2012 Toronto FC Preview: Is this finally the year?

Toronto FC celebrate something with Joao Plata

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For the next two weeks, MLSsoccer.com will preview each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2011 and ending with the league's newest addition, the Montreal Impact. This is part one of two previewing Toronto FC's 2012 season. You can find Part 2 here.

Setting the Scene

After failing to make the MLS Cup Playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, Toronto FC salvaged some self-respect on Oct. 18 with a 3-0 victory over FC Dallas to reach the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

WATCH: Luis Silva on road to MLS

That performance justified a massive midseason overhaul as first-year coach Aron Winter found players who fit the 4-3-3 system he introduced. Most notably, Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings signed as Designated Players at midseason and helped engineer improvement on the field, as did Ryan Johnson after arriving via trade.

Many of Toronto’s stuggles came on the defensive side of the ball, which wasn’t altogether surprising considering center backs Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams both suffered season-ending injuries, creating a chasm in central defense.

The offseason signings of Miguel Aceval and Geovanny Caicedo and using a first-round SuperDraft pick on Aaron Maund addressed that need while Cann and Williams recover from their injuries, plus the club also signed Richard Eckersley and Joao Plata to permanent contracts after they had performed so well on loan deals.

And despite the rough start to Winter’s tenure in Ontario, much more is expected of this squad. The Reds entered the preseason with the core from the team that finished well last season, but it will still take quite an effort to finally reach the playoffs.

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In and Out

IN: D Jeremy Hall (11/29: trade from Dallas); M Reggie Lambe (12/7: free/Ipswich Town); M Luis Silva (1/12: SuperDraft); D Aaron Maund (1/12: SuperDraft); M Michael Green (1/17: supplemental draft); D Nick Blake (1/17: supplemental draft); D Mykel Bates (1/17: supplemental draft); M Arthur Ivo (1/17: supplemental draft); M Michael Mazzullo (1/17: supplemental draft); D Geovanny Caicedo (1/26: LDU Quito); D Miguel Aceval (1/30: Universidad de Concepción)

OUT: D Kyle Davies (11/23: waived); M Matt Gold (11/23: waived); M Leandre Griffit (11/23: waived); F Javier Martina (11/23: waived); D Demitrius Omphroy (11/23: waived); D Eddy Viator (11/23: waived); M Gianluca Zavarise (11/23: waived); D Danleigh Borman (12/5: Re-Entry Stage 1/New England); M Nathan Sturgis (12/29: Trade to Houston) F Mikael Yourassowsky (1/18: waived); D Andy Iro (1/20: declined extension); F Peri Marosevic (1/20: declined extension)

COACHING STAFF: Stewart Kerr goalkeeper coach replaces Mike Toshack (Portland). Thomas Rongen replaces Stuart Neely (Vancouver) as director of Toronto FC Academy.

READ: 2012 Toronto FC Depth Chart

Star Attraction: Torsten Frings

Frings was everything Toronto FC hoped for when he was signed as a DP last summer. The midfielder immediately became a leader on the pitch, bringing needed direction and focus in addition to his obvious talents with the ball. The former German international was a positive influence off the pitch as well, helping the many younger players who broke in last year adapt to their new roles. He also accepted playing deep in the formation as  a sweeper in the middle of the defense when TFC used a 3-4-3 against certain opponents. Frings helped make the players around him better. He will be the key to a playoff run.

WATCH: Danny Koevermans talks 2012

Unsung Hero: Ryan Johnson

With more high-profile moves stealing the headlines – see Frings and Koevermans – the acquisition of Johnson didn’t receive the recognition it deserved. The Jamaican international excelled wherever he played up top – left, right or center. He was even used in the midfield during a 3-0 win at FC Dallas, defending well and setting up Joao Plata for the second goal as the Reds went through to the CCL quarterfinals. He showed a scoring touch as well, knocking in six goals in 20 games in all competitions.

Ready for Primetime: Ashtone Morgan

Morgan, a TFC Academy graduate, broke into the starting lineup during the second half of last season and played so well at left back that he also earned selection to the Canadian national team. The 20-year-old defender (pictured right) was brought along gradually last season, but he appears ready to open the season as a starter, especially on a team that is short of left-sided players on the back line. Morgan thrives when he is asked to contribute to the attack, using his speed to surge into the offensive third and whip crosses into the box. Now, he just needs to become a little more comfortable on the ball.

WATCH: Julian de Guzman checks in from Orlando

Storylines to Watch

1. Can TFC take advantage of their late MLS start in CCL action? Toronto FC hope to build momentum  for the season when they play their home leg of the CCL quarterfinal against the LA Galaxy before a big crowd at Rogers Centre on March 7. In order to focus on their continental responsibilities, TFC won't play their league opener until March 17 in Seattle, three days after the CCL return match at LA.

2. Is the side ready to take a step forward in Winter's second season? Players have been acquired who fit the 4-3-3 that Winter installed last year. They've had time to become acquainted with the formation and with each other. A talented core that finished last season on a positive note returns, which should result in cohesion that was missing in past years when the bulk of the team was assembled in preseason. That all sounds good, but TFC will still have to buck history to make it count.

3. How will the goalkeeping competition shake out? An injury to goalkeeper Stefan Frei allowed Milos Kocic to emerge as a capable starter to give the Reds depth at the position. Frei appears to have the starting job for now, but what happens if he gets injured or slips up?

READ: Kocic pushing Frei for job

What He Said

“That was one of the key turning points, being able to change the team around the way they wanted it before the season actually ended. They did it halfway through the season and we actually saw results come out of that, better performance, and it’s something to look forward to going into a new season.”

Midfielder Julian de Guzman, on the effect Toronto's midseason aquisitions had in 2011

SEE: 2012 Season Preview Archive

If Everything Goes Right:

The Reds appear poised for their first playoff appearance. Of course, skepticism is allowed – perhaps even encouraged – considering the club’s past.

But this year is different because the way the team is being run has changed for the better. Now that Winter and director of player development Paul Mariner have had a year to set things right, there is a longterm vision behind every decision being made, as the core of the team that finished well last year is back, giving some needed continuity. If nothing else, this is a happier club than it was a year ago.