Toronto FC stand at the dawn of a new era in 2022, with a new head coach and sporting director, myriad roster turnover and the most expensive signing in league history, Italian winger Lorenzo Insigne, slated to arrive from Serie A's Napoli in the summer.
The Reds are swinging for the fences, as has become their modus operandi. But plenty of hard graft and intelligent team-building behind the scenes will be required if those big bets are to pay off, especially at the start of the season – beginning with a slow-building, academy-driven youth movement in need of new boss Bob Bradley’s guidance.
“I'm excited about what we're doing in Toronto,” the veteran coach told reporters last week. “There's a really good mix of some experienced players, some really talented young players and as always, trying to establish a better idea of what our football can look like. It starts always on the training field, as you implement different ideas.
“And one of the most important parts is just how you get to know players and you see little things every day as you create good training and good actions, and you have the opportunity to coach guys and see if you can help them understand in different moments, how to be more effective, how to improve.”
The Reds’ generational shift has been in the offing for years, and now 2021’s second-from-bottom finish in the overall league standings and the subsequent exodus has made it nigh unavoidable for Bradley. Well over a dozen players from their 2021 squad are gone, via one measure or another.
“A good example is a young player like Jayden Nelson,” he continued. “I know everyone in the Toronto area knows that as a young player, Jayden has a lot of talent. So far, just trying to help him understand in different situations how he can be more effective, how to use his dribbling, how in different moments he's athletic and he can use it to put pressure on defenders to help us win the ball as a team. And so Jayden is a really good example of a young guy who I think so far in preseason has done really well and has real potential to be an important player for us.”
TFC may well have MLS’s next superstar en route for July in Insigne. But the “en route” part means Bradley has to manage what could be a steep learning curve in the season’s opening months as he implements his aggressive pass-and-press philosophy and builds a new locker-room culture after the departure of so many influential veterans.
“We have to implement ideas on how we want to play,” Bradley said. “Good ideas when we have the ball, how attacking ideas connect with what happens defensively, reactions and ability to win balls back in good spots. So if we establish good ideas as a team, then of course when a great player like Lorenzo arrives it's really easy for him to step right in and take a leading role."
TFC’s spring slate looks manageable, though meetings with strong Eastern Conference counterparts like the Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and defending MLS Cup champs NYCFC could give Bradley & Co. some early reality checks after opening the 2022 campaign at FC Dallas this Saturday (5:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
“We've made progress in preseason. When you start, you want to build on that,” he said. “I don't think any team, even experienced teams, start the year in their best way. I think it's a process that requires real games, week after week, and then you see how certain situations evolve. So I feel good about the work so far and I think we'll be ready for the opener in Dallas. And then we'll take it from there as we keep trying to build on each match.”
Their list of talented, but green youngsters is substantial: Nelson, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Jordan Perruzza, Luca Petrasso, Noble Okello, re-signed striker Ayo Akinola and now Ralph Priso-Mbongue's younger brother Hugo Mbongue, who scored in a 1-1 preseason draw with Sporting KC last Saturday as Toronto trained in Austin, Texas.
Their increased contributions may now be mandatory.
Fullback Kemar Lawrence appears headed for the exit soon, joining a long list of prominent departures headlined by Jozy Altidore that adds up to more than half the roster turned over this winter, many of them regulars. Earlier this month Bradley spoke of "a sense when I got here that there were just guys in different places, guys that weren't as committed to the club as they might have been earlier," perhaps not a surprise given the profound disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic on MLS's Canadian clubs.
"We're still trying to build our best possible roster," said Bradley, whose son Michael figures to be a vital link in the construction of a competitive collective. "But we've been at it for a month and I've seen guys respond in really good ways, training has been excellent. I think in terms of some of the football that we've been able to play so far, it's going in the right direction."
“Carlos has done a great job. He’s got a big personality, he's good with his teammates. He's got a real presence on the field,” Bradley said. “And I love wherever he's been on the field, he's a player – a defender who makes plays, a guy who reacts to situations, is very committed with the ball. He's good, he's a good passer, he helps us play from the back. But I really would speak to just his really positive way of coming into the group, getting to know people; he's got a good sense of humor. And he's been really good so far.”