Inside MLS season preview: Toronto FC

Big money signings Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley expect to lead Toronto FC to its first playoff berth in 2014.

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ESSENTIAL FACTS

Last year in a nutshell: Toronto FC missed out on the postseason yet again after another disappointing campaign, but the arrival of new MLSE boss Tim Leiweke offered hope for the future.

(as of March 5)

Incoming: GK: Júlio César (Queens Park Rangers/England); DF: Justin Morrow (San Jose), Bradley Orr (Blackburn Rovers/England); MF: Michael Bradley (AS Roma/Italy), Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United), Jackson (FC Dallas); FW: Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Gilberto (Internacional/Brazil), Jordan Hamilton (Toronto FC Academy)

Outgoing: GK: Stefan Frei (Seattle); DF: Richard Eckersley (New York), Jonas Elmer (FC Winterthur/Switzerland); MF: Bobby Convey (New York), Matias Laba (Vancouver), Darel Russell (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Michael Thomas (Oklahoma City Energy); FW: Justin Braun (Sacramento Republic), Robert Earnshaw (unattached), Danny Koevermans (FC Utrecht/Netherlands), Emery Welshman (unattached)

Michael Bradley will spend most of his time as the center of attention in the TFC midfield.

FUNDAMENTALS

Key Player: The foundation for Toronto FC’s bid for a first playoff appearance starts with Michael Bradley in central midfield. The former Roma midfielder returns to MLS as a more polished player, a dominating, two-way figure capable of dictating terms in midfield and urging his teammates to greater heights. His cool, efficient work on and off the ball – checking promptly, keeping his head up, moving it onwards intelligently and placing himself in the proper positions – earned him a squad place in one of Italy’s top sides. He must display those qualities and lead by example to establish the proper tone within the squad and push this underachieving club toward its lofty objectives.

Strengths: TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Ryan Nelsen completed a radical squad overhaul during the offseason to inject top-end quality and MLS knowledge into the starting XI. Bradley and Jermain Defoe stand out as the crucial additions with their international experience and their ability to change matches at this level. Defoe, in particular, will expect to catch out defenses with his intelligent runs and his quick dashes behind the line. Few players in the league fall into his caliber as a finisher. Gilberto looms as his likely foil to add a bit of heft and hold-up play to the approach play. Bradley drives a midfield reinforced by the arrival of Jackson, a versatile figure with ample domestic experience from his time with FC Dallas. Steven Caldwell marshals an improving defense with incoming fullbacks Bradley Orr (once he returns from injury) and Justin Morrow expected to strengthen the unit as a whole. Júlio César adds an extra layer of reassurance in goal. The on-loan QPR goalkeeper still possesses the tools to function at the highest levels (see: the stop he made in South Africa earlier this week) and steal matches for a side that might need his services on a couple of occasions. Dwayne De Rosario lends the sort of dynamic cover most teams lack.

Weaknesses: The winter reinforcements strengthened the starting XI considerably, but they did not eliminate all of the weak points in a squad that still requires further attention. There are selection questions ahead in central defense (Doneil Henry looks like the favorite at this juncture) and central midfield (Jonathan Osorio should earn the spot more often than not), but veteran figures Bradley and Caldwell will expect to shepherd the choices through. Neither of those players can solve the inherent lack of established depth beyond De Rosario (always a problem with this amount of churn and the money lavished at the top end) or the paucity of genuine wide options (Alvaro Rey constitutes the exception). TFC will rely on its stars to carry it through. If they falter, then the Reds will find themselves in dire straits.

Jermain Defoe needs to keep scoring in order to secure his place in the England squad ahead of the World Cup.

PROSPECTS FOR 2014

Key questions:

● How quickly can Defoe make an impact?: It might take the eminently capable plunderer a few games to figure out how to use his skills in this setting. Toronto FC isn’t Tottenham. Defoe will need some time to adjust to the level and the quality of the service he will receive and figure out how to exploit opposing defenses. Once he sorts out those factors and his fitness levels, Defoe should score plenty of goals. He will need every last one of them to convince Roy Hodgson to hand him a place on the plane to Brazil.

● Can Nelsen form a team from this talented squad?: Nelsen faces the rather considerable task of forming an identity and molding a unit in rather short order. Most MLS teams require a year or two to foster the proper principles before reaping the expected dividends. TFC simply doesn’t have that sort of time in the wake of its lavish winter spending spree. Nelsen must accelerate the process to ensure his side lives up to expectations and seals its first playoff berth.

● Will the focus shift from flashy signings to substantive performances?: TFC focused on eradicating its pervasive defensive problems during Nelsen’s first year in charge. He will face significant pressure to open his approach a bit this year given the weapons handed to him. It makes sense to play to strengths, but the Reds cannot afford to sacrifice their shape for some sizzle. A solid foundation will allow TFC to procure points as it finds its way during the early stages of the campaign.

Best case scenario: TFC bonds more quickly than expected and produces the sort of results demanded by its winter outlay. Bradley and Defoe shine. The rest of the squad supports them ably. TFC finally secures its first playoff berth after seven failed attempts and makes a determined run toward MLS Cup.

Worst case scenario: More of the same dysfunction and failure emerges despite all of the promises of a new era. The construction process sputters. Results wobble in the early stages of the season. TFC panics. Changes ensue without prompting the desired response. All of that spending ultimately yields another year of frustration and another season without playoff soccer at BMO Field.

2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS

FEB. 24Chicago Fire – Mike Magee’s encore – Chivas USA

FEB. 25Colorado Rapids – Exploring the new vision in Columbus – Columbus Crew

FEB. 26D.C. United – Eddie Johnson steps into the spotlight again – FC Dallas

FEB. 27Houston Dynamo – Galaxy plots a return to the summit – LA Galaxy

FEB. 28Montréal Impact – Nesta shares his knowledge with Montréal – New England Revolution

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MARCH 3New York Red Bulls – Supporters’ Shield triumph transforms New York – Philadelphia Union

MARCH 4Portland Timbers – Identity offers Real Salt Lake a touchstone amid change – Real Salt Lake

MARCH 5San Jose Earthquakes – Seattle Sounders

MARCH 6Sporting Kansas City – Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps