TORONTO — The number of fans lining the barriers that line the player entrance at BMO Field before games has grown in recent weeks, with Lorenzo Insigne jerseys already evident.
The star power is growing at Toronto FC.
But results will take more time, as evidenced from Saturday's 2-2 tie when a goal in stoppage time by San Jose substitute Jack Skahan — his first in MLS — spoiled a TFC comeback that saw Deandre Kerr and Jonathan Osorio score four minutes apart in the second half after a 26th-minute opener by Quakes striker Jeremy Ebobisse.
It was a disappointing result against a team that occupies the Western Conference basement and has yet to win on the road this season.
And there are challenges ahead, with four of the next five league outings on the road where Toronto is 0-5-3 this season.
With the league's secondary transfer window now open, coach Bob Bradley is continuing his remake in Toronto. The first eight months on the job have essentially served as an audition for the young talent remaining after a massive off-season cleanout following a dismal 6-18-10 campaign in 2021.
“If you look at everything that went on in January and February, we knew there was a lot of work to be done," Bradley said in the leadup to Saturday's game.
"When you start this stuff, you're never able to do it in one (transfer window) … The first half of the season was always going to be (an) opportunity for young players, which has been the case," he added. "And we've seen some good things. We've seen some things that still need improvement, that's normal.
"And then from there, we assess and look at options and figure out how we want to move forward.”
To date, 21 players from last year's first-team roster have moved on, including 21-year-old defender Luke Singh who is on loan at FC Edmonton. And the exodus continues as Toronto (5-10-4) attempts to rebuild under Bradley.
Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo has been shipped to Inter Miami, opening up a designated player spot for another European star, likely out-of-contract Juventus winger Federico Bernardeschi.
Bradley completed his midfield trio Friday by acquiring Mark-Anthony Kaye from the Colorado Rapids. Kaye, who was slated to arrive in town Sunday, will slot in alongside fellow Canadian international Jonathan Osorio and captain Michael Bradley, Bob's son.
Insigne, currently sidelined by a calf injury, will occupy the left side of Bradley's three-man attack with Spanish forward Jesus Jimenez at the tip of the spear and Bernardeschi or another marquee import likely manning the right flank.
Italian left back Domenico Criscito made his debut Saturday and did not disappoint despite not having played in a match since May. The 35-year-old former Genoa captain was calm and composed, delivered accurate corners and was in the right place at the right time.
But there is more work to do in defence with an announcement expected imminently that star centre back Carlos Salcedo is returning to Mexico for family reasons following his wife giving birth last month
Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, a father of four, can sympathize, having had his family suffer through COVID in early 2021.
"It feels like a hard world when you have family problems," Westberg said Saturday.
Salcedo's departure would open up another designated player spot. A centre back and right back are needed.
Toronto, seven points out of the playoff picture in 12th place in the 14-team East, went into weekend play ranking 27th in the 28-team league in goals conceded, averaging 1.89 goals a game. TFC has not posted a shutout in league play since Sept. 25, 2021, in a 0-0 draw at Colorado with the run of MLS games without a clean sheet now at 27 games.
At US$2.35 million this season, Salcedo is the highest-paid defender in MLS. But fans likely didn't see the best of the 28-year-old in his 13 league starts with Toronto.
While the Mexican showed flashes of commanding at the back, he also proved to be somewhat of a riverboat gambler. The expected first-choice centre back pairing with the mercurial Chris Mavinga proved to be a risk-reward scenario, prompting Bob Bradley to often opt for Shane O'Neill over Mavinga to add solidity to the back.
Bradley hopes Kaye, a former TFC academy product, will take the Toronto midfield up a notch. He knows the 27-year-old well, having coached him at Los Angeles FC — before ultimately selling him to Colorado for a hefty return in July 2021.
"He understands the ideas of how we want to play when we talk about a midfield three — his understanding of how to be connected with the other two, find space," Bradley said. "He's a good forward passer, has good reactions when the balls turn over.
"I think he brings a lot of good qualities. He's a good guy."
As Toronto endures another subpar season, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite the results, the mood in the dressing room seems positive after two seasons where morale took a beating with the club having to relocate south of the border due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. And Bradley has had a chance to test out his youth.
Bradley gave away one of those in the Kaye deal, shipping out promising 19-year-old Canadian midfielder Ralph Priso to Colorado.
Toronto has 12 players aged 22 or younger, including four teenagers, on its first-team roster. All are Canadian.
"With all our young players, there's talent, there's good guys but then there's the process of growing in a team," said Bradley. "Becoming guys that can be counted on.
"In some ways with some of these guys, it's probably not a bad thing that they also get out of (Toronto). Because they need to get out of their comfort zones. They need to have a better understanding every day of how to train the right way, how to take little details and apply it all the time."
"Look it's normal that when there's players that come through (the academy) that people in the area look at them and are excited," he added. "We're all excited. But there's a big difference between being excited about that and then knowing those are guys that are ready for the next step."
Off the field, the franchise is still attracting fans with the big-name additions helping. TFC ranks seventh in the league in attendance at 23,329.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press