Every year is a new year except in Toronto, where not for a few months will the players, executive, and fans of Toronto FC know if 2015 will be different than all the rest.
A bleak start to the season -- four straight losses following an impressive 3-1 defeat of Vancouver in the opener –-- is tempered by knowledge that come early May, TFC home games will resume at an expanded, renovated BMO Field. TFC plays at Orlando this week and Philadelphia next week, then travels to Montreal for a Canadian Championship qualifier before the grand re-opening May 10 against Houston.
“We honestly feel like we’ve been on the road for the past three months because of the preseason and everything else,” says head coach Greg Vanney.
The seven-game road swing to start a season is one of the longest in league history though it doesn’t equal those of Sporting Kansas City (10 games in 2011), Chicago (nine games in 2006), and the Galaxy (eight games in 2003).
“It’s important for us to build some momentum," adds Vanney, "even while we’re on the road. Ideally that means earning some points but it also means our mentality as competitors and that we’re moving forward as a group.”
TFC took a step back last week by conceding three goals in the first half-hour of a 3-2 loss to Dallas that was delayed more than three hours by rain and lightning. A pair of splendid late goals by Sebastian Giovinco, whose skill and grace will mesmerize the TFC faithful when he plays at home, did little to eradicate a stench left by defensive errors both comic and tragic. In the first 10 minutes Fabian Castillo twice burned defender Nick Hagglund, stationed at right back rather than in the middle, and in the 27th minute a scuffed clearance provided Blas Perez with his easiest goal in quite a while.
Troubled waters were further roiled Tuesday when Sportsnet reported that AC Milan director Umberto Gandini is a candidate to take over as club president, a position filled only briefly since the team joined MLS. TFC operates as a subsidiary of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment and is overseen by president and CEO Tim Leiweke, who last year announced his intention to leave the organization sometime this summer.
As general manager, Tim Bezbatchenko masterminded the acquisition of Giovinco and the trade by which disgruntled striker Jermain Defoe returned to Sunderland in exchange for Jozy Altidore. The naming of a new team president wouldn’t directly affect Bezbatchenko and Vanney right away but the clock is ticking with an important run of home games in May to be followed by prolonged team absences during the Gold Cup.
Vanney took over last year from Ryan Nelsen with 10 games to play and thus has had less than half a season, counting the five games played so far in 2015, to implement his ideas. TFC’s big three last year -- Michael Bradley, Defoe and Gilberto -- didn’t click often enough.
“That was one of things I thought we didn’t really have last year and that’s something you don’t really know until you get guys together, especially when they’re international guys,” says Vanney. “You don’t know how they’re going to jell and what we found out over the course of the year was our two forwards, Jermaine and Gilberto, didn’t really jell. “
Bradley played against Giovinco during Serie A stints with Chievo and Roma, and cites the acquisition’s importance to MLS as well as TFC.
“He’s certainly is someone who adds credibility to the league,” says Bradley of the 28-year-old Italian who played out his contract with Juventus and signed a five-year MLS deal worth $7 million annually. “He’s the prime of his career, he comes from one of the biggest clubs in the world, he has good experiences playing with the Italian national team, and he comes here because he believes in the league as a whole and what we’re trying to build in Toronto.”
Five games isn’t much of a data base and while Altidore’s role is clear enough as long as he and TFC score goals, Vanney is refining the tasks and responsibilities of Bradley and Giovinco. Bradley toggles his game between the different needs of Vanney and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and Giovinco is being asked to adapt as well.
“He’s a fantastic player,” says Vanney. ”We’ve asked him to play a little slightly different role than when he was at Juventus and with Italy. We have him a little bit more as an attacking midfielder/forward whereas before he was more of an out-and-out forward. He’s figuring out within our league how to find spaces and really impact the game and taking more responsibility to create and set up opportunities for himself and others.”
Altidore, who netted two goals in the season-opening defeat of Vancouver but hasn’t scored since, knows the process requires time.
"We both want to score goals but we work in different ways,” he says of the “Atomic Ant”, so nicknamed for his energy and effort. "We’re different players. I think it will be important for us to get the best out of Giovinco because he can be a really good player this league for years to come.”
In five games, Giovinco has already taken 26 shots, more than the next four players combined, while scoring a team-high three goals. TFC shouldn’t lack for chances as long as the big guns stay healthy and once international commitments are done with. A banged-up back line and the grueling road trip haven’t prevented TFC from notching eight goals in its first five games as Vanney searches for the optimum DP mix.
“Michael is not necessarily a guy who likes to receive the ball high with his back to goal,” says Vanney. “He builds power into his movements going forward. He likes to face forward and play forward and move forward. Sebastian is a guy who plays between the lines, he plays in the gaps, and he can be facing backwards but can turn forward so quickly. Jozy is a guy who likes to finish runs and be goal-oriented. So really the three of them complement each other.”
Shoring up the defense should be simplified once Mark Bloom and Steven Caldwell recover from injuries, yet depth will be an issue before and during the Gold Cup. Two new DPs and a bigger, refurbished stadium mandate significant improvement from last year when TFC finished seventh and missed the playoffs by eight points. TFC certainly has good players; can they be forged into a good team?
“It’s the process of building a team,” says Bradley. “You can talk hypothetically before the season as much as you’d like and you can put things down on paper as often as you like, but until you actually get things going and games start to come, and you can see what’s good and what can be improved and what has to be better in order for us to be a real successful team, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we’re going through now.