The tough questions facing Toronto FC this season

What kind of captain will Jonathan Osorio be? Will the Italian DPs buy in? Can TFC get a handle on their injury issues?

The tough questions facing Toronto FC this season
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Questions abound for Toronto FC ahead of its 2024 MLS regular season opener away to FC Cincinnati on Sunday.

It's been an interesting winter for TFC who enter the new campaign with coach John Herdman at the helm and GM Jason Hernandez trying to revamp the roster.

Whether the Reds can rebound after suffering their worst ever MLS campaign in 2023 will largely depend on them answering these questions.

Can Herdman duplicate his success at Toronto FC?

John Herdman is a master motivator and someone who has a track record of changing teams' fractured cultures and getting things back on the right path.

When Herdman took over as Canadian women’s team coach, he inherited a side that was fresh off a last place finish at the 2011 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Morale was at an all-time low following the Carolina Morace era that featured questionable on-field tactics and even more questionable training and preparation methods. He ended up leading them to back-to-back Olympic bronze medals in London and Rio.

Likewise, the men’s team was in a state of disarray when Herdman replaced Octavio Zambrano in 2018. Canada had just stumbled its way through another unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign and the team was directionless. Herdman raised the standards both on and off the field to the point where Canada qualified for its first World Cup in 36 years and is now legitimately considered one of the best nations in Concacaf.

Herdman’s time in charge of the both the women's and men’s teams was defined in many ways by a sense of "sisterhood" and “brotherhood” that he helped instil, getting the players to commit to his unified vision and inspiring them to go to the ends of the world for each other on the pitch.

TFC badly needs some of that very same vibe. Last year, the Reds were mentally frail; they couldn't handle the slightest bit of adversity and routinely folded at the first sign of trouble in games. That can't continue this season and it'll be up to Herdman and his staff from preventing complacency to settle in amongst the players.

Will Herdman have same effect on Toronto FC’s players as he did with Canada?
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How long will it take Hernandez to retool the roster?

This has been a very quiet off-season for Toronto FC as the only roster additions have been Honduran midfielder Deybi Flores, top draft pick Tyrese Spicer and Irish centre back Kevin Long. 

TFC is coming off a franchise-worst campaign in 2023, finishing in last place, failing to qualify for the playoffs again, and having the worst attack (26 goals for) and second worst defence (59 goals against) in MLS. 

The club's forwards combined for only six goals last year - five from Deandre Kerr, and one from the departed C.J. Sapong. Toronto badly needs a go-to No. 9; an experienced striker who can play between Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne in the front three and guarantee the team 12 to 15 goals. Thus far, no upgrades have been made by GM Jason Hernandez at the forward position, and aside from the addition of Long, the leaky back line from a year ago hasn't been significantly strengthened. 

"The reality is we do still have quite a few guaranteed contracts [going] into 2024. The expectation is that not everybody will return. …. You can’t finish [at the] bottom of the table and expect there not to be changes,” Hernandez said at the end of last season. 

But the roster purge hasn't happened as last year's squad remains largely intact. Wholesale changes can't be made unless Hernandez can find ways to move some players out. The MLS primary transfer window remains open until April 23, and if Hernandez can't make all the necessary moves by then he'll have to wait until the secondary transfer window, which runs from July 18 to August 14. 

Will the Italian DPs be fully committed and buy in?

The longstanding criticisms of both Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi have been that they haven't lived up to their big-money contracts and have routinely failed to make impacts in games.

The Italians are amongst the highest-paid players in MLS, but they haven't come close to earning their wages with what they've produced on the field. DPs have to make a difference in MLS. So far, it's fair to say the lack of offensive production from the Italian DPs is a big reason why TFC are coming off their worst season in franchise history.

But what’s happened on the pitch is only half of the problems with the Italians. Their attitudes also have to be questioned during their time in MLS. Multiple sources have told TFC Republic that both of them didn't get along with Bob Bradley almost from Day 1. Bernardeschi's infamous outburst after last year's road loss to Austin, in which he questioned the team's tactics, led to plenty of more friction between himself and Bradley.

Insigne and Bernardeschi didn't appreciate being held to account for their underperforming ways by a coach with Bradley's resume, and they certainly didn't like taking their marching orders from Terry Dunfield.

Herdman's greatest challenge will be to earn the Italians' respect and convince them to buy into his vision of TFC, which stresses the concept of "brotherhood" and unity above all else.

Can TFC get a handle on their injury issues?

Toronto was decimated by injury problems in 2023. Lorenzo Insigne was limited to just 20 league appearances, Adama Diomande missed most of the campaign due a series of ailments, and other key players were unavailable for long stretches,

As a result, Bob Bradley and Terry Dunfield were rarely able to rely on a full complement of players or able to field the same starting 11 for consecutive games. But the all-time low came in Bradley's last game, a 2-0 loss away to New England on June 24.

A combination of injuries and national team duty commitments meant TFC was missing 11 players, including former captain Michael Bradley, Raoul Petretta, and Canadians Jonathan Osorio, Richie Laryea and Kobe Franklin. The Reds were also missing 10 players in a loss away to Austin FC the prior month when a frustrated Federico Bernardeschi went on his famous post-game rant.

After Bradley was fired last June, club president Bill Manning explained TFC would add a sports science division as part of the restructuring of its sporting department.

"[Sports science] is an area that we're going to look to improve on, and that will be separated out as its own functionality reporting into me," Manning promised.

The Reds can't afford to be plagued by injuries like they were last year. The sports science department has to find a way to keep players healthy and minimize injuries so that Herdman has a full range of players to choose from throughout the campaign.

What kind of captain will Jonathan Osorio be?

For the first time in nine years, Toronto heads into an MLS season with a new captain. Michael Bradley wore the captain's armband with distinction from 2015 when he took it over from Steven Caldwell until last October when he retired from the game.  

During his time as captain, Bradley led TFC to multiple trophies, including one MLS Cup (2017), a Supporters’ Shield (2017) and four Canadian Championships (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020). More importantly, Bradley helped to change the culture of what once was a failing franchise with his brand of leadership that focused on maintaining intensity and standards at a high level at all times. 

Needless to say, Jonathan Osorio has very big shoes to fill after being named the the new captain last month. Osorio will enter the 2024 MLS season – his twelfth campaign with the Reds – as the club’s all-time leader in appearances with 341 across all competitions and as the last remaining member of the 2017 treble winning side who is still an active player for TFC.   

"I have an intimate connection with the club that is different, I would say, from anyone else here. I will do everything on my part to turn this around,” Osorio said. 

Osorio has, in effect, been TFC's captain in waiting for quite some time now, serving as Bradley's understudy the last few years. The Canadian international no doubt learned a lot from Bradley, but being the exact same type of captain is impossible. Osorio will have to put his own stamp on the role and lead the Toronto locker room in a different way. Whether TFC can turn things around this season will depend a great deal on what Osorio's brand of leadership will look like and how effective of a captain he can be now that Bradley is gone. 

(Top photo courtesy of Raul Romero Jr/Toronto FC)

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