As such, there is plenty of intrigue to the early days of head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley’s first TFC preseason camp. A roster transformation is well underway.
“I think it’s clear that as we start this year, we are probably on a list of teams where there’s the most questions,” Bradley said from preseason camp in California. “But it doesn’t change that there are still guys here that are going to play important roles. And the establishing of ideas and starting to get guys going and connect some dots, you must start."
Toronto brought back homegrown and Canada striker Ayo Akinola on a U22 Initiative deal Thursday. Though that's only one piece in a much larger puzzle as Bradley looks to reinvigorate a club that enjoyed great success under now-LA Galaxy boss Greg Vanney, especially from 2016-20, but finished second-from-bottom in the Eastern Conference last year.
"Yes, we certainly have a lot of work to do," Bradley said. "I think throughout the last couple of months it's been clear that there's a lot of work that will go into building the roster over the next months, or even months. We've just tried to concentrate on looking at all possibilities, internally having really good discussions about how we can build from here."
While reports suggest exits for winger Yeferson Soteldo and striker Jozy Altidore (possibly contract buyout) are near, playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo is still in the fold, now two years removed from winning the 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award. All three were Designated Players in 2021, with Soteldo linked to Liga MX's Tigres UANL as Mexico national team center back Carlos Salcedo reportedly arrives to lead the backline.
Injuries and other circumstances conspired to see Pozuelo take a step back in 2021. And now in 2022, Bradley says he won’t be afraid to challenge the 30-year-old Spaniard, who at his best is still one of the premier attacking talents in the league.
“I know that he’s a creative player,” Bradley said of Pozuelo. “I also want him to have moments where his ideas of positional play can improve, that he’s part of actions when we lose the ball where he can help us defend.
“I sometimes use as an example that, no matter how good you are, if today you had a chance to a club like Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Man City, you wouldn’t go there and say, ‘This is how I’ve been playing and I’m not going to change anything.’ So I try to find good ways to challenge players, and I’m looking forward to working with Alejandro.”
Pozuelo succeeding may be imperative for a Toronto squad that is otherwise pretty green in midfield. Bradley effectively confirmed a report that the Reds will be trading Marky Delgado to the LA Galaxy, leaving them thin in the engine room.
Central midfielders Ralph Priso and Noble Okello “are both young players that are going in a good direction," said Bradley, while at the same time suggesting work is being done to bring in reinforcements. Another key youngster for TFC should be forward Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, a 17-year-old who's drawn widespread European interest.
Toronto captain Michael Bradley, who broke into the pros at the New York MetroStars under his father Bob before later playing under him with the US men's national team, believes his dad’s developmental chops could provide the most immediate opportunity for improvement.
“I think that we have a bunch of young guys now who have continued to make strides, and we’re going to ask them to make bigger strides this year,” Michael Bradley said. “I know first hand how my dad is able to work with young players and to coach them and to make them better. And I think when you look at the starting points and the qualities of some of our young guys, I think it’s really exciting.”
The changes would follow Canada fullback Richie Laryea being sold to Nottingham Forest. Center back Omar Gonzalez has also departed via free agency and joined the New England Revolution.
Of course, the picture will change substantially when Insigne arrives this summer following his Serie A farewell with Napoli. That’s not an excuse for delaying the work of figuring out how to improve results, Bob Bradley said.
“He brings a special level of creativity and flair,” Bradley said of Insigne. “But the ideas about how to find the right players in good spots going forward, making sure that there’s structure when we have the ball, structure when we lose the ball, in order for Lorenzo to be at his best, those are things that we need to do well as a team.”