With every new season, there are new players to analyse, insert into formations, and rank, and 2013 proves to be no exception. Toronto FC has certainly been busy this offseason, adding many brand new faces and resigning some older ones. They have also released or traded a handful of players, most notably Eric Avila and Eric Hassli.
With promise of newer players always around the corner, let’s take a look at the current crop of Reds, and how they might just line up come the start of the 2013 season:
We’ll start in-between the posts, as is most often the case. Toronto FC graduated Quillan Roberts from the TFC Academy last season. The team also traded last year’s number one choice Milos Kocic to the Portland Timbers, a deal that saw goalkeeper Joe Bendik go the other way. Stefan Frei, ruled out with an ankle injury last season, returns in 2013 ready to go.
All signs point to Frei starting in net – between managerial staff throwing their support behind the Swiss shot-stopper and the trade of Kocic, Frei is the clear first choice. As for his replacement on the bench, Bendik is the more experienced option, having trained in the Norwegian top flight back in 2010/2011.
With Frei a lock for a starting spot, the focus shifts to defence, an area Toronto struggled with last year. Not much has changed in terms of starters; three of the four starting defenders return as clear choices. Adrian Cann, Dicoy Williams and Ty Harden have left Toronto FC.
Still, the backline is pretty clear-cut. Unless Toronto FC make a drastic move and acquire another defender of note, or decide to unburden themselves with the hefty contracts of either Richard Eckersley or Darren O’Dea, the back four is fairly straightforward: Eckersley at right fullback, Ashtone Morgan at left fullback, Danny Califf at right centre-half and O’Dea at left centre-half.
Jeremy Hall will play backup to Eckersley, but he can play in the midfield as a backup to Torsten Frings, Julio Cesar, Terry Dunfield, potentially Kyle Bekker, and possibly Reggie Lambe, should Toronto FC use him in his original college position of right midfield. Doneil Henry can also be used as a right fullback, as he has had some experience playing there for both the national team and Toronto FC last season, but Henry, a natural centerback, may be looking to step in for Califf instead.
Logan Emory can take up responsibility for the leftback spot, should Morgan be unavailable due to international duty or injury, though, as we saw last season, Emory is also a capable centerback, though not one that inspires too much confidence. Finally, Gale Agbossoumonde, Toronto FC’s lottery acquisition, is expected to play at centerback.
So with a defensive line of Eckersley-Califf-O’Dea-Morgan in front of Frei, Toronto FC has a base in which to build from the back. If they’re feeling adventurous, a 3-5-2 or any formation with three at the back could also be entertained as an option. Eckersley picked up valuable centerback experience last season, and could be used as the right-hand centre-halve, with Califf in the middle and O’Dea on the left. This would allow Morgan to slot in at midfield, since Toronto FC currently has zero options at left wing.
It’s an interesting defensive set-up for Toronto FC. Arguably, Toronto boast the leagues’ best right fullback in Eckersley, and in Ashtone Morgan, the case can also be made that Toronto have the best pair of fullbacks, too. In centre defence, Toronto has a few notable players, but it will be in this groups’ combined effort that the defence will thrive or fail. Both the fullbacks have crossing capabilities, can burst by midfielders and other fullbacks, and deliver crucial passes. The centre-halves will be scrutinized early, but if Califf can deliver similar levels of performance as seasons past, the defence should be pretty solid for Toronto FC.
The midfield is an area Toronto FC has spent some time working on, though there’s still plenty of work to do if the club wishes to secure a spot in the playoffs. Put simply, Toronto FC’s midfield looks thin and fragile, with an injury-prone Torsten Frings playing alongside an equally old Julio Cesar at defensive midfield. The two have obvious quality from their last few years in Major League Soccer, but will they have the legs to last a long season? The last four years have seen Toronto FC extend their campaigns with victories in the Amway Canadian Championship as well as berths in the CONCACAF Champions League group stages; relying heavily on these two aged midfielders could be a problem for the club.
In third-overall MLS SuperDraft pick Kyle Bekker, Toronto FC add a midfielder with plenty of years ahead of him, and, judging by his performances in both the MLS Player Combine and his double-appearance for the Canadian national team, Bekker looks like a player ready to step in and start for Toronto FC. He could potentially play in a three-man defensive midfield line, behind Luis Silva, or he could play as a left midfielder, based on his body size and playing style.
It’s clear that Bekker’s first-touch is class and his ability to turn on the ball rivals that of Julian de Guzman before him, but he has an extra special quality; he attempts to split backlines in half with a piercing through ball, a la Luis Silva, but from a much deeper position.
It’s a trait that, if mastered, can be a dangerous weapon for Toronto FC, especially if Luis Silva slots in at the number 10 slot right in front of him. With Silva drawing attention from opposing centerbacks, Bekker can capitalize and find onrushing forwards or wingers.
