Toronto FC just got hit with a one-two punch right in the midsection.
The Reds' breadbasket is short two of its most reliable players from now until mid-August thanks to injuries to Michael Bradley and Will Johnson, and it leaves coach Greg Vanney and his technical staff with some tough questions to ponder.
This week's dramatic Amway Canadian Championship triumph over Vancouver was a highly-sought achievement for TFC, who hunger to test themselves in CONCACAF Champions League. But it came at a heavy price: Johnson fractured his tibial plateau, the area of the shinbone just underneath the knee, in the process scoring of his last-second, tournament-winning goal at BC Place.
“WilJo” in all likelihood was the one to step into Bradley's shoes after the US national team's field general got hurt in the final moments of the Copa America Centenario. Now that role falls to others in the TFC midfield for a busy stretch of nine games in six weeks, five of them against Eastern Conference counterparts.
In Toronto's preferred 4-4-2 diamond formation, that sidelined duo are “force multipliers” – beyond their own attributes, they make everyone and everything around them operate better. To their credit, Vanney and TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko have built a versatile midfield corps for their system.
The Reds can still call on regulars Benoit Cheyrou, Jonathan Osorio, Tsubasa Endoh and Marky Delgado – that quartet is projected to start vs. Seattle this weekend – and reserves like Jay Chapman, Daniel Lovitz (who's currently nursing a knock of his own) and Chris Mannella are being groomed in the wings.
But given TFC's towering ambitions, that just might not add up to enough experience for this potentially critical midsummer stretch. Up to now the Reds have been jogging along at a clip of 1.27 points per game – which isn't enough to have them in a playoff spot at the moment, and probably won't be sufficient to have them above the red line come season's end, either. They need to start winning games, especially at home, where that beautiful new BMO Field has only seen two victories so far.
Should they decide that reinforcements are needed, it will be fascinating to see how they go about getting them.
Promote From Within?
Toronto have invested as much as just about anyone in MLS in the developmental side of things, and Vanney may go looking for depth in TFC II's ranks. That's the whole idea, right?
Beyond the aforementioned young reserves who've been yoyo-ing between the senior and reserve rosters, Raheem Edwards has prompted some buzz around The Six. The Canadian youth international might just get a chance to make his MLS debut this month or next.
Make Some MLS Calls?
Vanney and Bez have as thick a contacts list as anyone in MLS, and a quick perusal around the league finds no shortage of potential targets. Would TFC make a play for an underutilized No. 8 type like Colorado's Dillon Powers, or perhaps Montreal's Callum Mallace? Chicago might well be taking calls for Matt Polster and the same could be true for LA with regards to Rafael Garcia.
New England and Dallas both carry stocked central midfield ranks, and they – as well as several other teams – may well cast a covetous eye at Toronto's overabundance of center backs. Or...dare we say it...might NYCFC soon be prepared to entertain what was once unthinkable: Shipping out Mix Diskerud? A USMNT reunion with Bradley would be ironic, though Mix would carry hefty wages and high expectations of consistent playing time to Ontario.
The problem here is that TFC appear to be right up against some salary budget limitations, so real ingenuity would be required to make the numbers work. And yes, that just happens to be an area of Bezbatchenko's expertise.
The international transfer window will open on July 4, and the global market always has lots to offer in the summertime. Again, however, the current salary bill is a stumbling block for the Reds, who've historically done much of their biggest overseas business in the winter.
The Reds showed a pragmatic, and effective, willingness to set up a low block and soak up pressure during their lengthy season-opening road trip, so Vanney may not mind reeling up the drawbridge and trying to grind out some 1-0 results. When Sebastian Giovinco is wearing your jersey, you're almost always within a few magical moments of a goal no matter how badly you're being dominated in possession, and Jozy Altidore should be motoring along at full form next to him soon.
Yet the suspicion lingers that it would be a band-aid, not a cure, at this point in the campaign. Much like the national team that is built around Bradley and Altidore, Toronto need to find multiple ways to win, including with possession and buildup play.
A new face or two in midfield could solve long-term issues and short-run problems alike.