As the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Toronto FC entered 2021 with big expectations and despite being far less than full-strength as they exited preseason, they beat Club Leon in the Concacaf Champions League. That was even while playing the "home" leg at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Florida!
It turns out, though, that they never would get to full-strength all year long. In fact, Toronto would face an uphill battle and persistent setbacks.
The Chris Armas era did not last long, with the new head coach dismissed after 11 MLS matches and the expected progression to the mean for a team with so much talent never arrived. Heading into the offseason, Toronto are facing a bit of an inflection point with plenty of macro questions about the direction the Reds will head in 2022 and beyond.
The first foray into life after Greg Vanney did not go well, with Armas winning just one of those 11 MLS matches. They never quite recovered to anything resembling a postseason push under manager Javier Perez, as the early hole was too deep to climb out of even before hitting the one-third mark of 2021.
Before appointing Armas last summer, they were linked with Patrick Vieira and Laurent Blanc. Sources described skepticism at the validity of those reports, though. Vieira since became Crystal Palace manager, while Blanc took over Qatar Stars League club Al-Rayyan. Reports last winter suggested that former D.C. United boss Ben Olsen was somewhere in the discussion as well.
Toronto ultimately went with domestic experience in Armas, who previously led the New York Red Bulls. That has been a trend in 2021 as well.
Atlanta United appointed Seattle Sounders assistant Gonzalo Pineda as their head coach midseason and new FC Cincinnati GM Chris Albright said "MLS experience is a non-negotiable prerequisite" in their coaching search. Vanni Sartini (Vancouver) and Marco Ferruzzi (Dallas) both took over on an interim basis at their respective clubs and are firmly among the candidates to keep their current roles.
If Toronto stick with MLS experience, there are plenty of options. Philadelphia Union assistant Pat Noonan is on every team's shortlist, Columbus Crew assistant Ezra Hendrickson has been a name floated often and Perez had his interim tag removed for the remainder of 2021, a vote of confidence in the former New York City FC assistant.
Internationally, it's difficult to speculate, but Toronto hold weight given their recent success and budget. They won't be short on candidates.
Toronto have no shortage of high-end talent to build around moving forward.
Reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo only just turned 30 years old. He's got plenty of time at or near his peak, even if this season has been a bit of a lost year with injuries and team performance (Pozuelo only has 1g/4a in 1077 minutes so far, stretched across 15 matches). Yeferson Soteldo arrived in Toronto under much hype, took a bit to adapt and get over a knock, but has quietly upped his production. He has 3g/10a in 1740 mins (24 apps, 19 starts) so far. Those are DP-level numbers despite playing the majority of his minutes without Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola, the team's attacking core.
Chris Mavinga was thought of as a Defender of the Year-caliber player. Kemar Lawrence is a Jamaican international and proven MLS quality. Then there's Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez, two former US men's national teamers. They have a number of burgeoning young talents (more on that below). But through 30 games they have 0.83 PPG. That's nowhere close to the playoff line.
How much of it was poor coaching, injury luck and not returning to BMO Field until the summer? How many data points can be easily explained away? Or does the first team roster need major changes?
All three DP spots are spoken for and all three are senior players over the max budget charge, meaning they will be allowed one U22 Initiative slot rather than three. It is unlikely they would be able to open a DP spot for further flexibility.
I suppose this is an extension of the previous question, but the bottom fell out on Toronto's veteran core in 2021. The youngsters, like Akinola (21), Jacob Shaffelburg (21), Ralph Priso (19), Noble Okello (21), Jayden Nelson (19) and highly-rated Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (17) began earning minutes, but the two who were most ready got hurt (Akinola, Priso). Come 2022, the whole group will be in a position to challenge for more time.
Bradley (34) remained a stalwart with 27 starts in 29 games at time of writing; Altidore (turning 32 just before Decision Day) remains a big part of the roster but has been injury prone; Omar Gonzalez (33) has 25 starts at time of writing. Those players can still be effective and important, but balancing their minutes and roles could help unlock burgeoning talents and keep the vets fresh.