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All eyes on Toronto (again)

I’m old enough to remember Toronto FC as one of the best teams in MLS. I know, I know, hard to believe. They’ve averaged 28 points over the last three seasons. On average, they’ve finished in 27th place in MLS.

But back in the day, all the way back in 2016, they made MLS Cup. In 2017 they won a Supporters’ Shield and went ahead and won MLS Cup this time. In 2018, they made it all the way to a Concacaf Champions Cup (née Champions League) final and lost on penalties. In 2019 they made it back to MLS Cup. In 2020 they finished second in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

All those many years ago, this team consistently rolled out one of the best rosters in the league and had the results to go along with it. Over the last few seasons, they’ve still had one of the most expensive rosters in the league, but the talent and results haven’t matched.

The simplest explanation here is the architect of those late 2010s rosters, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, left the club at the start of 2019. Bezbatchenko took over Columbus as president and general manager and between the two MLS Cups and the current run to the Champions Cup final, it’s gone pretty well for him there.

Toronto have been trying to get it together ever since he left. Last year, a combination of bad roster building and personality clashes led to the lowest point this club has had… maybe ever. But they seem to have hit the right button for the first time in a while by bringing in John Herdman. He seems to have connected with Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi in a way Bob Bradley couldn’t, and two of the most talented players in the league are finally starting to produce like it.

It also helps that they seem to have filled out the rest of the roster a little more effectively. This offseason, they signed midfielder Matty Longstaff on a free deal, brought in midfielder Deiby Flores, picked up center back Kevin Long, and seem to have hit on No. 1 MLS SuperDraft pick Tyrese Spicer. Prince Owusu, who they brought in during last year’s summer window, has six goals in nine starts.

It’s all led to a start that’s earned them 22 points from their first 14 games. That’s not quite 2017 all over again, but it’s way better than whatever’s been going on the last three seasons. Now, everyone wants to know if it means Toronto is back. Or at least making progress on working their way back.

Tonight, they take on an FC Cincinnati side we know for sure is the genuine product. It’s a huge test and, unfortunately, they’ll be without Bernardeschi for it. But Insigne should be good to go and DP wingback Richie Laryea could be ready to go, too. They’ll be able to give Cincy something close to their best shot. If they can pull off a win, then we might just be able to say one of the league’s biggest spenders is officially working their way back to where their wage sheet says they should be. If they look outclassed, then maybe we all just agree this is still a work in progress.

The opportunity is there tonight to change the narrative, though. No one is quite sure what to believe with this team. We need some proof. Tonight, we’ll get it one way or the other. Either way, Toronto are back in the spotlight.

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Good luck out there. See the first go in and then add some more.