2016 MLS season preview: Toronto FC

Sebastian Giovinco

With a star-studded attack and rebuilt defence, there are high expectations for TFC going into the new season.

2015 regular season: 6th Eastern Conference (12th overall)

2015 playoffs: Knockout Round; 3-0 loss to Montreal Impact

MLS Cup odds: 17/1

Players in: Drew Moor (free agency), Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps, trade), Will Johnson (Portland Timbers, trade), Clint Irwin (Colorado Rapids, trade), Tsubasa Endoh (SuperDraft)

Players out: Chris Konopka (option declined), Manny Aparicio (option declined), Jackson (option declined), Robbie Findley (out of contract), Joe Bendik (Orlando City SC, trade), Ahmed Kantari (waived), Luke Moore (waived), Collen Warner (Houston Dynamo, trade), Herculez Gomez (waived)

With Jozy Altidore replacing the disgruntled Jermain Defoe and Sebastian Giovinco adding even more firepower to the line-up, Toronto FC went into last season knowing that a franchise-first playoff appearance was an absolute must. A terrible defence made that task far from easy, but thanks to Giovinco’s historic campaign, Greg Vanney’s side just managed to creep into the postseason with a sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

They were subsequently eliminated quickly and embarrassingly, losing 3-0 at Canadian rivals Montreal Impact in the Knockout Round, but some shrewd offseason moves suggest they have every chance of going further this term.

Reasons to be positive

With MLS MVP Giovinco leading the way alongside fellow Designated Players Altidore and Michael Bradley, it goes without saying that Toronto’s main strength is in the attacking third. Newcomer Will Johnson and fellow midfielder Jonathan Osorio have both been known to chip in with the odd goal as well, while Vanney also has some promising youngsters at his disposal in homegrown duo Jay Chapman and Jordan Hamilton and first-round prick Tsubasa Endoh.

More important, though, is the fact that the team’s grave defensive issues look to have been addressed. TFC’s unsettled backline was truly woeful throughout 2015, conceding a joint-worst 58 regular season goals, but the additions of three former All-Stars in goalkeeper Clint Irwin, right-back Steven Beitashour and centre-back Drew Moor should make a world of difference.

Trouble on the horizon?

The primary issue facing TFC is whether they can settle on a tactical setup that benefits them on both sides of the ball. The team have shifted from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation during preseason in an effort to fit their personnel, but whether the switch will offer the desired balance they’re looking for is no guarantee. Like last year, they’ll also be playing the opening eight weeks of the season on the road due to renovations to BMO Field, so the initial adaptation process will be all the more testing.

What a bad start would mean for Vanney’s job stability remains to be seen, too. The former academy coach was a surprise hire when he replaced Ryan Nelsen at the helm in September 2014, and while he may have led the club to a long-awaited playoff appearance in his first full season in charge, he certainly didn’t make himself indispensable either. A poor run of results could see him come under serious pressure, and if he makes it until the summer, he’ll also have to figure out how to cope with the loss of his three DPs to international tournament. As it is, he’ll be without Altidore for the first two weeks of the campaign while the physical striker rehabs from a nagging hamstring problem.

Key man: Sebastian Giovinco

Giovinco was nothing short of sensational during his first year in MLS, producing arguably the best individual season in league history. With 22 goals and 16 assists, the former Juventus playmaker surpassed Chris Wondolowski’s mark for the highest goals-plus-assists total in a season and took home both the Golden Boot and league MVP award in the process. Completely unmarkable at times, it’s going to be very interesting to see whether he can replicate those numbers in 2016.

One to watch: Tsubasa Endoh

While Endoh was considered a slight reach with the ninth pick of the 2016 SuperDraft, his preseason performances suggest that TFC did their homework. The Japanese attacker from the University of Maryland has fitted seamlessly into Vanney’s 4-3-3 setup, impressing with his creativity, work rate and defensive nous, and he could now be in line to see some major minutes this season. A potential Rookie of the Year contender? – Most definitely.

Predicted regular season finish: 2nd Eastern Conference

TFC certainly look like they should be one of the favourites for MLS Cup on paper, but we’ve seen this team fall short of expectations time and time again in the past. Nevertheless, with Giovinco’s brilliance and a reinforced and battle-tested backline, this could be the year when they finally live up to expectations.

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