If the narrative is starting to sound like a broken record, that's because Toronto FC
has been skipping down the same rut for six seasons now. Every year it's seemingly the same story: new coach, new players and a new direction. Followed by more promises, more problems and more pain.
Or, this time, Payne -- as in Kevin Payne, the new president and general manager of Toronto FC and the latest man to be tapped to bring the club to the promised land
, or at least out of the basement. Or at least make this rebuild year as painless as possible. Or at least not make the team any worse.
Here's a look at each position and the key questions as Toronto, once again, tries to finally turn it around in 2013:
- 2012 record: 5-21-8, 23 points (last in MLS).
- 2012 results: Failed to make MLS playoffs. Won Canadian Championship. Eliminated in group stage of CONCACAF Champions League.
- Key additions: Defender Danny Califf, midfielder Justin Braun.
- Draft picks: Midfielder Kyle Bekker, defender Emery Welshman.
- Key losses: Striker Eric Hassli, goaltender Milos Kocic, striker Ryan Johnson.
missed all of 2012 with a broken fibula, eliminating a potential goaltending controversy as backup Milos Kocic was thrust into the spotlight and given the starting job.
Kocic was largely a saving grace for a Toronto back line who time and again left their assignments and left their goalie to fend for himself. Kocic performed admirably and became the father of triplets
towards the end of the year. On one of the lowest salaries on the squad, making only $44,100, he sought to secure a raise, and some stability, as the starting goalie.
Toronto FC, though, had other plans, shipping Kocic and forward Ryan Johnson
to Portland this off-season for backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik, Portland's highest first-round pick in the 2013 SuperDraft and allocation money.
The move restored Frei to the starting job behind a newly designed back line. Or at least it did until he broke his nose
in his first pre-season game. How quickly he returns from the broken beak and how match-ready he is following a year off will determine if Toronto finds itself in another goaltending quandary.Defence
It's no secret that Toronto's back line has been its biggest problem over its six losing seasons. The position of centre back, particularly, is one they've never seemed to get right. Whether it has been the pairings at the position, or the failure to identify the skills necessary to be leaders and defenders in MLS, it has consistently been the most maligned job on the field.
Last year, the addition of Darren O'Dea
appeared to be a step in the right direction. The young Irish international, whose bruising presence on the field left more than a few opponents' bells ringing in 2012, was at times inconsistent. Part of it can be blamed on the absence of a consistent partner and the other part can be chalked up to getting used to the style of a new league.
The 26-year-old now finds himself paired with MLS veteran Danny Califf
, who was acquired by Toronto during the re-entry draft. He'll serve to guide the young Irishman, who looks poised to have a long career in MLS, and help him learn the ins and outs of the physical league. If Califf, an aging veteran, can remain healthy, and if the other two defenders -- Ashtone Morgan
and Richard Eckersley
-- can cover for the journeyman's slower pace at times, Toronto may finally have a competent back four.
Competent doesn't mean complete, but it's a place to start. Midfield
What will Toronto do without Torsten Frings?
Toronto's captain and easily its best player for the last year and a half announced his retirement
Tuesday following hip surgery that cut his 2012 season short. At 36 years old, he faced months more of recovery and would have been pushing the upper limits of what his body could handle during the course of a long season.
With Frings's departure, Julio Cesar
, Toronto's only off-season signing of real note, will be expected to step into the holding midfielder role that Frings had largely steadied. Cesar looked comfortable enough in the role during the pre-season, doing well to lend support to a back four that is still getting comfortable with each other.
If they can leave some of the heavier lifting going forward to Luis Silva
and Terry Dunfield
, Cesar should be able to consistently contribute. But if Cesar is asked to take on a larger box-to-box role at his age (34), the grind may quickly wear down his effectiveness at both ends. Sounds like a situation strangely similar to Frings's.Forwards
Two of Toronto's top five goal scorers from last season, Ryan Johnson and Eric Hassli, have unceremoniously left town. Two others -- Silva, an MLS sophomore, and Dunfield, not exactly known for his goal-scoring prowess -- aren't exactly shoe-ins for MLS golden boot contention. Rounding out the top five is Danny Koevermans
, the team's leading scorer from last year, who missed half the season
with a torn ACL and isn't expected back until at least May.
To say Toronto's scoring options look bleak would be kind to a squad that finished 16th out of 19 MLS teams in goals last season.Justin Braun
, who was picked up from Real Salt Lake in exchange for defensive afterthought Aaron Maund, has averaged about five goals a season during his five seasons in MLS. He didn't manage a single marker last season, however, as he bounced from the expansion Montreal Impact over to perennial contender RSL. He will contribute but is far from a solution upfront.
Perhaps most shocking of all is how little Kevin Payne has done since November to put his stamp on this team. It can be said that he is perhaps being patient -- waiting to see where Koevermans fits in when he returns -- before making a real move up front. But that doesn't really excuse the reality that, come kickoff this weekend, Toronto will likely not have a single natural striker in its arsenal.Outlook
The only thing that keeps this season from being a complete Groundhog Day
repeat of years past -- with Bill Murray's role played by the club's long-suffering supporters, who awake each season to this terror -- is that Payne represents something the club has never had.
In Payne, Toronto FC hired a legitimate MLS soccer mind with a history of championships under his belt. He brings to the table a knowledge of the game in North America and a drive to turn things around -- no matter the optics of his decisions. But that's a story that has been told in Toronto before.
Every one of Aron Winter, Paul Mariner, Mo Johnston and the mishmash of other coaches, assistants and executives who have passed through BMO Field's gates have claimed to be the change that's needed along with one form of a three-year plan or another. And every one of them has gone out in a slow-dying flame of disappointment.
Ryan Nelsen, a rookie head coach with zero coaching experience
prior, will be Payne's eyes on the field. If Toronto starts slow -- and let's be honest, they probably will -- the Nelsen hiring will immediately come under scrutiny. That isn't likely to deter Payne -- a man who has already shown he's willing to make the tough decisions -- but it won't likely endear him either to an already fed-up fan base.
Any success Toronto has on the field this season will be a direct result of the moves to come by Payne. But in an already impatient market, he will also be the first person the mob looks to burn at the stake if they struggle.
The real problem in Toronto is, after six years of Groundhog Day
, it's hard to tell if the clock really has rolled over on a new day, or if TFC is still stuck in the same loop, struggling to learn from its past mistakes.
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