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December 01, 2016

No longer the 'worst team in the world,' Toronto FC now the blueprint for MLS success

Soccer Union
12116_union_psp Daniel Gajdamowicz/PHilly Soccer Page

Once the laughing stock of Major League Soccer, Toronto FC is now the best team in the league.

In 2012, I drove to Canada to watch a wretched Philadelphia Union team battle an even worse Toronto FC.

The Union had a record of two wins, two draws, and six losses.

Toronto had zero wins, zero draws, and nine losses, and striker Danny Koevermans had recently declared that the reds were "setting a record as the worst team in the world".

I still have a physical copy of the lineups from that day. That was a historic game, for all of the wrong reasons, so I decided to hang onto it for posterity. Toronto had guys like Reggie Lambe and Adrian Cann in the starting lineup. Philly countered with Kai Herdling and Lio Pajoy.

It was one of the worst games I've ever seen, but Koevermans scored in the 88th minute to hand TFC a 1-0 win, their first of the season. Philly slumped to 2-7-2 and manager Peter Nowak was fired two weeks later.

Kevin Kinkead/for PhillyVoice

Toronto FC was 0-9-0 when they squared off against Philadelphia on May 26th, 2012. Striker Danny Koevermans, who had referred to his side as “the worst team in the world,” scored the only goal in a 1-0 win.)

It's crazy when you realize how far Toronto has come in the last four years. The scenes I saw at BMO Field on Wednesday night after the 5-2 win against Montreal were incredible to behold when you consider the malaise and lethargy that settled over that city for the better part of five or six years. A team that used to be the league laughing stock is playing the MLS Cup final at home, and I've got them penciled in as the favorites.

The success is largely due to the opening of the wallet, combined with a recalibrated ambition and vigor. Toronto went out and bought a player who would instantly become the best in the league. They bought two experienced American international players. They hit home runs with all three of their designated players, even though the rules were bent slightly in their favor. Never forget that Michael Bradley was exempt from the allocation process, while Philadelphia had to swing a deal with D.C. United to acquire Maurice Edu.

Anyway, Toronto made big strides in 2015, but they fell short because they just didn't have the right pieces around those three superstars.

The key to this year's success was the winter transfer window and the addition of four veteran, starting-quality players.

Drew Moor was a highly-valued free agent who was courted by numerous teams. The former all-star and perennially underrated center back chose Toronto FC, and he immediately bolstered a defense that conceded a league-high 58 goals in 2015.

Toronto gave up just 39 goals this year.

They also added Will Johnson in a steal of a trade, giving up a second-round draft pick and targeted allocation money for the 29-year-old MLS Cup winner. Johnson's addition to the midfield brought bite to a team that really didn't have much last season. Despite Bradley's presence in the center of the park, they didn't have a ball winner with attitude. They didn't have anyone who was willing to get stuck in on a tackle.

In goal, Clint Irwin was an upgrade over Chris Konopka and Joe Bendik. And when he was injured, Alex Bono stepped up to the plate. Toronto's goalkeeping improved this year, and Bendik probably benefited from a change of scenery in Orlando.

The final addition was another former all-star in Steven Beitashour, and he brought stability and consistency at right back, a spot that was filled by various players in the 2015 campaign. In another criminal deal, TFC got Beitashour for a second round draft pick.

Toronto was also tactically flexible and adventurous. They played some 4-4-2 this year, showing both diamond and flat shapes. They installed a 3-5-2 midway through the season, which allowed their best personnel to see the field. They added quality players in Armando Cooper and Tosaint Ricketts in the summer transfer window and they also received contributions from rookies and fringe players like Mo Babouli, Jordan Hamilton, and Tsubasa Endoh. The entirety of the roster contributed in some way, shape, or form.

The most impressive thing about Toronto is that it traveled all avenues this season, both in terms of personnel and tactics. That's something that gets lost in the glow of Giovinco, Altidore, and Bradley.

Toronto FC used free agency, allocation money, designated player slots, their youth academy, and the SuperDraft. They tried different shapes and formations and trusted players 12 through 20. When you go down the entire roster, there were 18 guys who got more than 500 minutes of game time.

Greg Vanney also proved himself as a manager. He guided the ship, motivated his team, and created an atmosphere in which a talented squad could thrive. It wasn't long ago that we were hearing rumors of his imminent firing.

It didn't take long for Toronto to discard the label of "worst team in the world". They are no longer the joke of MLS, but the team that everybody should be trying to emulate.