PREVIEW: Transformed Toronto takes aim at new heights

[MLS 2014: Eastern Conference] No team has undergone a more radical offseason renovation than Toronto FC, and if that jacks up the pressure on him and his players, head coach Ryan Nelsen is all for it.

“If that’s pressure, my goodness, I’ll take that every single day over having a situation that Toronto has felt for a few seasons,” says Nelsen, who won just six games as a rookie head coach in 2013 yet starts out this season at the helm of a bonafide contender though TFC has not even qualified for the playoffs since joining MLS in 2007. "When you bring in good players, that’s what you want. You don’t bring in bad players and have no pressure. You want good players and you want to win. It’s as simple as that.”

2013 Toronto FC
Record: 6-17-11
Finish: 9th in Eastern Conference.
Playoffs: did not qualify.

A dozen players have departed, including former DP Danny Koevermans and fellow striker Robert Earnshaw, whose eight goals last season led the team. Yet the city’s soccer fans are so abuzz about the dawn of a new era that season-ticket sales were shut off at 17,000 and the prospect of a packed, raucous house at every game, as was the case in the team’s early MLS seasons, is very real.

As he promised several times after taking over as team president in 2013, Tim Leiweke has reached for the stars. Estimates on acquisition costs and salary commitments for Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto run as high as $100 million, and on those three players alone can be made a case TFC is a sure bet to make the playoffs.

Nelsen has also secured the services of MLS veterans Jackson, Justin Morrow and native son Dwayne De Rosario. Julio Cesar, who is expected to start for Brazil in the World Cup, has come to MLS on loan from Nelsen’s previous employer, Queens Park Rangers. Another loanee, Bradley Orr, left Blackburn to play right back. The melding of so many new players takes time, yet a few mediocre performances in February have already sparked angst in sections of the fan base and press.

Defoe and Julio Cesar missed most of the preseason and TFC is far from the juggernaut many observers believe it will be, sooner rather than later. Still, Julio Cesar pulled off a few stunning saves in a 0-0 tie with Philadelphia to suggest he’ll start the regular season at full gallop.

SA's Eastern Conference Previews:
Chicago | Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montreal
New England | New York | Philadelphia | Sporting KC | Toronto FC

SA's Western Conference Previews:
Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | LA Galaxy
Portland | Real Salt Lake | San Jose | Seattle | Vancouver

WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Star power in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a title – as the Red Bulls, Fire, and Seattle can attest – but there’s no question TFC is now one of the league’s most talented teams. It is stronger and sharper in midfield and up top, and assuming centerbacks Doniel Henry and Steven Caldwell, along with the new keeper, do their jobs, the good times at BMO Field many fans fondly remember will recur every week. The play of keeper Joe Bendik last year made Stefan Frei expendable, and he's more than capable backup for Julio Cesar. Having De Ro back home and on a good team offers Nelsen a valuable weapon either off the bench or as a spot starter.

WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? The depth that Nelsen will so desperately need with three vital players destined for World Cup duty took a hit when forward Bright Dike suffered a torn Achilles tendon that will probably keep him out for the entire season. Nelsen is in just his second year as head coach and though a shakedown period is essential with so many new parts in place, there won’t be much tolerance if his powerful lineup can’t generate results quickly.

PROJECTED FINISH: 4th-5th place. TFC is a year or two behind other rebuilt teams such as New England, and with SKC and Houston always tough, and New York and Philly on the rise, a playoff spot will be achievement enough. But more is very possible.

30-*Julio Cesar (34)/Brazil (Queens Park Rangers)

16-*Bradley Orr (31)/England (Blackburn Rovers)
13-Steven Caldwell (33)/Scotland (2nd season)
15-Doneil Henry (20)/Canada (5th season)
2-Justin Morrow (26)/USA (San Jose Earthquakes)

9-Jackson (24)/Brazil (FC Dallas)
21-Jonathan Osorio (21)/Canada (2nd season)
4-Michael Bradley (26)/USA (Roma)
23-Alvaro Rey (24)/Spain (2nd season)

9-Gilberto (24)/Brazil (Portuguesa)
18-Jermain Defoe (31)/England (Tottenham)

First off the bench:
14-**Dwayne De Rosario (35)/Canada (D.C. United)
25-Jeremy Hall (25)/USA (3rd season)
5-Ashton Morgan (23)/Canada (4th season)
32-Andrew Wiedeman (24)/USA (3rd season)
Toronto FC: complete roster.

returning players in bold.
*on loan.
**second stint at club,

March 15: at Seattle, 4:30 pm ET (NBCSN)
March 22:
D.C. United, 4:30 pm ET
March 29:
at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 pm ET
Toronto FC: complete schedule.
1 comment about "PREVIEW: Transformed Toronto takes aim at new heights".
  1. Peter sheehan, March 8, 2014 at 11:08 a.m.

    All of those mentioned players thrive on pressure! I sincerely doubt they will disappoint; the only sticking point may be they need time to jell since DeFoe and Gilberto did not play pre-season! If they 're ready physically and the back line holds we'll be good! TFC fans might have to be a little patient in the early going until some kinks are worked out but get ready because it's going to be an exciting team to watch! GO BIG RED!

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