Unlike some of the teams that ended up down near the bottom of the table, Toronto clearly had a plan.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
So it turns out that “sign a DP center back and then try to hold out until $25 million worth of Italian cavalry arrives to bail us out in the summer!” wasn’t a great plan. It is not at all fair to put it all on that, as there are lots of talented young guys on this roster who got a shot and did not do anything with it.
But clearly the Reds bet big on a “Seattle, 2016”-style stretch run, and boy did it not work out like that.
Formation and tactics
Bob Bradley had to play around with a lot of different stuff throughout the year – at one point he was running something close to a bog standard 4-4-2 – but everything he did was pointed at eventually running an LAFC-style 4-3-3 with two high-level wingers, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, pinned to each side, and a veteran, ball-playing group of central midfielders dictating things from the most valuable spots on the pitch.
More than any other team in the league they clearly wanted to be a front-foot, possession-heavy side that used the ball to run the game and disorganize opponents. Everything they did was aimed at that.
Technically the Reds won a title this year, as their PK shootout win over Forge FC on June 4 concluded the longest tournament in soccer history, the 2020 Canadian Championship. Any time you win a trophy, that’s a highlight.
HIGHLIGHTS: Nashville SC vs. Toronto FC | August 06, 2022
It really, really looked like the plan was going to pay off. The Reds scored 13 goals in those five games and were only foiled by goalkeeping – both their own (we’ll get to that in the next section) and that of Djordje Petrovic, whose heroics for the Revs is the only reason that 3W-0L-2D wasn’t 5W-0L-0D.
Even with those two draws, though, they were balling out, collecting points and pushing into the playoff picture. They were buzzing.
It’s unfair to put it all on one guy because this season’s futility has truly been a team effort. Only Bernardeschi is immune from criticism IMO.
But this is the first thing that happened after that five-game stretch mentioned above, and the biggest reason why it wasn’t a six-game stretch:
Armchair Analyst: Alex Bono howler
There was, unfortunately, more where that came from. Alex Bono had actually been very good up to about mid-August, but he completely fell apart during the stretch run, and as he sank he took Toronto’s playoff hopes with him.
At one point, when asked if TFC had been getting the kind of goalkeeping from Bono it needs, Bradley answered "not in this last stretch." He then switched to veteran Quentin Westberg, but by that time the damage was done.
He’d been lost as a winger all year. For some reason when played out wide, he’s a ball stopper. But as soon as Bradley moved him to central midfield, there was a lot of fun stuff like what you see in that clip above – win the ball, nutmeg a dude, try a through-ball, win the ball again, etc. etc. etc.
I might be more bought in on him than I should be, but I don’t know. That combination of skill, tenacity, motor, athleticism and gusto has got to be weaponized by someone.
There are a lot of great candidates here – Ayo Akinola hasn’t been the same since his last knee injury; Jesus Jimenez hit the wall hard after a promising start; lack of progress from most of the young players; injuries to Kaye and Jonathan Osorio that submarined any chance at a late-season push – but the answer is Carlos Salcedo.
A full, in-his-prime Mexican international with experience in MLS, Liga MX and Europe, a guy who is multilingual and who checks any physical or skill-related box you could reasonably ask for… there’s a reason he was the most well-paid center back in league history.
But he stunk. In his 13 games in red he was, as often as not, the worst player on the field.
I actually think the idea behind signing him was the right one, since we all know an elite center back can make a world of difference in MLS (Bradley, who traded Walker Zimmerman three years ago, knows this too well).
Salcedo, though, very much wasn’t it up through his departure in mid-July.
Five Players to Build Around
- Bernardeschi (RW): Maybe the best player in the league since his arrival.
- Insigne (LW): Not quite as good as Bernardeschi, but still damn good and looks very bought-in, even on the defensive side of the ball.
- Kaye (CM): TFC traded about $2m in assets for him with the assumption that he could get back to his previous, Best XI-caliber self. I’m not betting against it.
- Nelson (CM): If they let Osorio walk in free agency – which they might – it’s a pretty natural plug-and-play fix here. Either way, he should be a major part of the future.
- Laryea (RB): Arguably the most dynamic attacking right back in the league, he’s on loan from Nottingham Forest through next summer. Got to make that permanent.
Center back and goalkeeper. I don’t even think they should touch the center forward situation – I bet Jimenez and Ayo will kill it next year. And sure, Michael Bradley (who’s had a very good year) could use a backup, but there’s no mystery about how and where Toronto fell apart all season long.
Center back and goalkeeper. I don’t know if it means they’re going to go out into the global market for answers, or if they can throw free agent deals at guys like RBNY’s Aaron Long and NYCFC’s Sean Johnson (hence why they might not be able to retain Osorio, who’s also a free agent and is likely to command some big offers himself).
But they’ve got to address this if they’re going to come anywhere near the top of the table next year. And given both expenses and expectations, nothing less than that would be acceptable.