Eric Hassli wants to play for Toronto FC.
You can tell it just by the look on his face during his new club’s end-of-season press conference, that the former Vancouver Whitecaps forward wants to be a part of the team under Paul Mariner, a team that is expected to make wholesale changes during the offseason.
The very nature of Hassli’s acquisition was to replace Danny Koevermans. This was not a strategic signing, born of a need for a forward, but an emergency pick up to replace a gaping hole left when Koevermans’ was ruled out with a season-ending injury, an ACL tear side-lining Koevermans while he was in goalscoring form.
As such, Hassli came at a heavy price, a first round draft pick for the 2014 season and an international roster spot going Vancouver’s way in exchange for the Frenchman. A first round draft pick is a valuable commodity in Major League Soccer, a fact that has not been lost on Paul Mariner, who expects the 2013 pick to be either used, or traded, for an impact player.
TFC needed a centre forward and Eric Hassli fit the bill to the tee: he’s big, strong, a goalscorer through and through, and has some MLS experience to boot. But, is the Frenchman that impact player?
His performance in red has been decent, a trio of goals earned in seven league appearances. His commitment to the club is unquestionable, and while Hassli himself has only spent a few months in Toronto, he is more than willing to take responsibility for the shortcomings of the club, as well as his own personal problems. He apologized for not being able to play as many games as expected of him, a strange apology that Hassli did not have to give.
Certainly, neither the fans nor the players can fault him for picking up a couple injuries, nor can they blame him for the team's dismal 2012 season. While TFC were losing nine games in a row, Hassli was in the white and blue of Vancouver; and when the team was reshuffling their management team, Hassli was battling Kenny Miller for a spot in the Whitecaps’ starting XI. The apology itself was not needed, yet it speaks of Hassli’s character. He’s a winner, through and through, and losing games or being out injured is something Hassli does not enjoy.
Here is a player that wants to play for Toronto FC, and has the unique skillset required to start for the club. He is no benchwarmer, that’s for certain, and though he didn’t get as much playing time as he would have wanted in Vancouver, in Toronto, he is the undisputed king of the hill up top -- or, he will be, until Danny Koevermans comes back from his injury.
Underlying the entire Hassli signing was the fact that Danny Koevermans might slowly but surely come back from injury and challenge for a spot up front once more. While injuries have hit Hassli as well, both players will, at some point next season, be ready, fit and fighting for the club.
The question is, can Eric Hassli and Danny Koevermans ever co-exist?
In a league with a tight salary cap, can having both Eric Hassli and Danny Koevermans in Toronto’s budget really be financially responsible? The two take up $700,000 in cap space, and, alongside another injured player, Torsten Frings, the Designated Player trio will take up more than a third of Toronto FC’s $2.95 million cap space.
Justifying cost has been the issue with Hassli since he was first signed. The controversy around Hassli comes not from his performances, but from the price. In MLS, a first round draft pick goes a long way, and with Danny Koevermans’ injury ruling him out for the 2012 season, giving a future draft pick away was seen as a short-term fix for a short-term problem.
We have never had a full season with Danny Koevermans. Koevermans started the season out of shape, overweight and not in form. He picked up his game quickly and became a goalscoring threat, demonstrating a similar touch as his first season in a red shirt. He still is one of Major League Soccer’s most potent goal scorers. But he is also 34 years old, and attempting to recover from one of the toughest injuries in professional sports.
An ACL tear takes a long time to heal, and even then, there is no guarantee that he will ever be back at the same level. Relying on the hope that he will return fully fit and still contribute for the next few years is a dream that borders on unrealistic. Sure, it’s entirely possible, but even if Koevermans’ was healthy, how many years can you rely on him?
Meanwhile, Hassli has battled lower back problems, was signed from Vancouver with a hurt ankle, has played sporadically in 2012, and is no spring chicken himself at 31 years of age. Still, Hassli, for all his knocks, could play another three or four years in MLS, maybe more.
Finally, both players are quite similar, big target-men strikers that hold the ball up, distribute, and score goals from inside the box. They’re both slow, too, but have a keen sense of space and timing. Does Toronto FC even need two of the same kind of players? Traditionally, bigger centre forwards do well when paired up front with a smaller, faster forward who can get on the end of the flick headers or controlled passes the other provides. Putting both Danny Koevermans and Eric Hassli up front would not only be unorthodox, it may just be redundant.
There are rare instances where two bigger forwards have worked well together; Chelsea had Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba combine well, though Anelka was also quite a quick player for his size. Athletic Bilbao played Fernando Llorente alongside Diego Forlan before the latter moved to Inter Milan. Still, pairing two big strikers up top is a risk, especially in MLS where the strongest forwards use faster wingers to great effect.
The San Jose Earthquakes, however, are a good example of what can happen when two big forwards combine, with Chris Wondolowski and Alan Gordon scoring 28 and 13 goals respectively. If TFC want to replicate these results, however, they will need two solid central midfielders, and a pair of wingers that specialize in crossing and assists.
The difference is, unfortunately, that San Jose’s duo make substantially less than Toronto’s, and hit the cap far less. Picking Hassli or Koevermans (or keeping both) comes down to what Toronto FC need next season. If the team can find players to wait out Danny Koevermans’ return, and then put their faith in a full recovery (and a healthy season afterward) for Danny Koevermans, than Eric Hassli is excess to requirement. However, if TFC can’t put their faith in Danny Koevermans’ recovery, they have a ready-made replacement already on their roster in Eric Hassli.
The reality is, however, that having both players on the roster simply doesn’t make sense. Mariner and Cochrane need to make a smart decision here, in their rebuild of the TFC roster. Both are viable options, and both have positives and negatives. And both can be impact players for the team.
So it comes down to who you prefer: Danny Koevermans, or Eric Hassli? You decide.