Toronto FC earned the fewest points – 22 – of any MLS team in 2023.
If fans look hard enough, there are two positives to stem from such a dismal season. First, they can’t really get worse, and second, they hired former Canada Men’s National Team head coach John Herdman to lead the club.
Herdman led Canada to its first World Cup since 1986, proving his ability to improve a culture and get results.
A manager who expects to be backed by those above him, Herdman criticized Canada Soccer, the organization in charge of the country’s national teams, after the team lost 2-0 to the United States in the Nations League final in June 2023. He said the team was underfunded and that hurt their chances since Canada Soccer financed a shorter training camp than their competitors.
With Toronto FC, Herdman will not have to worry about a lack of funding, but he may have to worry about where that money is spent. TFC had the highest payroll in 2023, as well as having two of the 11 highest-paid players in the league.
With a new coach and lots of high salaries after an awful season, there’s a lot Toronto needs to do this offseason, so let’s get into their top priorities.
A total of 33 players played more than 100 MLS minutes for Toronto in 2023. That in itself is a problem: players need time on the pitch to get comfortable playing together.
Some of those 33 players were traded midseason, such as Lukas MacNaughton, Matt Hedges, and Mark-Anthony Kaye. Club captain Michael Bradley retired at the end of the season, and midfielder Franco Ibarra’s loan deal expired.
Toronto’s website lists 23 players on its current roster after the 2023 season, with three of those players currently loaned out. Reducing the number of players in the squad before the transfer window gets up and running gives Herdman a rather clean slate which he can use to shape his team.
Luckily for Herdman, young talents including Deandre Kerr, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, and Kobe Franklin are included among the remaining 23 players.
This is a lot easier said than done in MLS, the most financially restrictive league in the world in terms of the league's rules.
Toronto thought it would get goals and assists when it brought in its two designated players, former Serie A stalwarts Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, in the summer of 2022. Through a season and a half, they have been disappointments.
In 31 appearances, Insigne has produced 16 goal contributions, while Bernardeschi has 17 goal contributions in 44 starts.
Insigne’s .51 goals and assists per 90 minutes is not a bad ratio in isolation, but he only played in 20 of 34 MLS matches in 2023. Bernardeschi posted a .41 goals and assists ratio in 44 appearances.
The issues occur when putting those metrics in context. Bernardeschi was the team’s joint-top scorer in 2023, but he only scored five goals and provided two assists. Insigne was the team’s joint-second top scorer with four goals, and he had four assists.
For two players who are among the highest paid in the league and whose salaries take up about 40 percent of the club’s annual payroll - which was the highest club payroll in the league in 2023 by $2 million - that’s not enough production.
While it is difficult to find prolific scorers on non-designated player deals, it is possible. Brian White and Duncan McGuire, who scored 15 goals for Vancouver Whitecaps and 13 goals for Orlando City respectively, were not on those lucrative contracts and were in the top 10 among non-penalty goalscorers.
Deandre Kerr could be that guy for Toronto: he scored five goals – joint-most on the team – this past season in 23 appearances, 16 of which were starts. He recently turned 21, so he should have time to improve under Herdman.
Toronto landed another attacker with the top pick in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft: Tyrese Spicer from Lipscomb. Spicer is a versatile attacker who can play on the wing and up top, and he played the roles of goalscorer and provider in his college career.
As mentioned, longtime Toronto club captain Michael Bradley - who helped the team to win MLS Cup in 2017 - has retired. The player Herdman picks as the new team captain may say a lot about the direction in which he is aiming.
He might go the tried-and-tested route of putting the armband on a designated player, especially since Insigne and Bernardeschi have so much experience at the highest level of the game. Giving one of them the armband could motivate them to pick up their play and involve their teammates more often.
He could pick a member of the ever-shrinking old guard, perhaps one of midfielders Jonathan Osorio or Latif Blessing, defenders Raoul Petretta or Richie Laryea, or goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Or, Herdman could go for a younger player. Midfielder Brandon Servania turns 25 right as the season starts and could be an option. Defender Kobe Franklin, who will turn 21 around the start of the season, is also an option as he played the second-most minutes of anyone at the club in 2023.
There are lots of questions, and the player Herdman gives the armband to may indicate this team's timeline and projections in the near future.