How do you follow up the greatest season in MLS history?
Beat Mexican powerhouse Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
Get to know the reigning @LIGABancomerMX champions
— Toronto FC (@torontofc) February 28, 2018
Forgive Toronto FC fans for feeling confident following a historic 2017 campaign. The Reds checked all the boxes on their way to capturing the treble – MLS Cup, Canadian Championship and The Supporters’ Shield – while laying waste to a league that knew them as a laughingstock only a few years prior.
The question now: how do Greg Vanney and TFC build on that? The obvious answer is doing what no MLS team has done before and capture the Champions League, but it’s that two-legged quarterfinal against Tigres, the reigning Mexican domestic champions, that will go a long way in determining how high their ceiling is.
TFC begins the defence of their title on Saturday, as their MLS season kicks off against Columbus at BMO Field.
Here are five stories to track as Toronto FC heads into the season.
Don’t get comfortable.
It’s an old adage and relatively true when it comes to MLS, a league where parity is a selling point compared to the top leagues in Europe. The Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids and the LA Galaxy serve as recent examples of how things can change significantly from one season to the next in North America’s top league.
That shouldn’t be a concern for a team loaded with talent and experience. In reality, MLS champions are not crowned in March, April, May or June – you can keep going – and the fixture load for TFC isn’t impossible to manage, considering they’ll have played three league matches by the end of March.
They’ll have an opportunity to truly go for it against Tigres and achieve a franchise-changing result. The league comes second to start the season. It’s all about the CCL.
It wasn’t exactly an exodus, but the Reds lost key members of the record-setting 2017 team.
Out are Steven Beitashour, Benoit Cheyrou, Raheem Edwards, Jason Hernandez and Armando Cooper, and all of them made key contributions last season. Edwards’ departure is perhaps the toughest blow. The young Canadian was a revelation for the Reds in 2017 and losing him to Montreal, by way of LAFC selecting Edwards in the expansion draft and then quickly trading him to the hated Impact, makes it that much worse.
But the replacements GM Tim Bezbatchenko managed to bring in are promising.
Early indications are Auro can do a job at right back, and Gregory van der Wiel has the pedigree to be a standout performer in MLS, if he can erase memories of difficult stints with Fenerbahçe and Cagliari. Ager Aketxe is perhaps the most exciting of the new additions. The 24-year-old’s departure from Athletic Bilbao left fans of Los Leones screaming into the void that is Twitter.
I was there in Orlando, two years ago when Alex Bono was forced into action after Clint Irwin suffered a gruesome injury on the Citrus Bowl turf. Bono didn’t cover himself in glory that game but he was steady in its aftermath, helping the Reds capture the Canadian Championship in Vancouver weeks later. And though he would concede his starting spot to Irwin once the latter returned from injury, it was clear the Reds had at the very least, another above average goalkeeper in their ranks.
Last season confirmed this. Irwin once again began the season as the starter, only to depart the home opener due to injury. Bono replaced him and never relinquished his place between the sticks.
This is the year Bono could ascend to the top of the MLS goalkeeping ranks, following a call up to the U.S. Men’s National Team, among the likes of Stefan Frei, Zack Steffan and Andre Blake. He’ll be aided by a defensive corps that was rock solid in 2017.
As we know, sometimes you can’t make it on your own.
By his standards it was a down year for Sebastian Giovinco.
The Atomic Ant will be getting a statue in Toronto one day, but 2017 Giovinco was just not the same compared to his wizardry in 2015 and 2016. Giovinco dealt with a quadriceps strain and heel problems throughout the season and though he was still a force from free kicks, including an immaculate tally against Atlanta United, it was not the same Giovinco we were used to seeing.
Looking refreshed from a lovely holiday, judging by his entertaining Instagram account, Giovinco looked dominant in the preseason and followed that up with two solid performances in the CCL round of 16 against the Rapids.
David Villa and Diego Valeri have claimed the MLS MVP Award in the years since Seba’s otherworldly 2015 season. If health isn’t an issue and he can register a number similar to the 2,775 minutes he played that year, a return to the top of MLS isn’t in doubt.
The question is: should he? Vanney has shown he’s not afraid to rotate his squad. If it’s the long game TFC is concerned with, and it certainly is, managing the 31-year-old’s minutes is more important than individual accolades.
Perhaps of most interest for TFC supporters will be how the rest of the Eastern Conference shakes out.
New York City FC has retooled, adding Jesus Medina while losing Jack Harrison. Atlanta United broke the bank to land Argentinian youngster Ezequiel Barco – who, unfortunately, is expected to miss the next four-to-six weeks with a quad strain – and Orlando City has added MLS veterans Sacha Kljestan and Justin Meram.
Montreal, D.C. United, and Philadelphia should be better, too. Meanwhile, how Columbus deals with their disastrous “will they or won’t they” relocation situation will be quite the test for one of the best managers in the game, Gregg Berhalter.
It says here the Reds will maintain their place at the top of the conference, but again it appears Supporters’ Shield glory will be harder to attain based on the moves made by their rivals.