By VINCE MADURI
“Change” is the predominant word around Toronto these days, as the club is coming off a league-worst 23-point season.
The club has changed its president and general manager, hiring Kevin Payne away from D.C. United after 18 illustrious years of work and four MLS Cup titles.
Toronto elected not to retain head coach Paul Mariner after half a season under the coach’s leadership and the club hired Ryan Nelsen, who at the time of the announcement was still under contract with English Premier League club QPR as a player.
Then there was the inevitable overhaul of the roster, which included designated player Eric Hassli and forward Ryan Johnson who had seven goals and five assists for Toronto in 2012.
Now Toronto FC will look to build around a few young, promising players as they continue the quest for the club’s first playoff berth.
Here is a closer look at Toronto FC ahead of the 2013 MLS season:
TORONTO FC SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 5-21-8, 23 points (tenth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Kyle Bekker, F Emery Welshman, D Danny Califf, D Gale Agbossoumonde, M Júlio César, GK Joe Bendik, F Justin Braun
KEY LOSSES: F Ryan Johnson, F Eric Hassli, F Joao Plata, GK Milos Kocic, M Eric Avila, D Ty Harden, M Aaron Maund, D Adrian Cann, D Dicoy Williams, M Oscar Cordon, F Nicholas Lindsay, F Keith Makubuya
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: M Kyle Bekker – The young Canadian has burst onto the scene in recent months, beginning with a terrific showing at the Combine then continuing in a solid showing for his country in a January call-up that included a friendly draw against the U.S. Bekker could be the brightest young Canadian prospect and has an opportunity to see early playing time with a club in desperate need of a star and a country recently eliminated from this World Cup cycle, allowing Canada to focus on a youth movement. These two factors will give Bekker every opportunity to develop on both stages.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: F Danny Koevermans – The 34-year-old Dutch striker will be coming off an ACL injury, but Koevermans will need to become the player the fans were promised if Toronto want to have any shot at contention at all. The forward has 17 goals in 26 appearances and all things considered, that isn’t a bad rate. Toronto fans may be disgruntled with the Dutchman, but it is absolutely imperative the club finds a goal scoring threat and Koevermans has the resume to be that player.
No acquisition Toronto made this offseason will be more important than head coach Ryan Nelsen.
The former D.C. United defender has the personality of a manager, but Toronto will be the first coaching job Nelsen has had, either head coach or assistant. Any coach will tell you there is an adjustment period, just as there is with a rookie player. How quickly Nelsen is able to adjust and get comfortable may tell the story of Toronto’s season.
One player it seems Nelsen can rely on is Luis Silva. Coming off a rookie year that included five goals and five assists across 30 appearances, Silva will be asked to handle the majority of creating chances for Toronto this year and could be utilized out wide, as an attacking midfielder or up top as a secondary striker to either Danny Koevermanns or Justin Braun.
“Luis is a fantastic player,” new head coach Ryan Nelsen said. “We’re just trying to get him in positions where we can maximize his strengths. He’s been fantastic in preseason. He’s had a great attitude, he’s worked really hard and I’m really excited about Luis.”
Torsten Frings will be entering his final season with Toronto, if the former German international is still with the team. Rumors have begun to circulate that Frings could retire, or at the very least not return to Toronto FC in 2013.
If the captain does not return, one player that may benefit in minutes is rookie Kyle Bekker. Toronto are looking to build the club into “Canada’s team” and therefore are building around young Canadians such as Bekker and former Sigma FC youth academy teammate Emery Welshman. Both should be due heavy minutes in their rookie campaigns and both have the versatility to show up on different parts of the field.
“The speed of play and the quality is a lot higher [than youth levels],” Bekker told SBI after a preseason game in Orlando. “[The game] is faster and it’s a little more physical. But I just want to come in and work hard. It’s just my early career right now, but I think what’s important is to work hard through preseason, listen to what the coaches are saying and try to take as much as I can into my game.”
Another midfielder that has an opportunity to take a step forward this season is home grown player Matt Stinson. The academy product is more of a defensive midfielder but has looked very solid in preseason to this point and will push Terry Dunfield and Julio Cesar for playing time.
In defense, Toronto picked up former U.S. youth national team player Gale Agbossoumonde and the 21-year-old center back is an imposing physical presence and has an extremely high ceiling. However, Agbossoumonde is still fairly raw and Darren O’Dea may be paired with another recent acquisition, Danny Califf at least to start the season. But the future at center back for Toronto is clearly Agbossoumonde.
Left back Ashtone Morgan and right back Richard Eckersley should occupy the full back positions when healthy.
The defense should be much improved, but that might not be enough to keep Toronto FC out of the Eastern Conference basement.