2013 Toronto FC Preview: Tough slog ahead for Nelsen?
2012 record: 5-21-8 (23 points); 36 GF / 62 GA (-26 GD)
Over 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 2012 and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. This is part one of two previewing Toronto FC's 2013 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
After Toronto FC started 2012 so brightly, upsetting the LA Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals last March, they crashed to a 0-9 start in league play.
A Canadian championship and a May 26 win over Philadelphia weren't enough to save head coach Aron Winter’s job, and Paul Mariner took over, starting 4-2-4 before a knee injury put Danny Koevermans’ on the shelf for the season. After that, the Reds went on a 0-10-4 skid to finish last at 5-21-8.
Then the shuffling started.
Kevin Payne left D.C. United in November to take over as general manager and president. Then Mariner departed and Ryan Nelsen ended his playing career with Queens Park Rangers to become head coach.
Payne is changing TFC’s culture, developing an ethic of work and accountability among the players. He wants to bring in younger, athletic players. He still has plenty of work to do to fill out a roster with plenty of slots still to fill.
As a top center back, Nelsen brings expertise to a troubled area. Scoring also is a need. Eric Hassli’s trade opened up a Designated Player spot and other moves created roster flexibility, but the remaining DPs, Torsten Frings and Koevermans, are question marks. Both are recovering from injury, and the transition to Nelsen is already in full swing during training camp.
In and Out
IN: F Justin Braun (12/3/12 - trade from Real Salt Lake); GK Joe Bendik (12/12/12 - trade from Portland); D Danny Califf (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); D Gale Agbossoumonde (12/20/12 - weighted lottery); M Júlio César (1/15/2013 - free); M Kyle Bekker (1/17/13 - SuperDraft); F Emery Welshman (1/17/13 - SuperDraft).
OUT: D Adrian Cann (11/15/12 - option declined); D Ty Harden (11/15/12 - option declined); D Dicoy Williams (11/15/12 - option declined);M Oscar Cordon (11/15/12 - option declined); F Nicholas Lindsay (11/15/12 - option declined); F Keith Makubuya (11/15/12 - option declined); M Aaron Maund (12/3/12 - traded to Real Salt Lake); M Eric Avila (12/3/12 - out of contract); F Ryan Johnson (12/12/12 - trade to Portland); GK Milos Kocic (12/12/12 - trade to Portland); F Joao Plata (1/30/13 - trade to Real Salt Lake); F Eric Hassli (2/4/13 - trade to FC Dallas).
COACHING STAFF: Ryan Nelsen replaces Paul Mariner. Assistant coaches: Fran O'Leary, Jason Bent, Jim Brennan, Stewart Kerr
Star Attraction: Darren O'Dea
O’Dea has yet to experience a league victory with Toronto FC in nine games since signing last August. But that’s not his doing. The 26-year-old Republic of Ireland international turned down more lucrative offers to come to Toronto to shore up a sagging central defense. He should help lead the Reds to more victories (the only way to go is up, after all) now that he has help in experienced center back Danny Califf. O’Dea plays a tough game and is vocal on the pitch. That applies off the field as well – his comments are incisive and honest and not always flattering.
Unsung Hero: Terry Dunfield
Dunfield, free of the nagging injuries that hampered him in 2011, took over in midfield last season when former German international Frings was hobbled by a hip injury that eventually ended his season. Dunfield may be more blue collar than glittering star, but his work ethic is what makes him a leader. The 30-year-old Canadian international fights for every blade of grass on the pitch and can pop up with a big goal on occasion, like he did against Vancouver in stoppage time last season.
Ready for Primetime: Luis Silva
Silva came to preseason primed and ready after a two-week training session in Germany where he honed the skills that made him such an impressive rookie in 2012. The 24-year-old, who was picked fourth overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, had five goals and five assists in the league and a sophomore slump is unlikely. The creative midfielder was pressed into a underneath forward’s role at times last season, and that might be the case at the beginning of this season as Koevermans is not expected back until late June after knee surgery.
Storylines to Watch
1. Can TFC quit conceding late? Toronto gave up a league-worst 62 goals ... and16 came after the 75th minute and 28 after the 60th. It’s a matter of mental toughness and ability, and Nelsen's first job is to instill some responsibility to keep it from happening again. Look for improvement.
2. How much will the the injured Designated Players contribute? Frings, 36, is coming off hip surgery. How well and how deep into games will he be able to play in his final season? Koevermans, 34, is not expected to play until late June after knee surgery. Will he regain the scoring touch that gave him 17 league goals in 26 games over two seasons? Will either be bought out to create room for newcomers?
3. Is Nelsen in for a rough transition from player to manager? He doesn't have any coaching experience, despite displaying top-notch leadership abilities over the years. He's the man in charge now, though. Will he be able to navigate the inevitable rough patches to come?
What He Said
“It didn’t get to the place it was at overnight. We’re not going to fix it overnight, but we can start to manage change overnight.”
– New president and general manager Kevin Payne on changing the culture of Toronto FC
If Everything Goes Right
Toronto FC have never made the playoffs in their six seasons in MLS, so the bar is set low for the new regime. If all goes right, they could find a spot in the postseason, assuming there are more players and more quality yet to be added to the sparse preseason complement. But after so many years in which so little has gone right for the Reds, a strong run at the playoffs that leaves hope for 2014 might be the most that can be expected. Even that won't be an easy task.