I’ve always been an old soul when it comes to sports – at least when it comes to who I choose to cheer for the hardest.
Where most kids gravitated to the athletes that looked like then, I was always rooting for the grizzled veteran with a little grey popping around the edges of his helmet.
One of the most seminal sports moments of my childhood, was gimpy Kirk Gibson limping around the bases to win game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Looking back now, it’s particularly depressing to realize that Old Man Gibson was all of 31 when he hit that homer, but through the eyes of youth he might as well have been 81.
Now that I’m a tad bit older than Gibson (exactly *cough* years older), I still mostly cheer for older things. Earn your glory, damn it. You have to suffer first. When the Las Vegas Golden Knights went to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, it felt like a crime against nature to me. The same thing goes to the Atlanta United start and the way the fans of that club acted like they had hit a triple, after having been born on third.
There are exceptions – Tom Brady can stuff it – but I will always cheer for the old guys.
Which brings me to the story of Toronto FC in 2021.
It is conventional thinking is that the Reds are a bit past it, as they prepare to kick-off the new season (whenever that may be, with COVID-19 and CBA uncertainty looming large).
Certainly, it feels like Toronto is at the end of something, rather than the beginning. But, are they? As with anything, it’s important to look at the evidence rather than assume that conventional thinking is correct. Toronto FC is a team, after all, that finished second in the Supporter’s Shield race last year, despite only playing four home games all year.
The main argument that TFC is at, or beyond, its Best Before Date is that the “core” of the roster is too old to be a championship team now. So, let’s look:
First we have to define the core. That’s a bit subjective, but let’s have a go.
You have to start with Michael Bradley. The captain is who most think of when they close their eyes and imagine TFC.
The Yang to Bradley’s Ying is Jozy. So, add him to the list. And, Alejandro Pozuelo is the straw that stirs the drink.
That’s your easy 1-2-3. Now, we get into more subjective choices. I’m going to add the most important defender, Chris Mavinga, and longest serving player, Jonathan Osorio, to the list of the core.
How close are those five players to the end?
In terms of their ages: 33 (Bradley), 31 (Jozy), 29 (Pozuelo), 29 (Mavinga) and 28 (Osorio). Those aren’t rookies, but with three players in their late 20s, including reigning MLS MVP Pozuelo, it’s not as bleak as some paint it to be.
The current flavour of the month in MLS is the Columbus Crew . It’s for good reason, as they are the defending MLS Cup champions and they just added more talent to the roster this off season. Looking at some of their key pieces we find this: Harrison Afful, 34, Jonathan Mensah, 30, Kevin Molino, 30, Darlington Nagbe, 30, Gyasi Zardes, 29, and Bradley Wright-Phillips, 35.
So, how come TFC is “old,” while Columbus is “exciting?”
Sure, one is the champions, but it’s an awfully thin line – TFC had a better record than Columbus. They just failed to break down Nashville’s low block, while it took Columbus 100 minutes to do so.
To quote Carl Robinson – fine lines.
The answer to why Toronto is perceived as being crazy old comes down to perceptions about the first two players on my list (and if you include Omar Gonzalez to your list, which…fair enough).
What to do about Michael and Jozy?
There’s no clear answer here. If you want to be optimistic, you can point to Bradley’s performance against Nashville in the playoffs, where he was, bluntly, the only TFC player to show up that night. With Jozy, surely he can stay healthy one year, right?
The pessimist would say that a 33-year-old Bradley has way too much influence over the team still and that TFC was at its best last year when he was injured, with Marky Delgado and Osorio in a double pivot. A realist might add that it’s cute that the optimist thinks Jozy can stay healthy.
So, it’s fair to have questions about TFC in 2021. The question is whether there are more questions with the Reds than any other MLS team, all of which, by their nature, have issues. They are MLS teams. The league forces them all to have issues.
In this weird COVID-19 transfer window, MLS teams don’t really have much choice but to stay the course. Based on what we’ve seen so far in the window, the most realistic way to make changes is through internal trades. TFC is not a club that is going to rely on that type of move to make it’s most important signings. So, you can bet that they won’t rush to bring in reinforcements until they can get who they want.
Bottom line for TFC fans is this: Don’t panic. The club isn’t actually that old and they were likely the best team in the league last season until the strain of playing away from home eventually destroyed their will to compete.
Starting the 2021 season without significant upgrades won’t be the end of the world. Particularly in 2021.
But, cross your fingers on Jozy’s hammy staying stable.
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