It’s a bloody big deal. That was the motto of Toronto FC on the eve of the 2014 Major League Soccer season. Jermaine Defoe, Michael Bradley and Julio Cesar had come to rescue Toronto from the bottom of the East and send them to the playoffs for the first time in club history. Well, we’re a week from the playoffs, and ironically The Reds are mathematically eliminated. Adding insult to injury; DC United, the one eastern team to finish worse than Toronto last year, sits atop the conference. What went wrong? Hint: the above players have something to do with it.
Let’s start with Julio Cesar. Before I dive in, let the records show that in his short time with the club, I thought Julio performed spectacularly. He was big in goal on their debut vs. Seattle Sounders FC and earned save of the week honors for his save vs. FC Dallas’ David Texiera. What’s more he maintained a 1.28 goals against average and recorded 2 shutouts in his time in the Great White North
Jun 12, 2014; Sao Paulo, BRAZIL; Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar during the match against Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 World Cup at Arena Corinthians. Brazil defeated Croatia 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.
However, his time in net was short lived for TFC once he was called upon by Brazil for their pre-World Cup camp and the tournament itself. Following the tournament, Queens Park Rangers recalled him. In the end, Cesar made a whopping seven appearances for Toronto. Hardly enough games to truly make a difference.
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While Cesar’s short stint at Toronto was successful, his signing was a mistake. Unless Toronto could somehow engineer an actual long term deal with Cesar, he was never a permanent fix between the posts. While then-TFC manager Ryan Nelson stated there was a possibility QPR would allow Cesar to stay until the end of the MLS, there was never a written agreement.
With Cesar recalled after Brazil 2014, TFC was left in the hands of career backup Joe Bendik. While his performance in 2013 after the injury of first choice keeper Stefan Frei was admirable, it was not convincing enough for TFC brass as they brought Cesar aboard last second. Cesar was a big name that undoubtedly drew fans, but his abrupt exit meant
Bendik would be thrown back into the fray after little to no first team action thus far into the 2014 campaign. In retrospect, an MLS veteran such as Andrew Dykstra or Troy Perkins would have been a better long term investment. (Side note: If the opportunity presents itself, TFC should consider Zac Macmath for next year. That is all.)
Defense and goalkeeping was a glaring problem for TFC much of the year, the attack at points was abysmal. While Defoe was on the pitch this was not the case, as he scored 11 goals in his 19 appearances. The problem, much like it was for Cesar, was when he was not there. Defoe has dealt with injury for much of 2014, reducing him from one of the league’s most talked about players to an “oh yeah, he’s on our team”.
Despite his success on the pitch, Defoe’s MLS career hasn’t gone as planned. Talks of him heading back overseas and joining QPR (they seem to be everywhere nowadays, don’t they?) surfaced once Toronto fell out of playoff contention. Brazillian attacker Gilberto had also been linked with an overseas transfer and although both have discredited the reports, these types of rumors can hurt a club, especially one walking on thin ice as is.
While Defoe and Cesar’s TFC contributions ultimately fell short, neither have had the season similar to Bradley. Unlike Defoe, Bradley’s post-World Cup 2014 season has been nothing but a nightmare that he cannot wake up from. Bradley joined Toronto controversially from Serie A side AS Roma in the prime of his career due to dwindling minutes at the Italian side. His form seemed unaffected at first, as he seemed unstoppable in MLS and international friendlies leading up to the World Cup.
Oct 18, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC defender Doniel Henry (15) cringes as the ball narrowly bounces wide of the Montreal goal defended by forward Jack McInenerny (99) and goalie Evan Bush in the second half at BMO Field. The game ended in a 1-1 tie, eliminating Toronto from playoff contention. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
But then the tournament itself happened. Bradley went from midfielder extraordinaire, distributing balls so accurate they could knock a flea off a dog meanwhile defending so doggedly that said flea likely chose him as his next host, to a clueless and inept nobody with no sense of spacial awareness or ball protection. (Sidenote: I know Michael has no hair and is therefore a suboptimal target for a flea, but shush. Give me my moment.)
Despite a last ditch assist to wunderkid Julian Green versus Belgium, Bradley’s World Cup campaign was only the beginning of the nightmare. His return to MLS and subsequent events are what turned it into a purgatory of self-doubt, poor form, and criticism from just about everybody including USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Bradley’s position, the Center-Defensive Midfielder, is perhaps the most important in soccer. He is the cog that makes the clock tick. The Fulcrum. The Quarterback. And when your quarterback sucks, well so does your team, just ask the New York Jets. Central Midfielders are integral parts of both the offense and defense, responsible for dribbling with their heads up and finding open lanes to funnel the offense through and create scoring chances (point guard analogies are perfectly acceptable as well).
On defense, he has to sit in front of the back four and disrupt the flow of the game before it has a chance to enter the 18 yard box. Much like it is his responsibility to find open passing lanes on offense, he must plug those same holes on defense. Center mids tend to cover the most ground throughout the entire game, and therefore usually exerts the most influence. So when your center-mid has a bad game, typically so does the rest of your team. Great news for Toronto, who often relied on Bradley to create something out of nothing when Jermain Defoe wasn’t on the pitch to work his magic.
Despite all these shortcomings, Toronto’s under-performance this season is owed to their strategy of trying to rebuild their brand with big names without laying proper foundation first. They spent an absurd amount of money on superstar players, while neglecting to fix the bigger problems or putting a proper supporting cast around them so that when they were unavailable( be it due to injury or international duty) the new-look TFC resembled their 2013 selves more than their reincarnation. Now, they’re watching the playoffs from a couch with nothing to show for their efforts. Gee, 44 million dollars and nothing to show for it? You’re right Toronto. That IS a big deal. A bloody big one.