The 2022 Major League Soccer campaign was not supposed to end like this, with Toronto FC finishing just 9-11-18, near the bottom of the league (again), watching the playoffs from home (again). This year was supposed to be different, backed by arguably the most ambitious offseason in MLS history.
It started last November when Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president Bill Manning hired former United States men's national team coach Bob Bradley just six days after his ouster from LAFC. Bradley, installed as manager and sporting director, started on a roster turnover project that would ultimately see an astonishing 23 players depart and 15 arrive before the end of the 2022 season.
"When you arrive in a situation, there are a lot of different discussions," Bradley told ESPN after the conclusion of the season. "And it became clear in the existing situation that there were players that didn't want to be here. There were bad contracts. There were some character issues. It was necessary to make changes."
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It wasn't just the number of players who came in and out, however, it was the names themselves. TFC bought out Designated Player Jozy Altidore and essentially traded DP Yeferson Soteldo to Tigres for DP Carlos Salcedo. (The Mexico international would see his own contract terminated in July.) The biggest coup came a week after the new year when Toronto announced that Italy international Lorenzo Insigne would join the club in July on a reported $15 million a year for four years. Two additional Italians -- DP Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Criscito on a TAM contract -- would also join in July, while the summer month saw Alejandro Pozuelo shipped to Inter Miami CF as well as Ralph Priso and General Allocation Money traded to the Colorado Rapids for Canada midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye.
This infusion of talent put TFC at the top end of the league's payroll scale and signaled an ambition to match. The thing about reinforcements arriving in July, though, is that the season starts in February. By the time the Italian trio debuted and Kaye joined them for the first time on July 23, the Canadian club found itself with just five wins and four draws in 21 matches, having won just twice since mid-April. This record was, obviously, not ideal, although the idea of creating chances for existing players was part of the project.
"We felt that we could use the first half of the season to also see where we were with many other players and to provide opportunities for guys that have been here to see where they stood," Bradley said.
MLS being MLS, Toronto were not out of playoff contention despite averaging less than one point per game for nearly two thirds of the season. A 4-0 destruction of Charlotte FC followed by wins against Nashville SC and the Portland Timbers along with two hard-luck draws vs. the New England Revolution sent TFC up the Eastern Conference table and hinted at what might be. The squad played exciting, attacking soccer, the kind all that money was supposed to create.
"There were some moments," Bradley said. "Without a doubt, that was a huge level of excitement when we finally got a bunch of guys on the field."
The success, however, couldn't be sustained. Toronto stumbled as the first-choice starting lineup rarely saw the field for a variety of reasons. The early-season hole proved too deep. Defensive lapses plagued the side. On the year, the Reds would concede 66 goals against, third-worst behind the sieves in D.C. and San Jose. Goalkeeper Alex Bono struggled late, conceding 10 goals on just 5.9 goals of post-shot expected goals allowed in the five matches immediately following the unbeaten streak, according to Fbref.com.
In a vacuum, 2022 was an on-field failure for Toronto, but soccer is not played in a vacuum and franchises are not made in a season. Bradley, especially, is the type of leader focused on "projects" rather than individual years.
"The first year gives you a lot of information," he said. "We still feel that there's a good amount of work to get the roster where it needs to be."
Work, yes, but there are plenty of pieces, many more than at the beginning of his tenure. Bernardeschi and Insigne only appeared in 13 and 11 games, respectively, but posted an impressive 0.66 and 0.58 goals+assists/90 minutes. Michael Bradley finished 10th in the league in goals added with 2.85, per American Soccer Analysis. Jayden Nelson looked like he could develop into a key cog in central midfield while Richie Laryea is one of the league's most dynamic attacking full-backs. Jonathan Osorio can help win in MLS. Further down the depth chart, TFC II reached the Eastern Conference Final of MLS Next Pro, their first time making the playoffs and "an important step," according to Bradley. (Off the field is perhaps going even better, with TFC checking in as MLS's fifth-most valuable franchise.)
"The year was challenging, really challenging in a lot of different ways, "Bradley said. "There were moments that I think shows the direction that we want to go in but we were inconsistent with lineups, inconsistent with mistakes. There were things in terms of establishing ideas and establishing a way of playing and some principles that I think we can build on but overall, there's a lot of work to do."
There's always more soccer. A 4-0 loss to Orlando City SC on Sept. 17 eliminated TFC from playoff contention. The defeat was the club's third straight. Two more would follow, a stretch of five games in which Bradley's side conceded 17 goals and scored five. Regrettable, to be sure, but those results can't take away from the bigger picture: The 2023 campaign begins in February.