We’re still two months away from the start of Major League Soccer’s season, but given the news Toronto FC made today, it’s impossible to resist taking pen to paper and imagining what Ryan Nelsen’s team could look like in March. Jermain Defoe is moving to BMO Field, as is U.S. Men’s National Team stalwart Michael Bradley. Add in the team’s other offseason acquisitions — Gilberto, Jackson, Justin Morrow — and the somewhat permeable state at the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture and it’s difficult to tell a TFC fan they shouldn’t dare to dream.
Beyond the players, we know Nelsen has almost exclusively played a 4-4-2 formation since signing on in Toronto, preferring one defensive midfielder in the middle. With that in mind, here’s some blind speculation as to what a TFC starting XI could look like, provided Defoe and Bradley end up in Ontario.
GK: Joe Bendik – The 24-year-old acquired from Portland before last season made 33 starts for Nelsen, keeping the No. 1’s job from the eventually traded Stefan Frei. Recently re-signed, he’ll be back in goal this year.
LB: Justin Morrow/Ashtone Morgan – It look Nelsen a little time to warm to Morgan last season, but ultimately, the 22-year-old played the fourth-most minutes on the team. The former San Jose Earthquake will challenge his place in the starting XI, but Morrow’s flexibility could lead to significant playing time for both players. (This is where I’ll reiterate our caveats: It’s only January, this is very speculative, and Ryan Nelsen/Tim Bezbatchenko may have no idea who will be starting Mar. 7 against Vancouver.)
CBs: Doneil Henry, Steven Caldwell – Though Gale Agbossoumonde is lurking, the young U.S. hopeful is actually two years older than Henry, who is likely to start next to the veteran Caldwell.
RB: Mark Bloom? Ryan Richter? – This is the one position where it’s unclear what Toronto’s doing, leaving you to wonder whether Morrow may actually make his way over to this flank. A Canadian Press report from mid-December speculated the 26-year-old Bloom had inherited the spot, perhaps a second ex-Atlanta Silverbacks full back loanee ready to make an impact in Major League Soccer (along with Colorado’s Chris Klute).
LM/RM: Jackson, Reggie Lambe – Alvaro Rey and Jonathan Osorio are also options here, but Lambe’s 27 appearances hint he was one of Nelsen’s favorites last season, something that could give the 22-year-old Bermudan a leg-up on a starting spot. Jackson, acquired from FC Dallas, looks like an obvious choice for Toronto’s starting XI, provided he makes a smooth transition to his new team.
CMs: Michael Bradley, Jeremy Hall or Jonathan Osorio (Kyle Bekker?) – How does Nelsen envision using Bradley? Is the U.S. international seen as a holder? Somebody who will typically be the deepest man in midfielder? Or will Nelsen craft a more expansive role for his DP midfielder? That may dictate whether Jeremy Hall, Toronto’s most-used field player in 2013, continues to be a regular in the starting XI. It’s also possible somebody like the 21-year-old Osorio (or, maybe Kyle Bekker) ends up partnering Bradley in the middle. This may also be a position when the opposition has something to say about who Nelsen chooses from one weekend to the next.
Fs: Jermain Defoe, Gilberto – Bright Dike and Dwayne De Rosario give Nelsen options, but the top of the depth chart is clear. Both Defoe and Gilberto’s track records hint they’ll be very successful Major League Soccer players, and while fans of the league have seen enough flame outs to know nothing is guaranteed, Toronto should be able to avoid their 2013 goal-scoring woes. Provided Nelsen loosens the reins (far from a given), TFC should drastically improve on the 30 goals they scored last season.