It is hard to overestimate Toronto’s 2017 achievement. Winning the MLS Cup for the first time was historic, but in taking the domestic treble of MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and the Voyageurs Cup, as well as setting a record for the most points gained during an MLS season, the team underlined their dominance of North American soccer.
Toronto’s success was built on all-round strength. Yes, they finished as top scorers, with Sebastian Giovinco and the rejuvenated Jozy Altidore grabbing 17 goals each, but they also had the second-best defensive record, and managed 12 shutouts along the way, including the 2-0 victory over Seattle in the MLS Cup. Young goalkeeper Alex Bono emerged as a vital talent, Victor Vázquez enjoyed a renaissance as the creative figurehead of the Toronto side, and Michael Bradley was immense as the midfield general.
However, the Reds are not going to be content with one great season. Club President Bill Manning has pointed to the success of the LA Galaxy, who won three MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields between 2009 and 2014, as a level of dominance that they want to match and even exceed. With that in mind, they haven’t just replaced the players they lost at the end of the last campaign but have also strengthened the squad overall.
Soccer bettors have taken notice, with most favoring a bet on Toronto to win the MLS next season, and after seeing how strongly and consistently they performed last year, fans will be keen to back them to defend their title.
First-teamers Steven Beitashour, Benoît Cheyrou, and Raheem Edwards have departed, but they have been replaced by Gregory van der Wiel, Auro, and Liam Fraser. At the age of 20, Fraser has to be regarded as a longer-term prospect, but Van der Wiel, who was part of the Netherlands squad at the 2010 World Cup, and former Brazilian Under-20 international Auro are better players than Beitashour and Edwards, and won’t take long to adjust.
The arrival of Van der Wiel will have another positive effect in that it will allow Nicolas Hasler to move inside to his natural midfield position, while Auro will not only strengthen the defense but will also add depth and experience to the squad ahead of their Champions League challenge.
Looking ahead to their expected line-up, they look solid in all departments. No team in MLS will be able to field a better pair of full-backs than Van der Wiel and Justin Morrow, who ended the season as runner-up for the Defender of the Year award. Bradley will once again be pulling the strings from his central-midfield position, while the deadly duo of Giovinco and Altidore will be backed up by forwards Tosaint Ricketts and Jordan Hamilton.
However, the move that really stands out for Toronto is the acquisition of Ager Aketxe. The 24-year-old Spaniard, who came through the well-regarded academy system at Athletic Bilbao, will add both creativity and youth to the line-up, strengthening the squad and potentially even becoming a replacement for Vázquez, who is in the second year of his three-year contract and who may ultimately decide to return to Spain to finish his career. In their signing of international-caliber players such as Van der Wiel and Auro, Toronto have signaled their intent to move the franchise to the next level, while the arrival of Aketxe is the kind of forward-thinking deal that is typically made by teams intent on establishing a dynasty. Aketxe will also add to Toronto’s already impressive ability to dominate possession and will give them an extra playmaking option for what will be a long, hard season.
Defending the MLS Cup will take a lot of work, a little luck with injuries, and the ability to continue to grind out results even when the team are out of form. The challenge of competing in the Champions League will also put a strain on Toronto’s resources, and the team will need to guard against complacency. MLS is full of rivals striving for improvement and all gunning for Toronto’s crown, and every game is likely to be a battle.
However, the omens for the 2018 season look good. Toronto have not rested on their laurels, and as well as replacing their departing players, they have added strength in depth, international experience, and considerable potential. Both Aketxe and Fraser could be key components in the Reds’ line-up for many seasons to come as Toronto attempt to build their dynasty.