2013 in Review: Toronto FC show signs of promise in transition year under rookie boss Ryan Nelsen

Over the next two weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2013 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with D.C. United and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.

2013 record: 6-17-11 (29 points); 30 GF / 47 GA (-17 GD)

2013 Toronto FC statistics


As expected, 2013 was something of a year of transition for Toronto FC.

They said it...

Head coach Ryan Nelsen on the team's current salary cap situation:  

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride and we have had some real ups and downs, but I can now sleep really well at night knowing the situation we are in now because I didn’t think we would be in it due to the salary cap, contracts and lots of debt. I didn’t think we would be in this positive of a position [heading into 2014] because of the salary cap, contract, lots of debt and, at the time, no real foundation of core MLS players. Put all that together and it is toxic. If you take all the successful teams in MLS, they all have hardened MLS players and a good foundation of North American players who are complemented by game changers with their DPs.”

On his first year as a head coach:

“I learned more in this year than I probably had in many years. I have a few more grey hairs. Trust me on that one. But it has been very interesting. It was an incredible learning experience, which is something that I will probably never say again in my career.”

On landing some Designated Players:

DPs are so important and you have to get them right. It showed when we didn’t have our Designated Players. I do think once we add our DPs and two or three hardened MLS players -- we do still need to get better beyond the DP scenarios -- I think we’ll be quite a nice wee animal. It will nice to sit on the sideline with a squad that will still have the ability to win games even when we aren’t at 100 percent.

With a new head coach in Ryan Nelsen and a new president and general manager in Kevin Payne, Toronto’s season ended up being one in which Reds supporters often had to look past the weeds to smell a few roses.

With team captain Torsten Frings retiring during preseason and DP striker Danny Kovermans expected to be out of action due to an ACL injury until July, Nelsen brought in a number of squad reinforcements on loan from England prior to the team’s first match. While Robert Earnshaw ended the campaign as Toronto’s leading scorer, Hogan Ephraim and John Bostock did not stick around for the entirety of the campaign.

TFC struggled to earn results all season long, and the club's roster once again experienced a fair amount of upheaval, as Nelsen and Payne worked to concurrently improve the team’s salary cap situation while also refashioning the squad in Nelsen’s image.

Somewhat surprisingly, Payne, a long-time MLS executive with D.C. United and the man who handpicked Nelsen as the gaffer to lead to TFC to respectability, did not make it through the entirety of the campaign. Former MLS senior director of player relations and competition Tim Bezbatchenko replaced Payne as general manager late in the season.

The end result of another year of turbulence was another season in which TFC missed the postseason. However, it was also a season in which a number of young players – Jonathan Osorio, Doneil Henry, Joe Bendik, Ashtone Morgan and Matias Laba – impressed significantly and left supporters with a sense of hope that their team just might have turned the corner towards being a playoff quality team in the years to come.

Best Moment of the Year

With Toronto FC not having won a match at BMO Field in more than a year, Osorio and Andrew Wiedeman each scored a late goal to spearhead a dramatic 2-1 comeback victory against the Columbus Crew on July 27. After being on the receiving end of dramatic late goals themselves many times prior to this fixture, the Reds not only delivered an uplifting performance for their home supporters, they also got the better of a league rival against whom they had won only one match in 17 league fixtures prior to kickoff.

Worst Moment of the Year

Already struggling to earn points and already on the outside looking in with respect to a legitimate shot at making the MLS Cup Playoffs, Toronto fell 1-0 to a Chivas USA side that played a large chunk of the match with only 10 men at StubHub Center on July 18. With Reds striker Jeremy Brockie missing on a simple tap in from two-yards out on a well-placed cross from Osorio in the first half, Goats forward Erick “Cubo” Torres punctuated TFC’s miserable summer when he scored the only goal of the game on a deflected shot in his MLS debut.

Best Goal

With all due respect to Darel Russell and his fantastic pseudo bicycle kick goal against D.C. United late in the season, TFC rookie and TFC Academy graduate Osorio takes the honor for his perfectly placed shot under the crossbar from just outside the penalty area that beat New York Red Bulls 'keeper Luis Robles on April 27. In a season in which it was Toronto’s youngest players that gave the club’s supporters genuine hope for the better days in the future, Osorio’s goal highlighted the fact that the kids on Toronto’s roster were indeed alright. 

Team MVP

Bendik’s consistency as a shot stopper and his surprise emergence as a top-shelf starting goalkeeper makes him the clear choice for Toronto FC team MVP. Without the youngster's season-long string of quality performances and his ability to come up big when an often unsettled team in front of him was coming undone late in games, Toronto FC would have accrued even fewer points than they ultimately did during a campaign in which the Reds picked up six wins and 11 draws while scoring the second-fewest goals in the league. 

Best Move

While the emergence of Canadian rookie Osorio as a core piece for TFC was one of the most exciting storylines from the 2013 TFC campaign, Argentine midfielder and Young Designated Player Laba was actually the best newcomer to wear a TFC kit over the course of the season. A tenacious defensive midfielder with top-class passing ability and a fantastic engine, Laba saw his first season in MLS cut short by a broken toe. Still, the 21-year-old showed more than enough class in 16 games to suggest that he has the ability to be one of the best two-way midfielders in Major League Soccer for years to come.

Quotable

"We are very close. It doesn’t take too much to turn a team around. We are in a position to move forward with a lot of flexibility and with a lot of excitement around the development of the base that we’ve got here." – TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen

Offseason Needs

1. Goals, goals, goals: With Toronto ending the season tied with Chivas USA for the fewest goals scored in the league, the biggest need for the club has already been well documented. While on the surface TFC’s ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference with 29 points does not appear to be a major improvement when compared with the club poor’s 2012 campaign, if you dig a little deeper, you actually find a club that was in every match, rarely blown out and that lost plenty of games by a single goal. With that mind, it's not surprising that most of the offseason rumors to date have centered on the club’s pursuit of Designated Player strikers such as Jermaine Defoe (pictured right) and Alberto Gilardino.

2. Find a No. 10: While Ryan Nelsen often lamented the fact that DP striker Danny Koevermans was unable to return from a serious injury to full match fitness, the fact of the matter is that Toronto’s main problem wasn’t always finishing. You can’t finish chances that aren’t created. TFC often had long stretches of play in which no one could deliver a final ball or generate any creativity when the team needed something extra to get it over the hump, particularly on the road. While top-class strikers like Defoe and Gilardino would likely be very effective in the North American top flight, Toronto also needs a midfield maestro to deliver the type of service that wasn’t there very often in 2013.

3. Add quality veteran players to the roster: The decision by the TFC brass to jettison veteran players such as Koevermans, Frings, Danny Califf, Terry Dunfield and Darren O’Dea to open up cap space may have done wonders for the team’s financial flexibility over the course of the season, but it also left Nelsen with a very young and sometimes mistake-prone squad that often conceded late goals. The acquisition of veteran Scottish central defender Steven Caldwell midseason greatly enhanced the team’s performances in the second half. If Toronto is going to challenge for a playoff spot next season, the club must add more experience throughout the roster.