Toronto FC hoping defensive recruits make the difference
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It didn't take long for Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney to cut to the chase when they were recruiting longtime Colorado Rapids center back and prize offseason free agent Drew Moor this winter.
"During the courting process, the main issue that the TFC guys talked to me about was sharpening things up defensively," Moor, who signed with the club in mid-December, said earlier this month in an interview with ESPN.
Right back Steven Beitashour, acquired by Toronto via trade following two seasons in Vancouver, received a similar spiel upon his arrival.
"That's what they spoke about with me," Beitashour said. "They emphasized that focusing on the defense is something they're going solve this offseason. From early in training camp, really the entire team has been focused on reducing the number of goals allowed."
No team conceded more last season than the Reds. The 58 goals bled by their porous defense sabotaged an MVP season for the ages by Italian international Sebastian Giovinco, and cost them dearly in their lone postseason appearance since arriving in MLS in 2007, a 3-0 loss to the archrival Montreal Impact in the first round.
New team president Bill Manning called the defeat "embarrassing," afterward, and immediately set a mandate.
"If you look at the history of MLS, you have to let in essentially 1.2 goals or less (on average) to be a team that can compete for a championship," Manning, who served in the same capacity for Real Salt Lake when RSL won the league title in 2009, said at last year's post mortem. "I told Greg next year we can't let in more than 45."
So after spending the past two offseasons inking boldface names like Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and the since-departed Jermain Defoe, Bezbatchenko and Vanney set about finding proven MLS defenders who could bring much-needed stability to a back line that has historically been TFC's Achilles' heel.
Easier said than done. In a league governed by a salary cap, teams don't easily part with the sorts of valuable players the club was looking for. Indeed, Bezbatchenko told ESPN toward the end of his unsuccessful first season in 2014 in Toronto that it would probably take three years to construct the roster he wanted.
But Toronto and other big city clubs got an unexpected advantage over their small-market foes when free agency was included in the collective bargaining agreement reached by players and owners of the eve of last season, eventually enabling TFC to lure Moor. And after making a few shrewd trades this winter, the rebuild is close to complete. His three-year plan on schedule, this is the squad Bezbatchenko will make or break with.
"I knew when I came in it was going to take time to build the culture," he said during Wednesday's preseason tie against Montreal. "This is the first year that instead of 10 to 15 roster changes, we have four or five and we're bringing them in a very targeted way."
In addition to Moor and Beitashour, Toronto landed Canadian international and two-time MLS Cup champ Will Johnson. They also brought in keeper Clint Irwin, who'd spent the previous three years in Colorado playing behind Moor, who helped the Rapids win a title in 2010.
"Clint is an extremely vocal goalkeeper -- you don't always get that but it's so huge when you get that communication," said Moor, who, like Irwin, is known for his ability to keep a back four organized. "One thing I learned in the first two weeks training with Toronto is they needed that voice."
The hard-tackling Johnson will also help out defensively. He'll play as part of a sturdy midfield trio that includes captain Bradley and Frenchman Benoit Cheyrou. The newcomers will contribute in the locker room, too.
"We were looking for guys who not just filled positional needs, but also could be part of the leadership pool for Greg to help Michael and the guys that have been here," Bezbatchenko said. "Now that we've built this core and these guys know each other, we want to see what they can do."
On paper at least, nothing seems out of reach.
With Giovinco back and a slimmed-down Altidore poised for a big season if he can stay healthy (a recurrence of the hamstring issues that have plagued the U.S. national team striker in recent years could force him to miss the first two weeks of the 2016 campaign, Vanney said Wednesday), TFC has its best shot yet of making a deep playoff run.
If it does, the defensive recruits will play a major supporting role.
"They don't expect us to come in and be the savior for TFC," Moor said. "They just expect us to come in and be who we are."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.