Toronto FC has two of the most talented US Men's National Team players of the last generation. They are less than a season removed from losing a CONCACAF Champions League final in a shootout, and just over one season away from a dominant two year run to MLS Cup finals, including one win.
So... what's going on?
Since losing the CONCACAF Champions League final, TFC has spiraled, and nobody is quite sure why. At first, the dominant answer was injuries. But time continued to pass, players continued to get healthy, and the results never improved. Furthermore, no matter who was on the pitch, this Toronto squad that used to blow through opponents using a variety of tactical shapes never looked particularly dangerous.
And now, after falling 4-0 in the first leg of their CCL opener on the road in Panama and losing Victor Vazquez and Giovinco to offseason transfers, Toronto faces 2019 full of uncertainty. There are rumors of a dynamic, $10 million attacker arriving from Genk. There is the anticipated return of Jozy Altidore. But are either of those things enough to lift the Canadians back into contention for a playoff spot, let alone MLS Cup?
To the former: Yes. Rumored target Alejandro Pozuelo would be a significant addition up front, and he would put TFC in contention for a place in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The latter? Um...
But Toronto is still a dangerous enemy with a solid midfield that can overwhelm with smart -- and smartly-timed -- movement. Jonathan Osorio improves year after year, and Marky Delgado can be the most useful kind of nuisance on his day. Behind them, Michael Bradley will be asked to carry a heavy distributive load. Without Giovinco and Vazquez, Bradley's ability to spread play around and move the ball at speed will be absolutely necessary for Toronto to have success. Against Independiente La Chorrera in the CCL, TFC was often ponderous moving the ball, and that allowed the visitors to sit deep and remain relatively untroubled by their Canadian opposition.
Perhaps the area of most concern for Toronto is the back line. Laurent Ciman arrives with the typical Ciman questions: Can his ball skills outweigh his defensive wanderings? If not, Greg Vanney will struggle to push his fullbacks forward with the regularity he prefers. Without overloading the midfield, then, how does TFC control a game? Newly acquired striker Terrence Boyd has the size to act as a hold-up player, but who are the dangerous wide players working off of him?
This seemingly endless array of open questions leads to this unavoidable conclusion: This is an opening day Union enemy that nobody really knows. Even if they fall out of the CCL to Independiente, will that signal a team in crisis, or simply one adapting to a new front line?
And that's why March 2 will be such a tense and exciting affair: The Union know how they want to play, and they know which players they can rely on to be their veteran leaders. TFC also has the latter, but wholly lacks the former.
The Union welcome Toronto FC to Talen Energy Stadium at 1 p.m. on March 2 for the 2019 MLS season opener.
TFC Key Players
Giovinco (ha, just kidding)
Jozy Altidore (I mean, maybe?)
Michael Bradley (yeah, he'll probably play, let's go with him)
Jonathan Osorio - box-to-box midfielder
Chris Mavinga - talented if slightly inconsistent central defender
Style of Play
Greg Vanney (since 2014)