Expectations were high for Toronto FC heading into 2021. As the title of this story suggests – in case you've already blocked out the memories of this season – they fell well, well short.
Toronto finished second-bottom in the Eastern Conference standings, conceding 66 goals along the way. That total was second-worst in the league, as was their negative-27 goal difference. The domestic campaign started rocky, never recovered and by early summer was effectively over.
Injuries, travel, lingering effects of the pandemic (particularly during the season's first half) and a few key decisions led to the decline. It’s a lot to unpack, but the basic question is simple: What the hell happened?
“I think our decline started last year and this year we couldn’t stop it,” general manager Ali Curtis told MLSsoccer.com at the end of October. “I think we were struggling from a health perspective, not just physical with injuries, but from a psychological perspective of living in Hartford, Connecticut. It didn’t help this year that we started a preseason in Toronto, which is difficult because of the weather. Then we went down to Florida. We just didn’t find a way out of it.”
Toronto ended 2020 playing “home” games in Connecticut. They finished second in the Eastern Conference, but lost three of their final four regular-season matches and were bounced in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs against Nashville SC.
Decorated and well-respected head coach Greg Vanney left and Chris Armas arrived following his previous stint leading the New York Red Bulls. Toronto spent the first half of the season in Florida due to cross-border travel limitations. They had early success by eliminating Liga MX’s Club Leon in the Concacaf Champions League, playing Leg 2 of the Round of 16 series at the Disney Wide World of Sports.
The hole was already too deep, and the form only briefly improved.
“At the end of the day, you are what your record says you are,” Curtis said. “We take full responsibility for that and it’s important that we do.”
Toronto returned the majority of their squad that finished second in the East last year. Led by 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo and more, TFC also added Venezuela international winger Yeferson Soteldo, who was named to the Copa Libertadores Best XI, as well as Kemar Lawrence, who was among MLS' best left backs during his RBNY days before transferring to Belgium's Anderlecht.
Despite obvious talent, the group didn’t quite work out.
“On paper, I think our roster is as talented as they come in MLS. It’s loaded with firepower. … In terms of putting the team together, we were really excited about it,” Curtis said. “But that’s only part of it. We’ve spent time trying to analyze where we are and how we got here. I’ll do more of that in the offseason. But to be honest with you, the impact of the pandemic is a case study that is going to be more accurate 10 years from now than it is now.”
Despite missing the playoffs, Toronto still have one game remaining in 2021: The Canadian Championship Final. They face Montréal, who also missed the playoffs. The Canadian Classique rivals are desperate for a trophy to salvage something from a disappointing year and qualify for next year’s Concacaf Champions League.
After that, it’s full offseason mode for Toronto. And there is plenty on the table.
Atop the to-do list is another coaching search.
Toronto parted ways with Armas in July and named Javier Perez interim coach, giving him the job for the rest of the season before long. The search for Perez's replacement has started but will shift into a higher gear after the Canadian Championship.
“There’s been time spent on the profile of coach to help lead the team next year and beyond,” Curtis said. “There’s an understanding of the profile [we want], but the execution of that will happen once the season concludes.”
There have been reports linking LAFC head coach Bob Bradley, father of TFC captain Michael Bradley, with the Toronto gig. Sources told MLSsoccer.com those reports were premature and no one at the club has made contact with Bob Bradley, who is out of contract this winter.
As of Monday, sources said Bradley’s LAFC future was yet to be 100% determined, though it looks likely he’ll depart. LAFC have not made anything official yet after missing the playoffs themselves.
The top of Toronto's roster could be in flux once again after the vision for 2020 never quite congealed. Toronto's expected attacking trio of Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore and Soteldo started exactly one game together. Each player missed significant time: Soteldo made only 19 starts, Pozuelo 14 and Altidore just eight.
“It’s unfortunate and it’s frustrating for everyone – for the players even more so,” Curtis said. “But we’ve seen Pozuelo play for two and a half years. We’ve seen Jozy for years. We’ve seen Soteldo for roughly 60% of an MLS season. Even though they haven’t played together much, we do have some information on how they fit, how they play, personality-wise, all these things.”
That information may not point to a future together.
Soteldo has been linked with a move back to South America, and a source confirmed that the club’s interest in Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne is legitimate. The latter would suggest Toronto are operating under the assumption they will have at least one Designated Player spot open. Whether Insigne pans out, he's unlikely to be their only target.
Toronto may well be the most interesting team to follow this offseason. There's the potential for big changes and if they can create top-end roster flexibility, a track record of major investment.
Bradley, Altidore, Jermaine Defoe (remember?!), Sebastian Giovinco and now Pozuelo and Soteldo have occupied DP spots in the last half-decade. None were cheap. Bradley, Defoe and Pozuelo are in the top 10 in league history in terms of transfer fees spent.
Former US men's national team center back Omar Gonzalez is among the players who either have a contract option or are out of contract. Per the MLS Players Association, TFC have at least six players who are either out of contract or have a club option. That only includes players who are eligible for free agency, so there are sure to be more.
”There’s a lot of opportunity,” Curtis said. “I inherited a team in 2019 that didn’t make the playoffs the year before. We signed a Designated Player [Pozuelo], we made a few more changes and we won the Eastern Conference. We’ve done this before. Over the last couple years, teams that haven’t made the playoffs have been able to make changes, improve and even win MLS Cup. Look at the Columbus Crew.”
If there was a bright side from 2021, it was the play of youngsters like Ralph Priso, Jacob Shaffelburg, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Ifunanyachi Achara, Jayden Nelson and more – many of them homegrown. Rising Canadian international Ayo Akinola will return from injury as well.
From head coach to the roster's entire complexion, Toronto’s offseason surely won’t be boring. Everything is on the table.
“Football is a team sport, in many ways it’s more of a team sport than any other,” Curtis said. “Even though one or two guys can change the game, it’s unbelievable how much of a symphony it is. I think we have to look at every single player and every decision we made. It’s important we are collectively reflective on what happened, how to improve and get better.”