Second in the 2020 Supporters’ Shield race! Everyone of note coming back! A new, big-money DP added! A return to BMO Field in the works!
A gif is worth a thousand words:
Age, injuries, a badly misjudged coaching hire and just an inordinate amount of bad luck doomed Toronto’s season pretty much from the jump.
It got ugly fast and has stayed ugly for the rest of the year.
Formation and tactics
Under Chris Armas, it was a high-pressing 4-2-2-2 he’d brought with him from Red Bull Global and it … uhhhhh, how should I say this? Let’s try: It didn’t really play to the strengths of the roster.
Following Armas’ dismissal, Javier Perez took over on an interim basis and has seemingly been building toward a 4-2-3-1 with strong positional play principles and, recently, a false 9 in Yeferson Soteldo. And it’s been a much, much lower line of confrontation.
It mostly hasn’t worked. TFC are 5-9-5 under Perez as of this writing, which is a marked improvement over their early-season form. But it’s still pretty far from good.
The obvious highlight of the season to this point came in the Concacaf Champions League way back in early April. Armas steered the team to a very nice 1-1 draw at Club Leon in the first leg, before earning what felt like a miracle 2-1 win in the return leg – which was held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
Remember, this was when Toronto were playing their “home” games in Florida. But my goodness did they look like they were enjoying it:
On top of all that, TFC were shorthanded. So with five starters, a bunch of back-ups and academy kids, they knocked the reigning Liga MX champions out of the CCL. Given the play of their academy products in that series it seemed like an already-rich team was about to get richer from within. The vibes were good.
The other opportunity for a highlight will come early next month as TFC compete in the Canadian Championship semifinals and then, hopefully, the final.
This season obviously hasn’t gone the way they’ve wanted it to, but if it ends with them holding a trophy, at least it won’t have been completely wasted.
But for my money, the lowlight of the season came via the capriciousness of the soccer gods. There are a lot of promising players coming through that TFC academy but the two who were clearly best-situated to have breakout seasons, center forward Ayo Akinola and d-mid Ralph Priso, were both felled by injury. Neither will set foot on the field again until 2022.
It’s brutal. Akinola is an international-caliber talent at center forward while Priso, in his limited minutes, showed both ball-winning ability and passing range.
I don’t think these guys would’ve carried the Reds to the playoffs or anything, but if they’d each gotten 2000 minutes you wouldn’t have had to strain to see a silver lining this year.
Another homegrown, winger Jacob Shaffelburg, is on the cusp of playing himself into “revelation” status. I’d largely dismissed the 21-year-old as more of a sprinter than a soccer player (and to be clear he is still very north-south), but he has become much smarter about timing his runs and weaponizing his straight-line speed.
The returns are good: 3g/6a in a touch over 1000 all-competition minutes. That includes an assist against Leon in the clip above.
He earned himself a call-up from Canada coach John Herdman for his efforts.
I could list the injuries to Akinola and Priso again, or I could lament the fact that Perez hasn’t gone out of his way to give more minutes to CB Luke Singh or young attackers Jayden Nelson and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, or I could bemoan the season-long substandard goalkeeping and central defense.
The real disappointment, though, is that TFC have basically never had their first-choice XI together in 2021. Jozy Altidore played just under 500 minutes before shutting it down, while reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award winner Alejandro Pozuelo has played just under a thousand. They both returned this past weekend for the first time since August.
Those two guys and Soteldo – so, the three DPs – shared the field for all of about 200 minutes in 2021. We have no idea what this team would really look like with those three together, and given that an offseason overhaul appears to be looming, we might never get to find out.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Akinola (CF): Get him back, get him healthy and I think he’ll be good for at least 15 goals. Dude is a weapon.
- Soteldo (AM/W): There have been reports out of South America that he’s not loving it in Toronto, but it’s not showing in his play. The little Venezuelan has come alive over the past six weeks and is among the league’s leading playmakers.
- Pozuelo (AM): Another one of the league’s leading playmakers when healthy, but here’s the thing: I’m not entirely convinced he & Soteldo are meant to play together. It’s worth a shot of course, but 2022’s got to come with some sort of escape valve if it doesn’t work.
- Jonathan Osorio (CM/AM/W): Oso's played everywhere in his almost 300 TFC games. There’s no reason to think he shouldn’t continue to be a foundational piece.
- Richie Laryea (RB): He hasn’t been as good this year as last, but Laryea remains one of the best attacking RBs in the league and is in his prime. Don’t overthink it.
Whatever salary they’re able to shed – be it by buying Altidore out, trading Michael Bradley or selling Pozuelo – needs to be invested in central defense. Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga have both lost a step and both massively underperformed expectations as well as their salaries. And while peak Bradley could cover for iffy defensive moments in the past, he is no longer that guy. At all.
There are other issues as well: goalkeeper, as mentioned; d-mid if Priso takes longer to recover than is ideal; some sort of goalscoring winger. But those all pale in comparison to central defense.
Oh, and hiring the right coach. TFC downgraded significantly from Greg Vanney and the bottom immediately fell out. I guess that’s actually the top offseason priority but I already wrote that other bit so I’m gonna leave it in.