When Greg Vanney announced his resignation following Toronto FC’s first-round exit from the MLS playoffs, it was pretty clear major changes were afoot. Nothing of the sort has happened just yet, with the Canadian side opting for a patient approach on the transfer front. Former New York Red Bulls boss Chris Armas has since stepped into the TFC hot seat and will be hoping to lead his side back to its former heights.
TFC battled for the Supporters Shield for much of last season, before injuries halted its title march. The Philadelphia Union took full advantage of their struggles, edging the Reds by three points. TFC followed up its disappointing finish to the season with a first-round exit at the hands of expansion side Nashville SC. Vanney announced his resignation shortly thereafter, joining the LA Galaxy.
The club will base its operations in Orlando, with Armas announcing a shift in playing style going into the new season. The 48-year-old will look to install an aggressive system with an emphasis on playing vertically and winning back possession quickly.
“We feel like we are gaining momentum. There’s a good rhythm to what we’re doing every day,” said Armas. It is not so easy to play with the energy and intensity all the time in this heat and humidity but there is a big commitment to what we are doing.
TFC kicks off its season with a Round of 16 clash in the CONCACAF Champions League against Leon. The Reds will then kick off their MLS season on April 17, locking horns with CF Montreal. The Canadian side will be without Ayo Akinola and Ifunanyachi Achara while reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo is reportedly a doubt for Wednesday’s clash.
“It’s been brutal to tell you the truth. We are very targeted in our Designated Player approach,” said TFC President Bill Manning. “We’re not going to rush ourselves, we do think it needs to be an attacking player.”
Toronto FC currently has an unoccupied Designated Player spot, following Pablo Piatti’s departure. The Argentine forward has since returned to Spain, joining Elche. The Reds lacked firepower when they needed it most, ultimately bowing out against Nashville SC in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
“When you need that big goal, like we’ve seen in the past with Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore,” said Manning. We weren’t able to get that goal against Nashville and that’s why we need that player like a Raúl Ruidíaz, a Josef Martínez, guys like that who are difference makers.”
Here is a closer look at 2021 Toronto FC:
2021 Toronto FC Season Preview:
2020 finish: 13-5-5 (2nd in the East – First round elimination)
Key Additions: Matt Di Rosa, Nathan Crofts.
Key Departures: Pablo Piatti, Laurent Ciman.
Newcomer to Watch
Matt di Rosa
Toronto FC has had a quiet offseason on the transfer front, beyond its managerial change. The Canadian side has opted to go into the new season relatively unchanged and opted to bolster its roster through the 2021 MLS Superdraft. Toronto FC selected Matt Di Rosa with the 25th overall pick in the first round and will be hoping he injects some fresh life into its backline.
The 22-year-old started all 21 games for Maryland University last season and played an integral role in his side’s national championship victory in 2018. Di Rosa addresses an immediate need at left back for Toronto FC and will offer some much-needed depth behind Richie Laryea until Justin Morrow returns from injury. With the Canadian side competing both in league action and the CONCACAF Champions League, Di Rosa will be given ample opportunities to stake his claim for regular minutes.
Pressure is on
The 31-year-old has been linked with a move away from Toronto since the end of last season and enters the new year with a point to prove. Altidore had a subdued season by his typical standards, finding the back of the net just twice in 12 league appearances. The veteran forward missed much of the season battling a hamstring injury and will be hoping to turn his fortunes around.
Ayo Akinola’s rapid rise to prominence applies further pressure on Altidore and will go head-to-head with the former Sunderland man for the starting spot. Altidore’s future in Toronto may be uncertain, but the 31-year-old will nonetheless be eager to prove his worth under Armas.
Toronto FC heads into the new year aiming for consolidation and a deep playoff run. The third Designated Player spot may remain open, but the Canadian side will be hoping a number of its budding talents take the next step and emerge as crucial pieces to Armas’ setup.
The former NY Red Bulls boss faces a tough challenge ahead after following in Vanney’s footsteps. After all, the 46-year-old led the Reds to three MLS Cup finals, winning it in 2017. Much like Vanney, Armas is tasked with leading a revolution in Toronto as the side looks to rejuvenate its aging core.
“We don’t believe we had to make a lot of acquisitions. It was very important to us to renew contracts,” said Manning. “We locked up Marky Delgado and Richie Laryea. Why would we bring someone else in who’s going to limit the minutes of Jayden Nelson or a Ralph Priso?”
The TFC president cited the Philadelphia Union’s recent success using academy graduates and hopes to emulate their model in Toronto. “We’re encouraged by what we see around the league as well,” said Manning. You’re seeing young kids perform in Philadelphia, in Dallas, and that gives us encouragement.”
Alejandro Pozuelo led the way for TFC last season, registering nine goals and 10 assists on his way to the 2020 MVP award. As Armas looks to usher in a new playing style, the Spaniard will once again need to be at his best, injecting creativity between the lines.
The former Swansea man struck a deadly partnership with Akinola in the final third, with the 21-year-old netting nine goals. Akinola took Major League Soccer by storm last season and will be hoping to translate his impressive goalscoring exploits into the new season.
Michael Bradley is expected to assume more offensive responsibility under Armas this year, playing higher up the pitch. “I think with the ball he is one of the most intelligent players I’ve seen, so it’s clear why it’s important to have him part of the build-up,” said Armas. Bradley relishes the challenge and is looking forward to his newfound freedom.
“One of the things that (Armas) has talked about for me is to get back to a little bit more of what I was years ago and be more of a real two-way presence and help us find rhythm and flow to drive us forward,” said Bradley. It’s a fun challenge.”
The last question mark in Toronto remains its enigmatic forward – Jozy Altidore. The 31-year-old is coming off an injury-riddled season and is rumored to be on his way out. With Akinola reportedly slowly returning to full fitness, Altidore will be given a golden opportunity against Leon on Wednesday to make the starting spot his own.
Personnel changes have been few and far between in Toronto this offseason, but TFC’s new manager is setting no limits. “The boys are up for it, let me tell you,” said Armas. “What a group of guys, pushing every day. They are committing to something different and I can see that they love the energy, they love the intensity, they love playing fast.”
Toronto FC Roster
Goalkeepers: Alex Bono, Quentin Westberg, Kevin Silva.
Defenders: Auro Jr., Matt Di Rosa, Julian Dunn, Omar Gonzalez, Richie Laryea, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow, Julian Romeo, Eriq Zavaleta.
Midfielders: Michael Bradley, Nick DeLeon, Marky Delgado, Liam Fraser, Noble Okello, Jonathan Osorio, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jahkeele Marshall-Ruty, Ralph Priso.
Forwards: Ifunanyachi Achara, Ayo Akinola, Jozy Altidore, Patrick Mullins, Jayden Nelson, Griffin Dorsey, Tsubasa Endoh, Erickson Gallardo, Jacob Shaffelburg, Nathan Crofts, Jordan Perruzza.