THE 2018 Major League Soccer season gets underway on March 3 and the reigning champions Toronto are widely tipped to challenge for the title once more.
They will face stiff competition from ambitious Atlanta United, who have been very aggressive in the transfer market signing promising South American talent, as well as Seattle Sounders and New York City FC.
Toronto clinched the MLS Cup by beating Seattle in the final, gaining revenge for defeat at that stage a year earlier. The club, which was formed in 2005, is operated by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), a sports and real estate company from Toronto. MLSE also holds franchises in ice hockey (Canada’s number one sport) and basketball.
Although Toronto’s recent success was in marked contrast to its early years, in which they were perpetual strugglers, the club is now ranked among the top 50 in the world, according to the Soccerex Football Finance 100 report.
Toronto, as well as being the financial capital of Canada, is also the country’s friendliest city – if you believe the guidebooks. It also has a low crime rate and is Canada’s media capital. With a population of almost six million, it is the nation’s most populous city.
Little surprise that Toronto are one of the best supported clubs in MLS. In 2017, they averaged more than 27,000 people per game, the best average in their history. But then with a record-breaking season behind them, nobody should be too surprised by that.
And what a campaign it was. As well as winning their first MLS Cup, they were also Canadian champions and won the Supporters’ Shield, the prize for having the best overall record in the regular season (ex-play-offs). They won 20 of their 34 games and had a points per game ratio of 2.02 – a figure that has been beaten just twice in MLS history.
Toronto have two of the top earners in the MLS in their ranks, Italian Sebastian Giovinco and skipper Michael Bradley, both of whom trouser well north of USD 6m per year. Giovinco was named in the MLS team of the year along with Justin Morrow and Spain’s Victor Vazquez. He was a key man in the latter stages of the MLS in 2017 and scored 20 goals in 32 games across the campaign. After Toronto clinched the MLS Cup, the former Juventus striker told the media, “This is what I came here for.”
One of the goal scorers in the MLS Cup final was Jozy Altidore, the much-travelled US international (110 caps). He scored 18 goals in the 2017 season. Altidore usually partners Giovinco up front with Vazquez just behind them. Vazquez was previously with Mexico’s Cruz Azul but has played for Barcelona and Club Brugge.
Mexican clubs pose the biggest hurdles for Toronto in this season’s CONCACAF Champions League, which has already kicked off and this year will follow a pure knock-out format. Toronto have already won through to the last eight having beaten Colorado Rapids 2-0 on aggregate. They will face Tigres UANL next. Coach Greg Vanney, who took over in 2014, is enthused by Toronto’s involvement in the competition: “After last year and [also] winning the Canadian championship, and based on where we’ve been in the past 18 months to two years, we belong in this event,” he told the media.
And after the first round had been successfully negotiated, Vanney looked ahead to the possibly daunting tie with Tigres: “This is why we’ve been looking forward to this event – just to try to play the best teams possible. We know Tigres are one of the best, arguably the best, depending on what you want to talk about.”
But the CONCACAF Champions League has belonged to Mexico since 2006, the last non-Mexican side to win it was Saprissa of Costa Rica in 2005. In the competition’s history, only two US teams have won it, LA Galaxy (2000) and DC United (1998).
Toronto have strengthened their squad since lifting their titles in 2017. Dutch World Cup star Gregory van der Wiel joined the club in February from Cagliari after managing only a handful of games in Italy. After some problems on and off the pitch, van der Wiel is looking to regain his passion for the game in Canada.
There are high hopes that young Brazilian defender Auro will prove to be something of a coup signing for Toronto. The MLS champions beat-off the interest of clubs in Spain and Portugal to acquire the 22 year-old Sao Paulo player.
Meanwhile, attacking midfielder Ager Aketxe was signed from Athletic Bilbao in February. According to coach Vanney, 24 year-old Aketxe adds a “whole new skill-set”. His compatriot, Vazquez, believes the new man can become the best newcomer to the MLS in 2018.
Aketxe was signed using the so-called Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), funds provided by the league to add or retain players that will make an immediate impact on the field. Each team receives USD 1.2m for the season, plus – for 2018 and 2019 – an additional USD 2.8m in optional, discretionary TAM. It’s a different ball game from European leagues.
With recent transfer activity and growing interest in MLS, the league is on a very positive trajectory. Attendances reached 22,000-plus in 2017 and in the Soccerex Football Finance 100, no fewer than 13 teams were among the 100, with LA Galaxy ranked 14, New York Red Bulls 23, Seattle 24, NY City 25 and New England 28. MLS benefits from good business models and excellent revenue generating facilities.
The arrival of younger talent, with a notably increase in South Americans, implies MLS is trying to seduce football followers by adding raw talent to otherwise well organised units. Certainly the arrival of Auro and Aketxe at Toronto suggests that MLS teams are no longer the last port of call on a veteran’s career. Indeed, New York City signed one of the most coveted youngsters from South America in Jesus Medina, a 20 year-old Paraguayan.
Toronto start their MLS programme at home to Colombus Crew on March 3 and a fortnight later, they will face Montreal Impact, 335 miles away but the nearest the Reds will get to a local derby.