TORONTO - As always, the one thing that never changes at Toronto FC is change. But the revolving door seems to be swinging a little slower going into the 2015 season.
Rather than radical surgery, head coach Greg Vanney and GM Tim Bezbatchenko have targeted key areas for improvement. And while there is more work to be done on defence, a franchise known for past failures looks like it will be worth watching this season.
This year is about executing their vision.
"One, we're trying to do less because I think it's about continuity and stability," said Bezbatchenko.
"But then two, we know how to approach it in a little bit different way. Not to say we didn't do it the right way last year (when the team went 11-15-8) but I think to build a team, it's more than just the talent on the field. It's character, how you go about doing it, setting expectations for the fans.
"And I think we have players now that the fans can get around."
After weekend medicals, pre-season training starts Monday under the bubble at the MLS team's well-appointed training centre.
Toronto has said goodbye to former face of the franchise Jermain Defoe while adding big guns in striker Jozy Altidore and attacking midfielder Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian star was originally scheduled to join in July after his season with Juventus, but there has been speculation he may be freed up sooner.
U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, in his second season in Toronto, is firmly at the TFC helm. Consulted by team brass on off-season moves, Bradley helped engineer some of them.
It would be a surprise if Bradley does not take over as captain from 34-year-old centre back Steven Caldwell. The fiery Scot is a fine skipper but the franchise seems clearly to be lining up behind the 27-year-old intense American star.
Who wears the captain's armband is a question that should be answered sooner than later, to avoid distractions. The future of Brazilian striker Gilberto, who appears to be the odd man out in Toronto's overcrowded designated player pool when Giovinco arrives, will also dominate discussion. Gilberto has been allowed to remain in Brazil while the team sorts out its roster issues.
Camp will open without Altidore and Bradley, who are with the U.S. national team. They are not expected back until Feb. 9. Brazilian midfielder Jackson, meanwhile, has been given permission to arrive late due to his wife expecting.
Despite Toronto's desire for continuity, there will be upheaval this season with key players leaving for the July 7-26 Gold Cup. The good news is TFC has just four games in July.
A lopsided home schedule, with seven straight road games to open the season due to ongoing stadium renovations at BMO Field, also complicates matters. As does the timing of Giovinco's arrival.
But Toronto believes it is close to sorting out the on-field product.
Six players have signed on with Toronto so far since last season, counting Giovinco, with eight moving on.
Compare that to the post-2013 season when MLS records show 15 players coming in (five of those have since left) and 17 leaving. After the 2012 campaign, there were 26 in and 26 out as the franchise cleaned house.
Toronto set records for wins (11) and points (41) last season when Defoe started his MLS career with a bang, only to fall victim to injury and homesickness.
But there was still plenty of room for improvement. In 2014, Toronto ranked 12th out of 19 teams in goals per game (1.29) and 15th in goals against (1.59).
The team is slated to return to Toronto on Feb. 9 before returning to the Sunshine state, this time Bradenton, on Feb. 16.
The club will take part in the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic in Florida, playing in a group with the New York Red Bulls, Danish First Division team HB Koge and USL Pro side Oklahoma City Energy FC.
The players fly north again March 1 in preparation for their season opener March 7 in Vancouver,
Vanney has added Robin Fraser, a veteran assistant and former head coach, to his coaching staff.
Former assistant Jason Bent has been tasked with overseeing Toronto II, the club's new USL Pro team. With eight players taken in the recent MLS SuperDraft as well as its academy talent, Toronto is well on its way to stocking the new side designed to bridge the gap between the top academy side and the MLS team.
Vanney envisions starting camp in Toronto with all of its draft picks and top academy players taking part in the main group. The goal is "laying out the vision of how we will play so that everybody has a clear idea of what our vision of the game looks like for this year, both in attack and in defence."
The whole group will travel to Florida for the first phase of warm-weather training. When the team returns to Toronto, some will be split off to work with the fledgling USL Pro side.
Both teams will make the second trip to Florida with separate games for each.
"As much as possible we want to keep the groups close together ... so we're all on the same page," Vanney said.
The addition of expansion teams Orlando City SC and New York City FC and the exit of Chivas USA have changed the look of the league in 2015.
Houston and Sporting Kansas City have moved to the Western Conference to make way for the new teams, leaving both conferences with 10 clubs. Six will make the playoffs in each conference, up from five last season, offering Toronto a better chance of finally qualifying for the post-season.
Toronto, which has missed the playoffs in all eight of its previous seasons, enters the 2015 campaign with an all-time league record of 62-120-74.
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