A new era has arrived at Toronto FC. During the first seven years of the club's existence, all the fanbase asked for was a playoff appearance. Now, despite the club being the only one in Major League Soccer that has never made the playoffs, expectations are higher than simply scraping for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. TFC have joined the LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders as a club that spends as much money as MLS allows them to, and they're not just blowing it on famous names or luxury players.
Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe, Toronto's two big-money winter signings, could have easily taken a slight step down in their previous leagues and made seven figures to be first-choice starters in Serie A and the English Premier League, respectively. Instead, they've decided to take a bigger paycheck to come to MLS, and if they take this job as seriously as they took their previous jobs, they should be two of the best players in the league right away. And while tons of pressure weighs on their shoulders, they're not propping up an inherently poor team.
There's plenty of talent to supplement Bradley and Defoe at Toronto FC from a variety of backgrounds, as well as at different ages and playing different positions. All of the ingredients are present for the Reds to turn their fortunes around in 2014, but the task of putting everything together falls on an unproven coach, Ryan Nelsen.
The supporting cast around Bradley and Defoe is better than TFC's 2013 record suggests, but the jury's still out on whether Nelsen is the right man to pull all of that talent together and guide the team to success.
Currently, there's a popular misconception floating around that Toronto didn't head into this offseason with much to work with. They never looked like playoff competitors in 2013, but it wasn't for a complete lack of talent. Young Canadian international Jonathan Osorio was a particular bright spot, and his versatility will make him a huge asset to Toronto going forward. Nelsen is likely to tinker throughout the early part of the season as he figures out how his stars fit together best, and he'll be aided by the fact that Osorio can play in midfield or on either wing.
Kyle Bekker is another budding young star in the TFC setup, but his opportunities were limited last season (albeit in n slightly controversial fashion). Even though Bekker is a regular for Canada's national team and was excellent in his short cameos, Nelsen frequently gave obtuse answers when asked why Bekker wasn't playing a bigger part in the TFC setup, especially as the team fell completely out of the playoff race. Though Bekker wasn't at his best in preseason, it's clear that he has the talent to become a perfect midfield partner for Bradley.
The defense, for the most part, is made up of a cast of returning players. Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan all have their flaws -- what defender in MLS doesn't? -- but they're above-average league starters. And Morgan could be relegated to backup duty with the addition of Justin Morrow, arguably the best left back in the league. Bradley Orr is hardly a superstar at right back, but he'll almost certainly be an upgrade over the departing Richard Eckersley, and at a much smaller price.
Orr and Morrow are joined by Designated Player Gilberto, a striker who had a great 2013 campaign with Portuguesa in Brazil. The Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar comes in on loan from Queens Park Rangers and MLS veteran winger Jackson. Dwayne De Rosario, a now 35-year-old attacking midfielder who is perhaps the greatest player in the league's history rounds out what seems to be an impressive squad. There's nothing lacking in TFC's supporting cast, at least on paper.
That's where Nelsen comes in, and why the only serious question about this team is his ability to put the pieces together in a coherent fashion. The team's biggest issues lie in the defense, where Toronto has not met expectations recently. Even though Nelsen had a reasonable amount of individual talent at the back last season and favored a conservative, rigid style of play, TFC were sixth-worst in MLS in goals allowed.
Fans of the club will be hoping that the additions of Cesar, Morrow and Orr can change that, along with another preseason and MLS campaign under the belt of the 20-year-old Henry, who is still young enough to be a star in the making. But decent players haven't been enough in the past for Toronto, and Nelsen has yet to prove that he can organize a defense as a coach, despite his adeptness at doing it as a player.
There's a reason that defense is a much bigger concern than attack. Even if Toronto does end up playing a boring brand of football, they're going to hit the back of the net. A team with players like Defoe, Gilberto, Bradley and De Rosario is going to find a way to score in MLS even if their gameplan is tactically unambitious; Marco Di Vaio and the Montreal Impact proved as much last season. But can Nelsen find the right partner for Bradley and get his tactical adjustments right to control the midfield when things aren't going well for Toronto? Can he put together a defense that doesn't commit the errors that become the difference in tight tie games?
It's also not clear if Nelsen knows how to best utilize his players. Bradley, in particular, is good enough to do everything in midfield for Toronto, but might not get the chance to live up to his full potential. Nelsen hasn't experimented much with either a three-man midfield or a much more defensive player next to Bradley, suggesting that the star is going to play a restricted and defensive role. He can't be the more attacking player in a two-man midfield with Osorio, who he's played with in preseason. If Nelsen sticks with that setup, he'll be doing one of three things: converting a very solid attacking player in Osorio to a defensive role, shoving the best and most expensive midfielder in MLS in a very limited role or leaving lots of space behind them for opponents to counter into.
Beyond tactical concerns, there's also the issue of dealing with potentially big egos and concerns about playing time, something Nelsen has minimal experience with. Defoe was never shy about talking to the press about wanting to play more when he spent long periods on the bench at Tottenham, so don't expect him to keep quiet if he's dropped after a bad game. De Rosario has earned a reputation as a selfish player, hence his bouncing around from team to team since leaving the Houston Dynamo. Bradley doesn't have a history of running his mouth, but he's also the league's biggest talent and just 26 years old, so he certainly doesn't need TFC like they need him and has minimal incentive to toe the company line if things aren't going well. There's no obvious issue boiling in the locker room yet, but it's also impossible to know if Nelsen will be able to squash any issues when they pop up.
It's not all doom and gloom for TFC in the coaching department, though. The problem isn't that Nelsen has obvious shortcomings, it's just that he's untested. There's a chance that he did quite a bit of learning on the job last year and that the team's new arrivals will make things easy on him, but if that's not the case, Toronto won't go far.
The difference in talent between TFC and the teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference will probably be good enough for them to sneak into the playoffs even if they have mediocre coaching, but it's tough to see talent alone being good enough to overcome Sporting Kansas City, or pure talent making the difference in a playoff coaching battle between Nelsen and Dominic Kinnear. TFC's boss could be one of the league's best young coaches and a star on the rise, but his team didn't perform well enough last year for him to get the benefit of the doubt.
Toronto FC have committed $90 million to a couple of bonafide stars and tens of millions more to a very good-looking supporting cast, but they're not good enough to challenge for trophies without a good coach. It's up to Nelsen to prove that he's the right man to guide TFC into an era where they will be expected to become a sustained powerhouse.