Once known for creaking and cracking apart at inopportune times, the spine of Toronto FC seems to be stronger than it’s ever been.
Not for a while can the influence of newcomers Will Johnson, Drew Moor and Clint Irwin be rightly assessed, but by signing those MLS veterans -- their combined pro experience adds up to more than two dozen seasons -- Toronto FC has bolstered itself where a team must be solid to succeed: right down the middle.
Johnson, 28, is one of the top holding midfielders in MLS who can nonetheless initiate attacks as well as break them up. Moor, 31, has played all along the back line but is most competent and comfortable at centerback. Irwin, 26, rebounded from a shaky 2014 to regain his place among the better MLS keepers last season.
TFC has made other moves -- another arrival is right back Steven Beitashour and it has re-signed left back Justin Morrow – to cut down drastically on the 58 goals it conceded to tie for the league lead. Its potent attack paced by MVP Sebastian Giovinco gives opponents nightmares; its defending sows dark thoughts among the fans.
“Something was off last year collectively as a unit between the back line, probably the defensive midfielder, and the goalkeeper,” said GM Tim Bezbatchenko during a conference call Tuesday to introduce Irwin. “We felt like we needed to make a change and have a fresh start.”
That is exactly the term used by Moor to describe his decision to leave Colorado, with which he won an MLS Cup in 2010 9played in Toronto), after seven seasons to sign with TFC as a free agent. At his introductory press conference in December, he said, “My wife and I looked at this as an opportunity to start fresh and we’re certainly ready to do that.
“When I was traded from Dallas to Colorado [midway through the 2009 season] that first couple of years I played some of the best football of my career and I think it was because I had to re-focus. It reinvigorated me and I hope this move to Toronto does the same thing.”
TFC generated a lot of buzz a year ago by spending big to land Giovinco and swap Jozy Altidore for disgruntled Jermain Defoe. The offense awoke. TFC scored at least two goals more often than it didn’t, in 18 of 34 games, yet lurched to a .500 finish (15-15-4) in sixth place, and conceded the same number of goals it scored. Then came a collapse in the playoff game -- a 3-0 loss to Montreal -- its fans had waited nine long seasons to witness.
Bezbatchenko and head coach Greg Vanney endured some searing criticism for not doing more to shore up those crucial spots behind its impressive array of attackers. One of its moves in that regard, a midseason signing of Moroccan defender Ahmed Kantari, went bust.
The club announced last week Kantari been released after playing just 12 MLS matches in 2015. He had signed a contract worth $345,000 per year, more than any TFC player except for DPs Giovinco, Altidore and Michael Bradley. Kantari was particularly poor in the knockout-round loss to the Impact that abruptly ended TFC’s first foray into the playoffs.
Many coaches preach that defending starts at the top, but the middle third is where positioning and cohesive movement blunt many attacks. Johnson’s tireless work as the midfield keystone helped drive Real Salt Lake’s rise to an MLS Cup title in 2009 and a place among the league’s elite teams. He served the same role in Portland after a trade in December, 2012, but he lost his starting spot last year as the Timbers ramped up to capture their first league championship.
As it later did with Irwin, TFC used Targeted Allocation Money in a trade to bring the Toronto native back home. As none of the newcomers will fall into the $500,000-$1 million salary range best suited for the use of TAM, TFC is instead swapping those funds for fundamentally sound players. They have been noticeable by their absence the past few seasons.
“The addition of Will Johnson will help strengthen our goal of developing a winning culture and spirit here at Toronto FC,” said Bezbatchenko. “He represents another significant piece as we continue to build a championship caliber club.”
The pairing of former Rapids Moor and Irwin may be the most important piece. Irwin said he connected with Moor via Skype as soon as he knew they’d be reunited in Toronto, and their communication with each other and Johnson will be perhaps the major determinant of where TFC finishes in 2016. Last year, the Rapids allowed 43 goals, as did the Red Bulls, which led the Eastern Conference in that department.
“It’s going to be really key for us,” said Irwin, who played the 2011 season in the Canadian Soccer League for Capital City [in Ottawa] following a failed trial with the Revs. “There’s some new faces on the back line. Obviously, I’m familiar with Drew Moor but with Steven Beitashour coming in and Josh Williams [12 games for TFC last year after coming over from New York City in mid-season] and some other guys, it’s going to be an important time to mesh.
“But I think I’ve got experience with that; this past year in Colorado we played with a number of different combinations in the back four and were able to produce some good results in terms of defensively.”