In the wake of disappointing 2013 seasons, both D.C. United and Toronto FC decided to embark on substantial winter renovations. Their strategies, however, took them on dissimilar paths leading to Saturday afternoon’s match on the banks of Lake Ontario.
United worked primarily within MLS to recover from a three-win campaign, plucking veterans in the re-entry draft and consummating trades. D.C. made a big splash in acquiring U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson from Seattle, but for the most part it chose practicality over punch.
Toronto, which has never qualified for the playoffs since launching in 2007, opened its deep vault.
Seeking to both improve roster quality and advance a tarnished brand, Canadian empire Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment dropped tens of millions on major acquisitions: U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley from Roma, English forward Jermain Defoe from Tottenham Hotspur, Brazilian forward Gilberto from Internacional, Brazilian World Cup goalkeeper Julio Cesar from England’s Queens Park Rangers and English defender Bradley Orr from Blackburn Rovers.
Toronto also furnished second-year coach Ryan Nelsen, a former D.C. captain, with three proven MLS players, most notably former United captain Dwayne De Rosario.
The refurbished club debuted last weekend with a 2-1 victory at Seattle, an impressive away result even for units that have been together for a long time. Defoe, a 19-goal scorer during his English national team career, struck twice in the first half.
Ahead of Saturday’s home opener, Toronto FC is awash in the most anticipation since its inaugural match in 2007.
“They’ve put a lot of money into their team, so they need to put out a good brand,” United defender Jeff Parke said. “It’s going to be a different atmosphere up there. Years past, fans have been moving in a different direction, but with all of the new faces and money, it’s going to be a scene.”
Parke is among United’s 12 newcomers, a center back in his 11th pro season acquired in a trade with Philadelphia. Other arrivals included Johnson, defenders Bobby Boswell from Houston and Sean Franklin from Los Angeles, and forward Fabian Espindola from New York. Spanish left back Cristian Fernandez was United’s only foreign acquisition.
The disparity in offseason spending does not ensure a disparity in the standings at the end of the year. The New York Red Bulls have burned through cash on glamour players for years without much to show for it. Major signings paid off for the Los Angeles Galaxy with back-to-back titles in 2011-12, but neither of last year’s MLS Cup finalists, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, is among the big spenders.
Burned by recent international flops and unwilling to match Toronto and L.A.’s splurges, United went for tried-and-true — and affordable — players.
The early reviews were not favorable: a 3-0 home loss to the Columbus Crew two weeks ago. Last weekend’s bye afforded additional training sessions to continue building cohesion.
“Some of the deficiencies we had in the preseason, we’re getting better at, but it’s still going to take time,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s still not an overnight process to get all of these guys on the same page and play at an extremely high level. But it’s got to be better than it was against Columbus.
“The guys are chomping to get back out there and show the last two weeks we’ve moved forward and gotten better as a group.”
In the opener, United fell behind by two goals in the first half and generated few quality scoring opportunities for Johnson and Espindola. The defense will encounter greater threats from Toronto, which last week found Defoe making smart runs in Seattle’s channels for clear chances on target.
Bradley, a critical piece to potential U.S. success at the World Cup this summer, is the hub of Toronto’s operations, distributing the ball from deep positions and fortifying the resistance in front of Cesar, Brazil’s top-choice keeper.
“The hype is real,” Olsen said, “and we are looking forward to it.”