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Toronto FC has many questions to answer as it gears up for new MLS season

TORONTO — Heading into the MLS regular season, Toronto FC is akin to a restaurant undergoing a makeover with time running out before the reveal.

There's a lot going on behind the scenes and no guarantee it will be ready in time.

Last year's league-worst team at 4-20-10, TFC has been slow to bring in new talent due in part to the fickle nature of football's transfer window and difficulties in trimming the existing roster due to salary cap issues.

The pace picked up Friday with news that Toronto had reacquired Canadian international fullback Richie Laryea via transfer from England's Nottingham Forest. Laryea, whose career took off as a fullback/wingback after joining Toronto in March 2019, joined Forest in January 2002 but subsequently returned to first TFC and then Vancouver on loan spells.

Laryea joins Honduran midfielder Deybi Flores and veteran Irish defender Kevin Long as additions ahead of TFC's season-opener Sunday at FC Cincinnati. Flores takes over from retired captain Michael Bradley at defensive midfielder, looking to reinforce a sieve-like defence that conceded 59 goals last year (second only to the Los Angeles Galaxy's 67).

Trinidad winger/wingback Tyrese Spicer, the first overall pick in 2024 MLS SuperDraft, is expected to add pace down the flank but has been slowed by a toe injury in pre-season.

"I think the players are coming into this weekend feeling confident that they put a good foundation in," said coach John Herdman. "They're definitely fit and they're together."

Many questions remain.

Can Herdman, the former Canada coach who took over Oct. 1, work his magic in turning around what was a fractured team culture last season? And can high-priced Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, who earned a combined US$21.7 million last season, deliver the goods after combining for just nine goals and nine assists last year?

Bernardeschi drew rave reviews during pre-season in Florida and California. Insigne, who saw action in just 20 of TFC's 34 league outings last season due to injury, had been handled with kid gloves in advance of Sunday as a precaution.

But GM Jason Hernandez says Insigne is all-in this season.

"There's no doubt," he said. "With respect to all of our players, but specifically our more experienced guys, our leaders, our designated players, the amount of time, energy and pure work that's been put into this pre-season, it's been great to watch. And we all feel really good about it."

Herdman also has to find a forward to work off the Italians, with Deandre Kerr and Ayo Akinola among the candidates.

And he has to rebalance an inexperienced roster that has 13 players 24 or younger.

Sunday's opener is a challenge, with injury question-marks over Spicer, Kerr and Insigne, who had a reaction to training on artificial turf upon the club's return from California, and Laryea's game fitness.

Cincinnati won the Supporters' Shield last season with a league-best 20-5-9 record, finishing a whopping 47 points ahead of Toronto.

While Cincinnati is facing a short turnaround after defeating Cavalier FC 2-1 in CONCACAF Champions Cup play Thursday night in Jamaica, Toronto has had travel woes of its own in the past. Under former coach Bob Bradley and interim coach Terry Dunfield, the team went 0-13-4 in league play on the road last season.

Toronto has been outscored 25-0 in its last eight road outings, with its last away goal coming courtesy of Kerr in the 11th minute of a 2-1 loss at New England on June 24, 2023.

TFC's last road victory was Aug. 27, 2022, in a 2-0 decision in Charlotte.

To be fair, Toronto was awful everywhere last season, finishing off the campaign by losing seven straight and 17 of its last 18 (1-17-0) in all competitions.

Many pundits don't expect much of an improvement.

TFC starts the season 29th and last in mlsoccer.com's power rankings. A panel of 17 from the league website and MLS Season Pass picked Toronto to finish 15th and last in the Eastern Conference.

It's easy to understand the pessimism. TFC has been in a nosedive for some time.

Since finishing second overall in the league in 2020 — and exiting in the first round of the post-season in a 1-0 loss to Nashville SC after extra time — Toronto has missed the playoffs three straight years with a combined league record of 19-56-27.

That comes after trips to the MLS Cup final in 2016, 2017 and 2019 — and an unprecedented treble in 2017 when Toronto won the MLS Cup Supporters' Shield and Canadian Championship under Greg Vanney.

Herdman follows Chris Armas Javier Perez, Bradley and Dunfield, who is still on staff as one of Herdman's assistant coaches, in trying to right the TFC ship.

Hernandez, however, sees improvements.

"I think John and his staff have done an incredible job to set the table for us to build off of for the season."

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press