Canadian Champions. Supporters’ Shield winners. MLS Cup Champions. The Reds are coming off a historic season one year after suffering a crushing shootout defeat in the 2016 MLS Cup. The question now is, can it possibly get any better than 2017 for Toronto FC? TFC’s off-season acquisitions have them in a position where they have a real shot at not only repeating as cup champions, but also the possibility of a deep run into the CONCACAF Champions League. The most difficult part now for coach Greg Vanney is managing playing time and personalities.
Off-Season Grade: A-
Through retirement, free agency, and the expansion draft, Greg Vanney’s “deepest team in MLS history” suffered a few heavy blows, losing namely Benoit Cheyrou, Steven Beitashour and Canadian Raheem Edwards among others, in quick succession. But just as many feared the sky was falling, GM Tim Bezbatchenko came to the rescue. Thanks to a TAM infusion from the league, Bez filled in the glaring hole at right-back by adding big name Dutch international and former PSG, Fenerbahce and Cagliari man, Gregory van der Wiel, as well as Brazilian youth international and Sao Paulo winger, Auro. The big shocker came just after opening their CCL campaign as the Reds announced the signing of Athletic Bilbao attacking midfielder Ager Aketxe. The Spaniard may not be a household name, but he provides La Liga experience and yet more attacking quality into an already extremely talented and deep midfield. With so much money and top quality, how will this team lineup? A problem that many teams around the league will envy as the season progresses.
Key Player: Victor Vazquez
Victor Vazquez proved to be the missing piece needed to take TFC to the next level. After cementing himself as one of the leagues top playmakers in 2017, Vazquez will now have even more freedom to move through the midfield and distribute the ball with more options he can use to unlock teams that thought they had the Sebastian Giovinco/Jozy Altidore tandem figured out. Vazquez’s brain is what sets him apart. As he showed several times, his mind seems to always be a step ahead of his opponents and his quality allows him to execute with an incredible level of precision. If TFC hopes to go deep into CCL and potentially repeat their successes from 2017, Vazquez will need to continue to be the man pulling the strings in the midfield.
2018 Best Case Scenario: 2017 on repeat
The way this team is set up they are more than capable to doing exactly what they did last season - win everything. Winning the Canadian Championship seems to happen more often than not for Toronto. Even if Coach Vanney decides to rotate the squad, TFC’s depth would still be able to be competitive. The real challenge would be repeating the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, obviously - a feat that has never been accomplished. There are several teams whose off-season re-tooling has made them into valid contenders. The 2017 iteration of TFC steam rolled the competition and have only improved since then. Although the Reds will be the odds on favourites to win everything they compete in once again, their sights are also set on doing something no other MLS team has done, and that is win CCL in its current format.
Bold Prediction: Auro becomes the better right-back choice over Gregory van der Wiel
Auro has played in one competitive match for Toronto FC, a 2-0 victory in the first leg of the CCL opening round against Colorado. His ability to defend as well as get forward and create havoc saw him provide service, setting up Sebastian Giovinco’s stunning volley. Auro played hungry, and was even seen switching positions with Justin Morrow from time to time, showing his versatility when called upon. The young Brazilian has the makings of the perfect wingback/winger TFC needs to provide width.
Anyone who has watched van der Wiel, whether it was during PSG’s Zlatan hayday or for the Netherlands, knows what he is capable. A solid and experienced defender who is also able to contribute offensively, the perfect upgrade on Steven Beitashour. However, missing 16 games in 2017 with Fenerbahce and 6 games in his short stint at Cagliari, injuries have gotten the better of van der Wiel as of late. Combine his injury history with the fact that he is a new father living in a strange part of the world, the combination may knock him off his game, opening up the door for Auro to swoop in and be Greg Vanney’s go-to right back. This is all contingent on Vanney using his tried and true 3-5-2 setup and sticking with a back three of Mavinga, Moor and either Hagglund or Zavaleta.