Disclaimer: This article is written on the likely naive assumption that Toronto FC will not completely dissolve the current squad and start all over again. Again.
There really wasn't a reason for us to add to the plethora of TFC vs. Montreal post-mortems that are already out there. It is what it is and that is bad. We fully expected The Reds to torture us further by extending their pathetic "mathematically still in it" pandering a week longer but at least we were spared that. It was obvious a month ago this team was not going to the post-season; so we move on. Again.
Looking to next year is an annual tradition with Toronto FC - we have now heard eight versions of how next year will be different. The lather, rinse, repeat phrase going into Season Nine from our venerable TFC "leadership" seems to be "we have a good solid core group" going forward. Great! That sounds solid and stuff... right?
TFC supporters have been sold many bold promises in the past but is this one any different? Has some kind of long-term foundation actually been set? Judgments like these are of course quite subjective so we can only offer what we feel and with that, we venture to look forward to the near future. Is TFC's "core group" a hard chewy centre or more of a gooey middle? Splitting the team into broad sections, we pop 2015 into our mouth and consider the likely candidates that The Vanney Pack would consider hard-"core".
Little trouble here as Joe Bendik is a solid, if not spectacular, minder. A good shot-stopper on par with most of his peers in MLS. His distribution is still sub-standard at times and his penchant for booting the ball as hard and far as possible needs improvement but in the grand scheme of TFC ills this isn't critical. He won't win you too many matches alone but nor will he lose too many. It is fair to consider Super Pickle Joe as a solid piece... even if he does make nearly the same amount of money now as Stefan Frei.
While this was touted as an area of vast improvement this season, it was also an area that had the most glaring holes when absences exposed its lack of depth. The utterly reliable Justin Morrow (who is this site's club MVP for 2014) is about as close to a "solid MLS" defender as we've seen in Toronto. At 27-years-old, we should hope to see TFC retain Morrow for a few seasons.
In the middle is where things seem far more fragile. You simply cannot underestimate club Captain Steven Caldwell's veteran influence over the young charges around him. His lengthy spell on the injured-list ushered in a period of defensive miscues that helped the club usher Ryan Nelsen out the door. That being said, Caldwell himself had a few nightmare moments this season and his aging body battered by his robust style will probably only be effective for one more season.
Nick Hagglund and Doneil Henry are good, young, raw pieces whose trajectories went on a roller-coaster ride this season. Hagglund seems to have the basic tools and physicality to become a solid MLS defender but needs the mental and tactical seasoning that only experience delivers. Using his amount of minutes played as an indication of readiness is likely a fallacy as it was injuries and shallow depth that forced his usage. A future core member perhaps, however he would not yet be considered as such on most other MLS clubs.
As for Doneil Henry, the big Brampton-native continues his enigmatic path to somewhere. The season started with him looking like the permanent apprentice to Caldwell yet he kept finding ways to stumble in the eyes of his managers. While we are all aware of the knack Henry has for making the wrong decision at the exact moment the spotlight shines on him, the amount of vitriol aimed at him has been misplaced. There remains the prospect of a solid defender there. However, if whispers are to be believed, his future may not be in Toronto FC red whether you believe him to be a piece of the core or not.
The supporting cast of defenders such as Warren Creavalle, Mark Bloom and Ashtone Morgan range anywhere between useful depth and expansion draft fodder. Some great pieces to hang onto for the bench but by no means should they be mistaken for integral members of a club's foundation. This part of the pitch will need considerable reinforcement.
We will mention Michael Bradley first as he is obviously the be-all-and-end-all of what Toronto FC is building around. A dominant force when he is at his best, the American international is obviously the lynchpin for the club. While his play has not been up to his standard for stretches this season, it has to be remembered that he went from a half-season with Roma starting in July 2013, relocating his life to Toronto in January and straight into pre-season followed by a full MLS schedule. Oh, and a World Cup thrown in for good measure. Sorry to fans who just signed up but Michael Bradley is not going to be the DP who "scorz goalz" - he has other duties. Now, to just find a manager who knows how to use him properly.