As for Luis Silva, he will want to maintain a spot right behind the striker(s). It’s a role that Toronto FC has seen work before, with Silva potting a few noteworthy goals and notching assists to boot. Mariner thought Silva to be an offensive threat, so much so that he moved him up to second-striker (though this could have been born from a need for forwards in an injury-depleted roster). Silva’s contributions in 2013 will have everything to do with the forwards in front of him. He is not the kind of player who can do everything by himself, but with the proper support, Silva can be Toronto FC’s best asset in the midfield.
Whereas Silva thrives in skill and talent, Terry Dunfield is all heart. The Canadian international midfielder captained Toronto FC for much of the second half of last season, and may see plenty of playing time in 2013 as well. Dunfield, bless him, is a great guy and has a decent first-touch, but looks lost in a more technical style of play.
His tried-and-true passing style – back to the defenders – is not actually a terrible trait, but one that can be negative in an offensive push if used incorrectly. Midfielders who have their back on their opponents often spread the play to wingers or fullbacks, or to defensive midfielders right behind them, who then quickly (speed being the most important factor here) spread the play forward. It’s a way of splitting an opposing team apart, and if Dunfield were more technical in his footwork, he could actually make a decent advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3 with plenty of options behind (in-front from his P.O.V.) and beside him.
Instead, Dunfield plays as a defensive midfielder and sinned the greatest sin in football time and time again – pass back to the centre-halves. It’s a buzz killer for any offensive push, since centre-halves don’t have the kind of options that defensive midfielders have in spreading the ball. More often than not, these centerbacks would pass the ball to Morgan or Eckersley, who had to track back for sudden support, and lost advancing positions that could have been of benefit to the team’s offensive push.
Had Dunfield been higher up on the pitch, passing back to Frings and, say, Matt Stinson, those fullbacks could have been in much more advanced positions on the flank, and could have quickly received a pass to run into. Playing Dunfield as an attacking midfielder, however, is detrimental to the team; Dunfield doesn’t look capable of playing that kind of game. He is very much an old-fashioned kind of midfielder, and should be used as such – sparingly, as depth, a reliable option when needed.
Then there’s Reggie Lambe. Mariner called Lambe a one-in-six player, citing his inconsistency as a point of concern. Lambe has a valuable asset in his speed and can brush past defenders with ease, but his lack of goalscoring form and inability to cross the ball in make him a depth option on the wings.
Another player who has been used on the right-hand side of midfield is Andrew Wiedeman, who actually is a decent finisher when put in front of goal. His contribution to the team in 2013 should be as a backup to the forwards or as utility man in midfield.
With Lambe and Wiedeman, and potentially Bekker, as Toronto FC’s only options out wide, the wings remain the club’s main concern in the offseason, and the major point of reinforcement for any potential signings. Two competent, talented, capable wingers are necessary, one on each side, to give the Reds a real threat at both goals and assists. Right now, Toronto FC is a team with a strong core but weak arms, and this is an area the team must look to improve in 2013.
Finally, with the departure of Eric Hassli, Toronto FC is left thin in the one department they can’t afford (quite literally) to be thin in – up top. With so much of the salary cap tied up in defenders and aging Designated Players, Toronto FC need to find forwards who can find the back of the net, and fast.
Danny Koevermans remains out of contention with an ACL injury. Though he is recovering, and was seen walking about normally during Toronto FC’s Media Day, Koevermans is still not back 100 per cent, and will not be starting come March 2. When he is fit and in form, there is no forward more potent in front of the net than Koevermans in MLS. He has a real penchant for goals and one must imagine that, had Koevermans enjoyed a full season in 2012, he would be right up there with Chris Wondolowski and Kei Kamara in the scoring charts.
For now, Toronto FC has to rely on a couple of new faces up top. Justin Braun is the only forward with MLS experience besides Koevermans that Toronto can use in the early part of the season. Based on his prior seasons in MLS, Braun has been a bit of a mixed bag, doing well at Chivas but doing poorly in Montreal and Real Salt Lake.
He joins Toronto FC looking to reboot his career once more and find somewhere to establish himself. Meanwhile, another fresh face joining the club is Emery Welshman, a Toronto native who was drafted 16th overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. He wears the legendary number 9 shirt now, big boots to fill since the previous number nines included Ryan Johnson and Danny Dichio.
Welshman could be a superstar or he could be a dud. The reality is, no one has seen him play yet in this level of competition. He did alright in his college years but MLS is an entirely different beast – if he does well, he will be heralded as a true poach by club president Kevin Payne, who dropped the first overall draft pick all the way down the table in an attempt to secure both Welshman and some much-needed allocation money.
Come the start of the season, Toronto FC look strong in certain areas of the field, and not so strong in others. Payne recently told media he would be looking to sign three new players sometime soon, and these potential signings could drastically change the shape and personnel of the roster. For now, however, Toronto FC enter into 2013 with a solid base to work with, and with plenty of allocation money to spend, life under Kevin Payne and new head coach Ryan Nelsen certainly looks off to a good start.
Here is a projection of the most likely starting line-up come March 2, when Toronto FC play the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place: