As old the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, but, in MLS at least, plenty of people would question those words, especially Toronto FC.
After a well-documented offseason, which saw big-name signings Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, Gilberto, Júlio César, the return of hometown hero Dwayne De Rosario and a host of other savvy roster moves, head coach Ryan Nelsen’s side have unmistakably transformed from perennial bottom-dwellers into legitimate MLS Cup contenders at the proverbial drop of a hat, duly becoming arguably the top storyline to follow for the 2014 season.
With a single-entity structure and player acquisition rules which allow for clubs to carry out extensive roster rebuilds in a relatively short period of time, that’s the beauty of MLS. It’s a system which has its clear problems and fair share of detractors of course but, in the world of football where every top league is increasingly dominated by the same suspects year after year, the fact that any one team can seemingly turnaround its fortunes almost overnight with a few significant moves is a rare quality which should be celebrated.
Toronto consequently entered Saturday’s opener against the Sounders with the “playoffs or bust” narrative ringing in their ears – entirely unchartered territory for a club yet to make the playoffs in their seven-year history – and, in front of an expectant audience, their revamped lineup did not disappoint.
With a starting XI featuring six new faces (minus the injured Gilberto), the Canadian club batted away to earn a highly commendable 2-1 win at one of the toughest away venues in the league in CenturyLink Field. Lofty expectations though there were, teething problems had been anticipated to begin with, especially after a less than stellar preseason and so many new pieces in place, thus making the result all the more impressive. It was far from a perfect performance, as Seattle dominated possession for lengthy stretches of the game, but the mere fact that TFC didn’t buckle under pressure shows just how far this side has come since the drab displays of last season.
While Defoe clearly stole the headlines by bagging both TFC goals, with talk of Golden Boot honours already rampant, Bradley’s performance in centre of the pitch also further illustrated why his return to MLS in January was greeted with such fanfare, as the U.S. international delivered a near flawless first 45 minutes to look every part worth his DP contract.
Perhaps more noteworthy however was the performance of his midfield partner, Jonathan Osorio, who continues to show immense growth as a two-way player and ease any concerns about the lack of a rock-solid compliment to pair with Bradley. Rarely mentioned amongst top youngsters in MLS for some inexplicable reason, if Saturday’s display is anything to go by then that gross oversight will soon be rectified. No doubt, it’s a partnership which has the potential to be one of the best central midfield combos in the league and, with Jackson and Álvaro Rey both looking dangerous on either wing over the weekend, Defoe and Gilberto need not worry about a lack of service this season. Add in the comfortable displays of 20-year-old Doneil Henry and club captain Steven Caldwell behind them in the centre of defence and there are plenty of positives to take away from Seattle.
We’re only one game into the season of course but, while everyone within the organisation is doing their best to temper early expectations, those initial signs look extremely encouraging.
Time will tell whether the club’s supposed lack of depth is exposed as the season wears on, or if Ryan Nelsen can prove to his doubters that he has thee tactical nous to get the best out of this side but, make no mistake, this is not the TFC of old. Whatever their final record, they’re sure to be a fascinating club to follow over 2014.