Toronto has made a number of interesting moves this off-season and, like I wrote in my Gilberto article, to me it was almost inevitable with the direction the team was going in that they would make a play for Dwayne De Rosario. Although not officially signed, the chances of him wearing a Toronto FC jersey this season is almost certain.
They also brought in Justin Morrow, a defender who through injuries was called up for the 2012 All-Star game against Chelsea and a game for the United States National Team, playing his only international game against Canada in January 2013.
These moves and the addition of Gilberto, Jackson and potential minutes from Jermain Defoe will make Toronto better, although I wouldn't go as far as saying on paper they are a guaranteed playoff team. Even if playoffs await, the experiences of Montreal and Vancouver during the past two seasons showing that bringing in talent on paper doesn't necessarily equal a happy and/or successful season.
Looking at the current Reds roster you can assume that with everybody playing and healthy Toronto will play a traditional 4-4-2 diamond formation. This is a formation that was very popular in World football ten years ago but that has lost its appeal since and very few clubs play this formation now. The diamond first came into popular football culture with the idea of isolating first an attacking midfielder like an Andrea Pirlo, who became by design the center of most offensive build up play. However, it got its name when teams and media started identifying the role of the defensive midfielder, with the most publicized being Claude Makelele.
Teams have gotten away from the Diamond as modern coaching continues to identify the need for a strong midfield and the additional responsibility of what we expect from a modern fullback.
This format is very different than my original hope for Toronto a year ago and for advancing the developing roles of the younger players on the team. My hope was that Toronto would experiment with a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 and allow Ashtone Morgan to play the wing, utilizing his speed and his ability to cross the ball from the wing. Instead I see Toronto in 2014 playing a strict back four with Jonas Elmer being penciled in as the starting Left-Back ahead of Morgan. Justin Morrow is also traditionally a left-back, although he shoots from the right, so I can see him moving to the right and TFC have a starting back four of Morrow, Caldwell, Henry (Agbossoumonde) and Elmer.
Interestingly, Morrow and Elmer have similar backgrounds with both having good speed and defensive awareness but both also having failed to mature to the level of player many expected them to become. Elmer played previously in both the Chelsea youth system and the Switzerland U21 national team but four years later was playing in the Swiss 2nd Division in front of crowds of 2,000 before moving to Toronto. As for Morrow, he lost his position of starting left back last season to British journeyman Jordan Stewart and played the second half of the season as a part-time Central Defender and playing off the Earthquakes bench.
The defensive midfield position is Mathias Laba's with the hope he can fully recover from his injury last season. The feeling is he is healthy and was protected at the end of last season since the Toronto FC season was already basically complete when he went down. However, if he's injured/suspended this season, expect Jeremy Hall to fit in defensively as a suitable replacement, although not as strong in ball control or build up play.
The rest of the midfield becomes the big question mark. Based on salary you would expect De Rosario to play in the attacking midfield role with Jackson on the left and Rey on the right in support, although Dwayne could be replaced by both Jackson and Osorio. Toronto also have Bekker, Lambe, Aparicio, Osorio and the team could draft and/or bring in additional midfielders to challenge Jackson and Rey.
My opinion on the De Rosario move is if the team is truly going to go for it, then I do feel the move is a good one. Historically my feeling was that not giving De Rosario his money in 2011 was a mistake. Furthermore, it was not Dwayne’s fault that the club gave Julian De Guzman such a ridiculous contract. Even this past season where signs of age and health started to show, De Rosario’s 2013 statistics would of been a Toronto FC leader in Shots on Target, Key Passes, Through Balls, and Fouls Earned and he only played 1600 minutes and also passed the ball at a higher average than the Toronto team last season at 77.6%. I understand the concerns and, if I was developing TFC for long term success, this isn't the direction I would go. But if De Rosario can embrace the role of play maker he could help Toronto's offense becomes a greater threat, which should lead to more goals as well as take the pressure off the defense.
The final addition, although not finalized, is the eventual inclusion of Jermain Defoe. A skillful player, personable individual and someone who has done great work regarding charities and building the game among poorer communities in England, Defoe is certainly someone the MLS and Toronto FC will like to showcase in front of their fans. Although the question remains, does he make the club, league that much better and sky rocket Toronto FC into a contender over the length of his contract?
Personally I have never seen Defoe as great player, even in his prime. I probably wouldn't have him in a list of the top 500 players in the world. His supporters always argue that Defoe has never been given a chance to show who he is. Although there are reasons for this, the main issue, and worryingly from a TFC perspective, is he is very similar to Gilberto in that other than the goals he scores, he doesn't have a history of doing his share in creating offense or taking any role in defense.
Over the last couple of years in the EPL, Defoe has the least touches per minute than almost any other player in the league, so although his passing is quite good above 80%, he averages only 10 passes per 90 minutes, which are numbers less than Robert Earnshaw and Justin Braun in 2013 and Danny Kovermans or Ryan Johnson in 2012 individual passing numbers. Defoe is also 5'7, which means he's never really been a threat on set plays and is well known for either his inability or lack of interest in playing defense. What Defoe has been able to do is his find a way to take a shot with decent accuracy from anywhere, so he's averaged double digit goals each season, including a number of goals from outside the box. So given a full season you should expect 15 to 25 goals a season, although that alone will not make Toronto a winning team.
I think there are some positives to Toronto FC’s off-season this year and the fact they are making moves early shows a commitment to improvement. It’s also nice to see Toronto looking within the league to add players, although in the case of both Jackson and Morrow there were questions about their performances last season. Furthermore, the other reason their former clubs let them go is the players expected increased salaries in 2015, so this could make them one year rentals. My major issue with Defoe is with the $10,000,000 transfer fee, money that could be used so much better regarding soccer in Canada, although it’s not my money.
Player for player Toronto certainly compares better to other clubs in the league on paper, although questions remain and there are still unknowns regarding management, coaching, and players. So they are going to have to show me a great improvement, including wins on the pitch, before I order my TFC playoff tickets yet.