Fitter, deeper and more experienced. Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney likes what sees when he scans his roster at the start of training camp.
That's good because expectations are again high for the MLS team with the Prada of payrolls.
"We have to see ourselves as going farther in the playoffs and we have to position ourselves as contenders for a championship," Vanney told reporters Monday. "But everybody says that at Day 1 in pre-season."
"A lot of things have to happen but we have a team that can compete and if all things go our way, then we hope to be there in the very end," he added. "But we've got a quality team, there's no question."
Toronto (15-15-4) just made the playoffs last season, exiting quickly in a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of the Montreal Impact. Fans expected more.
Entering its 10th season, Toronto's all-time regular-season record is 77-135-78. Its playoff record is 0-1-0.
Management seems to have ticked off the appropriate boxes, particularly on defence where Toronto gave up a league-worst 58 goals last season. The acquisitions of goalkeeper Clint Irwin, centre back Drew Moor, right back Steven Beitashour and Canadian midfielder Will Johnson should reinforce the defence.
All four are expected to start, adding 700-plus ML regular season games to the club's bank of experience. And as former club captains, Moor and Johnson will add to the team's leadership.
Vanney has not shown his hand on the team's formation. But he did suggest that there will be more "clarity" to his players' roles.
While Sebastian Giovinco had an MVP year in 2015, the team did not succeed entirely in integrating Jozy Altidore into the attack. Sidelined by U.S. national team duty and injury, Altidore returned to find the pint-sized Italian running the show.
"The key there is to connect those two," Vanney said.
Altidore needs to be in front of goal, "punishing centre backs with his size and ability," he added.
Still the club credo may not change.
"Just try to give (Giovinco) the ball ... and watch him do his magic," offered Beitashour.
Vanney is looking for another banner season from Giovinco.
"I think he can improve on it and I think we can as a group help him," said Vanney.
That involves defending better and not conceding early. Instead the hope is score first, forcing opposing teams to come at Toronto which opens up space for Giovinco and other attackers to operate.
Giovinco, who had 22 goals and 16 assists last season, is on board. "My goal is to perform better than last year," he said through an interpreter.
TFC opens March 6 at the New York Red Bulls. The club will play its first eight games on the road due to stadium renovations before opening at BMO Field on May 7 against the Houston Dynamo.
Toronto will be sharing its home with the CFL Argonauts for the first time. Vanney said given the two teams' schedules, he did not think it would be an issue.
Toronto leaves Wednesday to train in California before returning home in February for a week. The team will then wrap up training camp in Florida.
English forward Luke Moore was absent Monday with club officials saying the reserve striker, who is under contract, has been given permission to train with teams in England but is expected back. One wonders if they want him, why he is not here now. More likely, they are trying to shed his salary, which was US$235,500 last year, by moving him.
MLS team are only allowed to buy out one contract each season and Toronto has already parted ways with defender Ahmed Kantari ($345,000 last season).
Bradley and Altidore are away with the U.S. national team while Johnson is with Canada.