A year ago to the day, Toronto FC were still strolling along the confetti-laden path of their well-earned victory lap.
It was only weeks removed from the club winning their first MLS Cup, the perfect dismount to a season in which they collected a Canadian Championship, Supporters' Shield and new league single-season record for points. A quick glance of the Toronto FC 2017 Wikipedia page (shhhh-- don't tell my editors) offers a snapshot of their dominance. One column reads: "1st. 1st. Champions. Champions. Champions."
Can't do much better than that.
Then 2018 happened. For their lofty expectations, they couldn't theoretically have done much worse than they did, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference, a dizzying 14 points (!!) off the playoff pace, a full 33 points worse off than they were the year prior. As an extra kick to the teeth, the New York Red Bulls erased their single-season point record just as the ink dried from last season.
Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are all one year older, each entering the final year left of their current Designated Player contracts. Giovinco has been particularly public. "Red..." Giovinco wrote in an Instagram post "at least until next year." Lobbying for a new deal or rumblings of trouble ahead? We'll see.
This offseason presented a crossroad for the TFC decision-makers: Run it back with this core (at least) one more time or put a pin in what's happened and transition to a new era at BMO Field?
GOAL: Laurent Ciman shakes things up early
Ciman played at an MLS Best XI level for LAFC last season before departing on a four-month European sojourn with FC Dijon in Ligue 1. He made nine appearances in the league with Dijon, who currently sit in 18th place. Now, he's back in MLS, where he was named 2015 Defender of the Year and a three-time MLS All-Star in four seasons.
Even at 33, in Ciman the Reds acquired a top-of-the-line central defender, one that should cure their 2018 defensive woes that saw the club concede 64 goals. That and a return to fitness for Chris Mavinga, who was limited to just 12 appearances in 2018. Barring another apocalyptic injury list, TFC have as deep and talented a defense as most in the league to pair with their imperious attack.
Stretched to play across multiple fronts again with the CCL Round of 16 beckoning in February, that depth will be useful, if not vital. Ciman joins Mavinga, Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund as options in the center of defense, with Auro, Justin Morrow, Gregory van der Viel and Nick DeLeon as primary fullback options.
Head coach Greg Vanney has more options now, too. A three-man backline out of tactical preference than injury-induced necessity, featuring Ciman, Mavinga and Moor, is on the table. I'm sure Vanney already has a few plans in the works.
Even during their early-season slide last season, coinciding with their laborious CCL run, most experts and fans alike banked on Toronto figuring it out and picking up the requisite points. When the losses kept piling and the remaining games continued to dissipate towards the season's midpoint, most still banked on TFC awakening to a violet climb north over the playoff line. Even when the LA Galaxy came to BMO in mid-September with Toronto yet to perform as expected, far off sixth place and with a hellacious remaining schedule, we still wouldn't have been shocked to see the club make the playoffs.
Such is a testament to Toronto's squad. But, title windows can close without much warning.
By the time the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs kick off, if Toronto return where they expect to be, their core may be looking at one more chance. Ciman will be 34, Bradley, Giovinco and Victor Vazquez 32. Contracts will be up, pay raises expected and a few on the other side of 30.
Whatever. Those questions can wait until next offseason. Toronto are all-in on 2019 with the chance to take another victory lap this time next year.