Then, in early December, rumors began brewing that Toronto was ready to open the checkbook and make a record signing for Tottenham striker and England international, Jermain Defoe. As that story was growing in credibility, in January Taylor Twellman unveiled a shocker that Toronto was also in the race to get USMNT star and Roma midfielder, Michael Bradley. Within days, Toronto FC had both players. It was like Joe Walsh joined the Eagles all over again—except the Eagles were already good and not in Canada, but whatever.

Many of us, myself included, scoffed at the idea that Bradley would return to MLS after claiming time and time again his desire to challenge himself at the highest levels of international soccer. But the lure of a new and distinct challenge, as well as a hefty pay raise (reports state Bradley received a pay raise of six times his salary from Roma), has Michael Bradley back in MLS. As a cherry on top, Toronto plucked Brazilian international Julio Cesar from Queens Park Rangers on loan—probably more a name than a top-level talent at this point—to finalize their off-season transformation from a basement dweller to a potential MLS Cup contender.

But basic math does not appear to a strong suit of the forever changing front office. Toronto already had one DP in Matias Laba, and three more made four total. Toronto had been trying for nearly two months to put Laba on loan, but Laba reportedly wanted to stay in MLS. Intra-MLS loans are a new thingthis year marked the first one in fact—but are indeed possible. However, the loan idea fell through, and as rosters were about to finalize on Friday, Toronto was forced to trade Laba to Vancouver for “future considerations.” Though often ambiguous, future considerations in this case may very well involved them getting Laba back in 2015. But still, the perception of disarray in the Toronto front office (and back office, as Drew noted on our most recent podcast), was done no favors.

With all off-season transactions covered, Toronto now has to back up their talent-rich roster with results. Winning more often than it loses and making the playoffs would be a good start, though it’s a long way to go from the Reds’ status quo to MLS Cup contender. Only in 2009 were they remotely close to the playoffs, finishing 10-11-9 and three points out of a playoff spot in the East. Toronto has won no more than six matches in each of the past three seasons. There will be immense pressure with all the high-profile signings for the Reds to qualify for the playoffs, and qualify comfortably. But can Jermain Defoe adjust to a new league? Is Gilberto as good a finisher as advertised? And most importantly, can Michael Bradley be the key piece in the middle to lead the team?

Alex Olshansky (@tempofreesoccer) did an incredible write up on Michael Bradley, comparing his passing usage rating for the USMNT and his club teams. To summarize it quickly, Bradley is more involved in USMNT’s attack and possession than he is with his club teams. And while many have criticized Bradley’s move back to MLS, the new environment and his role with the team will likely be a greater challenge to him as a player. Bradley will now play the role of facilitator and key distributor, as well as meeting daily expectations to be the team leader for TFC, better preparing him for his role on the national team.

Soccer, as well as other sports, has shown us that adding a few great players does not guarantee success, especially on a pitch shared by eleven teammates. There is no doubt that Toronto is a better team, but an MLS Cup contender? We shall see. Regardless of where your allegiances resided in the past—as a Toronto fan, an American Outlaw, or other—things got interesting north of the border in the past few months, and everyone will have at least one eye on the Reds in 2014

Crowdsourcing Results

A plurality of ASA readers picked Toronto to finish third in the East this season (130 of 404 votes; 32.2%), and an overwhelming majority believes the Reds will make the playoffs in some capacity (355 votes; 80.7%).

