Toronto FC, for the second straight year, are watching the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs from the outside looking in. They finished second from bottom in the Eastern Conference standings in both 2021 and 2022.
Yet there was a hopeful vista cast around the Reds’ year-end media availability as they prepare for year two under head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley, plus a first full season with Italian forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi in the squad.
Ranging from an open Designated Player spot and the possible departure of midfielder Jonathan Osorio to how much roster turnover and change is expected for 2023, let’s sift through some main takeaways for a club still chasing their heydays of a historic treble in 2017.
Change awaits, but how much?
From start to finish, Toronto made nearly 40 combined incoming and outgoing transactions during Bradley’s first year in charge. The moves rolled through at a breakneck pace and expectations are that’ll continue, to a lesser degree, after finishing 14 points off the East’s playoff pace.
Asked about what’s coming, Bradley said it’s “very fair” to claim Toronto need additions up the spine, with goalkeeper, center back, central midfield and forward all part of that conversation. Club president Bill Manning went a bit further.
“Certainly we don’t want an entire overhaul again, because that just doesn’t work,” Manning said. “We’ve gone through the rebuild, Bob has been going through that, but we still do need to add some pieces to round out the team.
“I do think we have a foundation in place now with some of the guys that came in midseason, but we’re still going to make some acquisitions this offseason similar to that 2015 into ‘16 season. But the goal will to be really, as we get into next year, build some consistency for the club so that we’re fine-tuning rather than going through these changes.”
For 2022, Toronto’s roster-building strategy involved essentially clearing house, letting youngsters prove themselves up until the Secondary Transfer Window in July, and then hoping veteran-minded midseason additions provided a boost into the playoff race.
There were flickers of that being a fruitful endeavor, sparked by a 4W-1L-3D stretch that started with Bernadeschi and Insigne debuting in a 4-0 rout of Charlotte FC on July 23. But their first-choice group wasn’t together consistently enough and defensive issues reared their head – Toronto’s 66 goals against were third-most in the league – as they faded with five straight losses to cap the season.
Longtime captain Michael Bradley spoke to Toronto’s offseason outlook, with decisions likely coming.
“We have to add to that – two players, three players, four players, five players doesn’t make a team,” said the former US men’s national team standout. “The best teams have a roster full of guys who between what they can do on the field, their mentality, the types of teammates they are – just across the board – are great guys to have around every day. We’ve started to build with that, the starting points, and have a good foundation I think.”
With Bernardeschi and Insigne both signed as DPs through 2026, Toronto plan on filling their third high-profile roster slot this offseason.
At least publicly, the Reds are addressing those plans in broader strokes rather than entertaining more focused discussions.
“It’s not easy to say 100 percent the extra DP spot is for this position,” said Bob Bradley, who joined in November 2021 after leaving LAFC. “It’s not easy to be that specific right now.”
Toronto have seldom shied away from spending big when it comes to DPs, whether that’s via transfers or salaries. Former MVP Alejandro Pozuelo (who’s now with Inter Miami CF) joined in 2019 from Belgian side KRC Genk for a reported $11 million, while Insigne reportedly has the largest salary in MLS after shipping across the pond from Serie A.
Toronto hoped their third DP was going to be former Mexican international center back Carlos Salcedo, a one-time Real Salt Lake homegrown player who joined last January from Tigres UANL in essentially a swap for former DP winger Yeferson Soteldo. But Salcedo didn’t meet expectations and he returned to Liga MX after the player and club mutually agreed to terminate his MLS contract on July 12.
Though DP spots usually go to players in the final third, perhaps Toronto find the right defensive piece – internally or around the league – to join the mix.
“There isn’t a target, per se, but we need some defensive help. We know that,” Manning said. “Two years in a row we’ve let up 1.8, 1.9 goals a game and you’re just not going to win a lot of games when you let up two goals a game. So we know we have some needs there, and then someone consistently who can put the ball in the back of the net is another need.”
Asked about the caliber of addition TFC have in mind, Manning did provide some clarity.
“We’re not going to go out and sign a Lorenzo, but we’re going to sign the right player,” he said. “Whatever wiggle room we need to make there, our organization has always been supportive of getting the right player.”
From start to finish, and when healthy, Osorio was arguably Toronto’s best player in the 2022 season after posting 9g/6a across 23 games (20 starts).
