Toronto FC went from having the best season in MLS history, with a treble in 2017, to a 2018 campaign where they shockingly missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs altogether. And it seems the reverberations are still being felt.
The team's two playmakers, Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez, departed this past offseason, with Alejandro Pozuelo taking up the mantle after joining during the campaign. TFC gritted out a wild 3-2 win on Wednesday against Atlanta United, but with the team sitting just above the playoff line at present, Toronto FC president Bill Manning admitted the current group is a work in progress, especially with some of the key players departing and others presently missing due to the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup.
"Sebastian Giovinco is a really good player and making a lot of money in Saudi Arabia. I can't comment. He's under contract to another team. So I hope you respect that," Manning told the TSN broadcast prior to Wednesday's game when asked about a potential Giovinco comeback. "But we're missing him, right? We haven't replaced his production and that's been one of our challenges in this window and the next window those are the most important critical factors for us. Pozuelo really replaced Victor's flair as a guy who can be a magician on the field. We've got to replace Sebastian's production and without Jozy [Altidore] here, it's been very difficult."
Prior to Wednesday's win, Toronto had been on an eight-game winless skid and the status of head coach Greg Vanney, MLS Coach of the Year in 2017, has been questioned in some quarters locally as the struggles have piled up. Manning admitted with the team in a tough spot, the pressure is on Vanney, but he gave a vote of confidence.
"That's his challenge right now. Greg, as you mentioned, is in the biggest skid he's been in since he's been here. And we've challenged him that the results are unacceptable. We have to be a playoff team. Right now we're above the playoff line but we can't keep conceding losses. With that said, Greg won us a championship. And I believe and Ali [Curtis, TFC's general manager] does as well, he deserves the opportunity to get this ship right, but it has to get right. That's really what we're looking at."
At the same time, the team president did not hold back in assessing the team's recent form.
"We're finding ways to lose and we have not attacked with bite and passion," he said. "And it's one of those things where we get behind a goal, the game is over."
With the secondary transfer window opening on July 7, Toronto have already signed defender Omar Gonzalez, and Manning indicated Curtis was staying busy in an attempt to bolster the squad for the rest of the campaign.
"We get some reinforcements with Omar [Gonzalez] coming in. Ali is in New York negotiating a deal for a potential TAM player which we hope to introduce," he said. "We'll get some reinforcements but we've got to start getting results."
Pozuelo, the 27-year-old Spanish playmaker brought in from Belgian side Genk in March, is off to a terrific start, with seven goals and eight assists in 14 appearances this season for TFC. But with injuries and international absences preventing the first-choice XI from getting into a rhythm, Manning was impressed with the newcomer's impact, even during a bumpy season.
"He's frustrated with some of the results lately, but he's been a bright light in what's been a difficult season so far. I think his best years are in front of him when he gets a full offseason," Manning explained.
But with Pozuelo playing nearly an entire season in Europe before joining shortly after the start of the MLS season, Manning said Pozuelo won't be playing every single minute over the coming months.
"We're trying to manage his minutes a little bit as we did this past weekend in Dallas. And so we'll continue to do that throughout the year and hopefully we can be in the playoff run and he still has a lot of juice in him. That's going to be very important for us as the season goes on."