Toronto FC won another offseason, but it hasn’t improved on the field

Big congratulations to Toronto FC! For the second winter in a row, the Reds have undoubtedly “won” the Major League Soccer offseason. Of course, there’s no trophy or cash prize for this triumph. And for those noble purists who care about on-field matters, it’s fair to wonder how far TFC has really come.

You see, you “win” the offseason by making the splashiest announcements, something that hasn’t always translated into results on the field. But TFC pulled it off spectacularly, even against significant odds. New York City FC and the Red Bulls tried hard to outdo one another in the headline department, and Orlando won one MLS news cycle when it snared Brek Shea to join Kaká in central Florida. But even Steven Gerrard signing for the LA Galaxy couldn’t trump TFC’s double whammy of blazing headline glory.

First, the Reds rescued Jozy Altidore from his virtual prison sentence at Sunderland. Then they managed to pay even more in salary for Italian pocket mite Sebastian Giovinco, re-igniting debates about whether Major League Soccer’s protective structure can truly save owners from themselves. If certain owners are stubbornly determined to overspend for good (but not elite) European talent, the league’s rules allow just enough leeway to empty a bank account.

So, yes … we can award the offseason to TFC and its latest Bloody Big Deal, but true glory rides with the boys of summer, and fall. It’s all about what happens from March to December. It’s not about January headlines; it’s about Supporters Shield, making the playoffs and, ultimately, MLS Cup. In Canada, it’s also about earning the country’s place in CONCACAF Champions League, but if recent results provide any hints, you only soar in MLS when your roster is solid from back to front.

Seattle certainly isn’t stingy with the DP buck. But for all the dollars tossed at Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Ozzie Alonso, we could argue that the grabbing of Defender of the Year Chad Marshall last offseason was the master stroke that truly put the Sounders over the Supporters Shield hump. Plus, Seattle carefully built quality and depth throughout its roster; DeAndre Yedlin went to the World Cup, for instance, and Brad Evans very nearly did, too.

And what about the Galaxy? Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez were worthy lead actors, all DPs. But anyone who watched the Galaxy stack up the championships knows the team was built around shrewd roster management by a wily Bruce Arena. Because the real heart and soul was right in the middle, where Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas buzzed so effectively. Throw in regular, workman outings from the likes of A.J. DeLaGarza, Dan Gargan, Stefan Ishizaki, Gyasi Zardes and others, and it’s easy to see how those titles are regularly landing at the StubHub Center.

A strategy of “buy big … and keep buying!” just isn’t enough. It is tricky math, because as we’ve said before, swimming into the Designated Player waters looks increasingly like a necessity to be competitive in MLS. But it’s not just about buying big – it’s about finding the sweet spot. You have to be as shrewd with the rest of your roster as you are with those three DP spots. Because in a salary capped league, you could easily end up with a back line better suited for Saturday nights in USL Pro if you’re not careful.

That’s why Toronto FC will be so fascinating in 2015. If it doesn’t improve on a back line that yielded 54 goals and upgrade a couple of other spots around the field, none of us need to worry about shivering through an MLS Cup in Toronto. Oh, it’ll make its first postseason; the new, overly forgiving 12-team format almost guarantees it now. But things get sketchy from there.

A smidge of defensive cover does exist in Toronto’s new DP setup. While it’s true that Altidore and Giovinco are paid to generate goals, two-way midfielder Michael Bradley will dutifully toil with and without the ball. So spending all the DP dollars in the chase for more goals is not the issue, not exactly. Rather, it’s about what TFC does with a defense that allowed all those goals in 2014.

Last year’s teams that made the playoffs averaged 42.7 goals against. That means Toronto needs to shave 11 from its “conceded” ledger to be an average playoff defense, and so far it’s hard to see how TFC has improved on one of Major League Soccer’s poorest back lines. (Odd, considering coach Greg Vanney was a defender.)

The team’s pursuit of Polish international Damien Perquis is promising on one hand. Now out of contract at Real Betis, the 30-year-old looks like a solid addition — if TFC can make it happen. There’s the issue. Unless the new CBA that’s being negotiated provides significant salary relief, how much do the Reds really have to offer a solid, mid-level European veteran like Perquis? With no transfer fee attached, he’ll certainly have other pursuers.

Right now, 34-year-old center back Stephen Caldwell, injury prone and hardly the most athletic of characters, leads the back line. He’s set to be partnered with someone like young Nick Hagglund, or perhaps rookie Skylar Thomas. With Doneil Henry off to England, there is absolutely no depth at the moment. Scary thought, yet that’s what you risk when tying up so much money in those big names.

And that’s not even addressing what’s going on around the rest of the field. Justin Morrow and Mark Bloom look OK at fullback. But what will dependable veterans like Altidore, Bradley and Giovinco do with the maddeningly inconsistent (and sometimes volatile) likes of Dominic Oduro and Jackson at those wing positions?

MLS is a better place with more rock stars, so we’ll happily watch as things unfold around Exhibition Place in 2015. And the team has seats to fill at the expanded BMO Field, so good on ‘em for ginning up the sales buzz. But the competitive pursuits of a salary capped league demand a more measured, thoughtful approach. Because winning the offseason is great and all, but it makes for a rather barren trophy cabinet.