Season Preview: FC Dallas

Over the past three seasons, fans of the Hoops have seen their team crash down from the high of a 2010 MLS Cup Finals appearance . In 2012, those same fans endured a 13-game winless streak, to be followed by another 11-game winless streak in 2013, resulting in Dallas missing the playoffs each of the past two seasons. What made matters worse was their red hot start to 2013, where they raced out to a 7-2-3 record and 24 points by the end of May, good for first place in the West. After missing out on the post season following such a hot start, Schellas Hyndman was shown the door (officially resigned), and former FC Dallas player and long time assistant Oscar Pareja was hired to right the ship. There is much optimism surrounding Dallas as they look to put the past behind them and get themselves back into the playoffs in 2014.
2013 Finish: 44 Points, 8th in the Western Conference, Missed MLS Playoffs
Player Added Position Acquired from: Player Lost Position To
Ryan Hollingshead M 2013 SuperDraft Ugo Ihemelu D option declined
Adam Moffat M traded from Seattle Ramon Nunez M option declined
Brian Span M weighted lottery Erick M option declined
Hendry Thomas M traded from Colorado Jackson M traded to Toronto
Andres Escobar F Loan (Dynamo Kiev) Victor Ulloa M out of contract
David Texeira F Free (FC Groningen) David Ferreira M option declined
Kenny Cooper F traded to Seattle
Roster Churn: 77.97% returning minutes (12th lowest in MLS)
roster-dallasLots of optimism surround the Hoops after the theft appointment of Oscar “Papi” Pareja as head coach, and for good reason. The former Colorado Rapids head coach was highly regarded by the front office, was a contender for MLS DALINFOCoach of the Year after Colorado overachieved last season with their young roster, thanks in some part to Pareja’s guidance.
While the optimism is high, there are also some concerns with the team, as they jettisoned off a few key pieces from last year (Captain David Ferreira, striker Kenny Cooper, and winger Jackson), and now FC Dallas must work through that awkward transition where new faces and a new coach try to get on the same page. Will the front office and Dallas fans be patient enough to wait for Pareja to work his magic, given they’ve missed the playoffs two season in a row now? His first season in Colorado was forgettable (11-19-4, no playoffs), but there were clear signs of improvement in his second year (14-11-9, knock out rounds). 
With the exception of Blas Perez, the Dallas attack is young. [Fabian] Castillo (21), [Andres] Escobar (22), and [Mauro] Diaz (22) make for a very dangerous trio if they can develop their chemistry together. Diaz has been handed the number 10 jersey and will hold the keys to driving the Hoops offense this season. Much like it was with his predecessor, Captain Ferreira, where Diaz goes, FC Dallas will follow. And while the short glimpses we saw of Diaz were promising last season, being the focal point and main man for the entire season in a new league is another thing to handle altogether. 
Last season’s Achilles heel had to be the central midfield for Dallas. When holding midfielder Peter Luccin went down with an injury before the season began, FC Dallas was left without any adequate cover, and it lost its midfield bite and any real quality in linking the defense to the attack. That has been addressed strongly this off season with the acquisition of former Rapids midfielder Hendry Thomas (who is basically a tank on cleats) and former Sounder Adam Moffat (better link up player). Not to mention Luccin is back and healthy, and Andrew Jacobson got a good solid year of starter experience under his belt. Dallas’ thinnest spot in 2013 has suddenly become their greatest depth in 2014.
The Dallas defense looks largely the same with everyone from last year who got significant playing time returning. The debate now is whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Jair Benitez is now a year older, and while he provides help in offense (hello golazo!), his defending remains inconsistent. Zach Loyd had a subpar year by his standards in 2013. Whether he can regain his form that led him to be a USMNT call up waits to be seen. 
Finally, the last question mark for Dallas is what will Pareja do with homegrown standout Kellyn Acosta? His breakthrough 2013 was a huge step in the right direction for the Homegrown Player program, but where does he fit on this team? In 2013 he filled in admirably—at times better than Loyd at right back—but the teenage star has spoken that his preferred position is defensive midfield. Regardless of where he plays, Acosta is a talent that needs to see the field as much as possible. 
FC Dallas finished 2013 as the epitome of average statistically, posting the 10th best expected goal differential, as well as the 10th best shot attempt ratio. Hope rests in Pareja’s ability to work with a team that has added six new players to date, and to inject this team with a little magic that worked for Pareja’s former team last season.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 8th place in Western Conference; 107 of the 406 8th-place votes (26.35%), and 321 of 404 (79.5%) of voters felt that FC Dallas would not make the playoffs in 2014.

*ExpGD is the same as our metric xGD.