Optimism is high in Southern Ontario, despite Toronto FC missing the playoffs for a second straight year. A full season of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi in 2023 is chief among the reasons for this positivity.
However, TFC cannot be expected to realistically challenge for honors, if they don't fix their back line. As is often said in professional sports, offence wins games, but defence wins championships.
Along these lines, it is imperative the Reds improve their defensive personnel ahead of the 2023 campaign. This past season saw them concede 66 regular season goals, which were third-most in all of MLS.
The 66 allowed goals also equaled the number Toronto FC allowed in 2021, which at the time set an unwanted single season franchise record. For some perspective, they ranked second-best when they won their inaugural MLS Cup in 2017.
If Toronto FC is to compete for honors in 2023, it is imperative they improve their defensive personnel after a second consecutive season of being one of the worst teams when it comes to conceding goals.
In fairness, TFC was only ranked 13th-best for goals allowed in 2019, when they surprised many by advancing to their third MLS Cup final. The defence does not have to be outstanding to succeed -- especially when considering the offensive talent on the roster -- but must still see significant improvement.
Toronto FC president Bill Manning is well aware of the most pressing issue surrounding the team. As per James Grossi of torontofc.ca, Manning said:
"We need some defensive help. We know that. Two years in a row we've let (in) 1.8/1.9 goals a game and you’re just not going to win a lot of games when you let (in) almost two goals a game. We know we have some needs there."
It starts between the posts
Any improvement will begin in goal, arguably the most critical position the Reds have to fix. This becomes even more imperative, after allowing Alex Bono and Quentin Westberg to leave.
The duo have had their moments over the years, particularly Bono, who was an integral part of TFC's treble-winning side in 2017. Unfortunately for everyone concerned however, their play has dropped off considerably.
The only goalkeeper remaining on the roster at the time of writing, is Gregory Ranjitsingh. However, the 29-year-old only has five games of experience at the MLS level, all before joining TFC.
One potential replacement being speculated for Toronto FC, is Bill Hamid. Despite an impressive resume however, the feeling is his best days are behind him and he would probably only be a stopgap.
Uncertainty in defence
Turning to the defence, Doneil Henry was also allowed to leave following the season, while question marks surround the future of Chris Mavinga. TFC decided not to pick up Mavinga's contract option, although talks over a new contract are ongoing.
The 31-year-old has spent six years in Toronto, but some will question the motivation in bringing him back after a poor 2022 campaign. In fairness though, injuries and off-field issues compromised his play and a return to his previous strong form is certainly possible.
In this respect, there is some talent within the back line, including fullback Richie Laryea, who returned last year on loan from Nottingham Forest. The Reds are in talks to bring the Canadian international back on a permanent basis.
Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty is another player with talent, who has the potential for a long and successful playing career. How much longer the fullback remains in Toronto is another thing, with TFC admitting there has been a lot of interest in him.
How to use the available Designated Player slot
Perhaps best representing the defence's struggles, was the disappointing Carlos Salcedo. Brought in as a Designated Player, he was meant to be the rock who solidified the back line.
Instead, Salcedo failed to live up to expectations and only made 13 league appearances, before leaving in July by mutual consent. It is worth noting personnel issues surrounding his family were a distraction, but the harsh reality remains that he didn't deliver as a Designated Player.
It is entirely possible Toronto FC could use their available Designated Player slot to entice a quality defender or goalkeeper to come to Southern Ontario. Certainly money will be no issue, as evidenced by Isigne's MLS-high salary of $14 million US.
Whether TFC actually use their open Designated Player slot for a defender or goalkeeper is uncertain. As per Grossi, head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley said:
"When you start defining how you use a DP spot – do you use it on a big DP? Do you use it on a young DP? How you then have money for other things? – it becomes all connected. If you were able to find a player that fits one of those needs that doesn't need to be paid above a certain level, then that helps you in other ways. It's not easy to say 100% the DP slot is for this position. It's not easy to be that specific."
As much as Bradley is right in what he says, it doesn't change the fact TFC need to invest heavily in strengthening their back line. Regardless of how the Salcedo experiment played out, using a Designated Player slot has to be at the top of the list when it comes to possible solutions.
Toronto FC has the talent in midfield and attack to cause serious problems for the rest of MLS next season. However, it won't matter one bit if they continue to leak goals at an alarming rate.
How much faith do you have in Toronto FC improving their back line for next year? Do you expect better results in 2023, or are you concerned the defence will again be poor? Let us know in the comments section below.