After Bradley is where things get less certain. Are there truly any other rock-solid core-group midfielders ready to line-up with him? We don't mean the interchangeable pieces that come and go - we mean guys you build a future around. The tough answer for us is "no" with one asterisk in Jonathan Osorio. The young Canadian suffered a very inconsistent year and failed to find the magic of his rookie outing in 2013. Sophomore jinx? Adapting to new faces? All possibilities but there is something there in Osorio worth holding on to. Developing him as the foil to Bradley will be important but 2015 will need to be a far more consistent outing for him or patience will run thin.
The rest of the midfield is about as unbalanced as the formations they are often lined up in. Dwayne De Rosario has sadly reached the point where any kind of use will be minimal IF he returns for another swan song. Dominic Oduro, as he has done at all of his past clubs, has reached the point where the initial excitement has worn off leaving only a track sprinter with funny hair and a concrete boot finish. Collen Warner and Jackson are short-term depth pieces with little in long-term future development outside of blunt force. The remaining options are either very young Academy products or have joined the "TFC Disappeared". Also, Kyle Bekker.
The unbalanced, unfocused and tactically mystifying midfield may be one of the areas on the club where there is the least amount of foundation upon which to build. While there are individual pieces that some MLS clubs would find useful, there are few that any other club would point to as any type of building-block. The service they provided to the next section of players is a testament to that.
There is no third of the pitch at TFC that enters the off-season under a bigger shroud of uncertainty. Ironically it is the main focus of the attack that is most clear in regards to his future. The bloody big deal himself (we too will be happy to stop using that term) - Jermain Defoe - will certainly be departing the only club anywhere that would have paid him such a wage on a secure, four-year deal. Now we could write a whole piece (and likely will) on the descent into petulance and conveniently "nagging injuries" (somehow to be cured right around January 2015) that have marked Defoe's season, but not now. The point of this piece is the overly-celebrated core group for 2015 and Jermain Defoe will be nothing but a regretted personalized souvenir jersey by next season.
Worse news, to many a supporter, is the sudden doubt as to whether or not the other DP striker - the affable Brazilian Gilberto - will be a part of TFC 2015. While Gil struggled to find his scoring touch early in the season, his work rate and engaging personality endeared him to fans. When he started to score, his star briefly shone brighter than his lady-aficionado strike colleague. Unfortunately, a quiet last third of the season and some vaguely explained absences from the line-up have morphed into whispers of a player who has his heart set on playing elsewhere. While it is heavy on speculation - smoke and fire are often close bedfellows at BMO Field.
Whatever the reason for their possible departures and whatever feeling amongst supporters is left in their wake, there is a much bigger problem for TFC than the bad PR it will create. Defoe and Gilberto account for 18 of TFC's league goals. With the entirely unspectacular Luke Moore third on the goalscorer's list with only 6 goals, it is an area where TFC could suddenly find itself with absolutely no one in the way of any kind of core performer. Replacing a massive percentage of the club's goals would be an emergency priority on critical levels and one this club is not prepared for in regards to depth or development.
So, like the proverbial candy, we have sucked our way down to the middle and are left with a bit of a tasteless lump in our mouth. A core group? Vaguely. There are pieces there that you would certainly retain and move forward with into 2015. We have to ask though - how many pieces would you take beyond that?
We have heard many grand statements as previous seasons wound down towards previously unsatisfying conclusions at BMO Field. The current claim that the core here is some kind of tremendously solid group is admittedly going in one ear and out the other. Despite Greg Vanney’s self-help guru media scrum's best efforts, it is hard to be too optimistic about a "core group" until all of the drama that is set to unfold at TFC comes out in the wash. To declare with utter confidence that the current foundation is strong because of three DP's, some youthful potential and an aging captain is about as fragile a claim as the foundation itself.