But there’s no guarantee the homegrown midfielder returns next year, as he’ll soon be out of contract and is eligible to sign with another club, either within MLS (via free agency) or abroad. Osorio maintained he’s considering all options, and will likely reach his decision after Canada compete at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Should a good opportunity present itself overseas, if it’s the best option, then I will take it,” Osorio said. “For me, it’s about taking the best option. It’s not about going to Europe because I dreamed about it.
“Now I think I’m at the point of my career where it has to be the right move for me playing-wise and for my career and for the future of where I stand and the national team and things like that. There’s a lot of factors that will be going into my decision at the end of the year.”
Health is also front of mind for Osorio, who’s been combatting what he called “post-concussion syndrome.” That rehab forced the 30-year-old to miss Canada’s September camp, yet he projects as a key part of head coach John Herdman’s plans this fall as Les Rouges return to their first World Cup in 36 years.
“In it all, the number one thing we have tried to do is support Oso,” said Bradley. “That is with the idea that he has played a really important role in Canada’s qualification and the World Cup is coming. We are hoping every day that now he’s feeling better and better and better. And that he is able to join the camp and ready to be part of that team in a strong way. He deserves it.”
But TFC, entering a pivotal offseason, have every intention of bringing Osorio back at the right price. He’s their all-time appearance leader with 259 regular-season games.
“We’re going to do our best to present him an option to continue here and potentially end his career here,” Manning said. “But in respect to Oso, all right to him to consider his options. And that’s what coming out of a contract does. We respect that, but we’re going to work real hard to keep Oso here and what we need to do as we put the puzzle together with salary caps and all that.”
Whatever transpires around them, Toronto will need Bernardeschi and Insigne firing on all cylinders next season. The Azzurri teammates spoke optimistically that, with a full offseason, preseason camp and more roster fine-tuning ahead, brighter days are near.
“Next year we’re going to start together, we’re going to be united, we’re going to stick together,” said Insigne, who had 6g/2a in 11 matches. “It’s going to be a great season, a great championship and we know that next year we’re going to win many things.”
But there’s also an element of patience, knowing it’s challenging for Toronto to improve their fortunes overnight.
“For me, the next season, when it begins, the new project we need time, we need hard work and we need sacrifice to be winning, for us to win trophies,” said Bernardeschi, who had 8g/3a in 13 games. “To reach success is not just pick the pieces here and there, there’s a big project, it’s structure and we learn this from our past season. This is what we’re going to build from there and we’ll move forward for our success as a team.”
Insigne added he’s most surprised by the “intensity of MLS” and Bernardeschi remarked the “level of MLS is getting better” as better players sign with clubs.
MLS Cup contention?
MLS is a league of great parity, with seven of 14 playoff teams in 2022 missing out on the past edition of the single-elimination postseason competition.
While not implicitly using that framework himself, it provides useful context for Michael Bradley’s thoughts on a possible playoff return in 2023.
“What makes me excited for next year? It’s that even in a year as difficult as this one, we weren’t as far away as some people think,” said the 35-year-old midfielder.
Toronto made the postseason all but one year from 2015-20 under now-LA Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney. Amid that run, they won MLS Cup in 2017 over Seattle Sounders FC and lost at the same stage in both 2016 and 2019 against the Rave Green.
That provides a stark contrast to these last two years in the wilderness, searching for a road back to a stage Toronto became synonymous with.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Manning said. “It’s easy to come out and say, ‘Yeah we’ll be a championship contender.’ But we’re going to need to see it come into play first.
“ … This summer we put in a group that we’re going to use as our core players. Lorenzo and Federico obviously are foundational pieces over the next four years. Those are guys we’re going to build around and use their special qualities to be a club that can hopefully compete for championships.”
But the work is underway, and Toronto have some high-end talent to possibly make 2023 much different. This offseason, beyond an open DP spot, will set the course.
Odds & ends
• Canada fullback Richie Laryea is on loan with Toronto from Nottingham Forest through the summer of 2023, having originally joined the English Premier League side on a reported $1 million transfer from TFC last January. Bradley said there have been “discussions” to make Laryea’s return a permanent one.
• Manning said "we turned down some significant offers" for fullback/winger Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty this season and "there's some real interest" in homegrown midfielder/winger Jayden Nelson as well. The homegrowns placed 22nd and 20th, respectively, on this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list.