Two months away covering the World Cup cast me out of the Toronto FC loop for the first time since the club’s inception.
To re-acclimatize, I joined the crowd for the FC Dallas and Motagua matches at BMO Field this past week. And even watching the Reds fall 1-0 in Kansas City on Saturday, it’s clear: This isn’t the same Toronto FC team we’ve seen the first three seasons.
Critics weren’t wrong predicting a porous TFC team for the 2010 season before its March 27th season kickoff. But Mo Johnston, Preki and company stayed the course, adding by increments despite harsh criticism for a lack of marquee names. And patience has paid off.
Criticize as you will about the team’s lack of scoring or poor road record. As far as the growth curve goes, TFC is improving by leaps and bounds. Confidence moving the ball around and more composure in marking and positioning has made this team competitive.
No longer is TFC a walkover or a meltdown waiting to happen. It has stability, as much as a team can have in the ever-changing climate of Major League Soccer. And the reasons for TFC’s improvement boils down to depth and defence.
Speaking to Johnston from Kansas City, the director of soccer raved about his side’s newfound depth.
“We’re a lot deeper than previous years. (Martin) Saric and (Amadou) Sanyang were left behind in Toronto (Saturday) and we still had quality coming off the bench. We now go six or seven deep on the bench.”
The names acquired by TFC over recent months are by no means flashy. Johnston and Preki plucked player after player from the underwhelming pile of various MLS rosters. Each has come in hungry with something to prove. This kind of desire was missing from the team in previous years.
Preki has done a solid job balancing his roster, cultivating an environment with healthy competition for playing time.
“(Preki’s) keeping them fresh,” Johnston said. “A lot of people don’t like it, the way he’s juggling the lineup, but he’s keeping them motivated.”
Despite the long-term benefits of keeping his players fresh, Preki will still be rightfully questioned about leaving both Dwayne De Rosario and Chad Barrett out of the starting XI in Kansas City.
De Rosario was always going to be a candidate to sit, having played Tuesday and getting 15 minutes for the MLS all-stars the following night against Manchester United. Still, De Rosario flew into Kansas City on Thursday in plenty of time ahead of Saturday’s game.
De Rosario is invaluable to the team, adding necessary offensive consistency and cannot be left on the bench to start games when available.
To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Barrett. The previously maligned striker has hit a stretch of good form. Preki undoubtedly sat Barrett with eyes for Tuesday in Honduras against Motagua. The coach would have been better off starting Barrett and bringing Mista in as a substitute, with the Spaniard not having started a game in months prior to Saturday.
Preki knows a five-hour flight and subsequent five-hour bus ride to Motagua will test the squad’s depth and fitness. And overall, you can’t argue with the results he has been able to achieve.
Credit must also be given to the defensive unit, not just the back four. As of Sunday afternoon, the team boasted a better goal differential than every team in the Eastern Conference not named the Columbus Crew.
With two weeks before the transfer window closes, Johnston is active trying to improve his squad.
“We’re looking at something else. We want to keep the group we have together and add a piece. Only one player may potentially leave,” he said.
Johnston refused to divulge what players he has eyes for, but it doesn’t take much to recognize the team is lacking down the left-hand side. Nick Garcia is more than capable as a depth player, but is hardly ideal from an every-game perspective. And the left side of the midfield remains a sore spot. Look for Johnston to upgrade one of the positions.
For the first-time in 31/2 years, it seems tinkering and not a complete overhaul is needed at the club.
“When you’re a new franchise, you’re adding pieces and there are mistakes you make,” Johnston said. “We’ve had those here. But the league in general has a ton of turnover and it keeps us from being complacent.”