Alessandro Nesta, Olof Mellberg, and Carlos Bocanegra. All three are big name, international quality center backs but they have something else in common. They were all linked to Toronto FC at some point during the summer of 2012 and all ended up finding homes at different clubs instead.
We all know that TFC has long been in need of the kind of player that can bring stability to the back line and it seems that in 2012 they made a serious effort to bring in that sort of player. They failed three times though before eventually bringing in Darren O'Dea to try and fill the void. Now O'Dea has proven to be a decent signing thus far but he is certainly not on the level of the other three options.
Nesta was eventually signed by the Montreal Impact to a contract that was actually below the designated player cap hit, the Mellberg deal was reportedly killed by the league as they felt the price was too high, and now we find out that Toronto was very close to bringing in Bocanegra but that deal fell through.
It was speculated back in the summer that Bocanegra was a target for the team as he was looking to leave Rangers and a return home to play in MLS was certainly an option. Now it has been confirmed in a report on Soccer by Ives that the American CB had talks with both Toronto and Vancouver Whitecaps but was unable to reach a deal with either club.
"Bocanegra admitted that he nearly made a move to Major League Soccer this past summer, and identified the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC as teams he was in talks with. Bocanegra revealed that he was very close to a move to TFC before the deal fell through."
The report does not give any details regarding why the deal fell through but Toronto fans will certainly be hoping that it was not due to league decisions this time around. It would seem that bringing the captain of the US national team back to play in MLS would be a good move for the league and with him being free to leave his contract with Rangers the price should not have been too rich.
When the New England Revolution used their top spot in the allocation order to claim Juan Toja it meant that TFC found themselves first in line to grab any top talent that would come into the league through that method. That would include a player like Bocanegra who as a former MLS player and a US international would have to be allocated through that process. His talks with Vancouver would have been earlier in the season when they held down the top spot but they traded away their position to the Philadelphia Union who used to to select Bakary Soumare.
Toronto would not have had a lot of time to get a deal done with Boca though as they did not have the top spot in the allocation order until August 27th and the MLS roster freeze occurred on September 15th. The window that Toronto likely negotited with him seems to shrink even further when you consider that he agreed a season long loan deal to Racing Santander on August 31st.
It is possible that Toronto held talks with him before holding the number one spot in the allocation order as they may have felt they would be able to trade up the order if a deal could be reached. Regardless of when the negotiations took place the end result was that TFC once again missed out on a chance to sign what many fans feel is the biggest missing piece.
Signing a top class CB would certainly not fix all of the club's woes and even though it is something the team has lacked since day one there has never been a time in the first six season where it was the only thing missing from making TFC a cup contender. Yet, the call for a top class CB has been heard from supporters time after time and it seemed that in 2012 Toronto did all they could to answer those calls.
The fact that Toronto failed to land Nesta, Mellberg, or Bocanegra raises a question worth considering though and that is whether they are even taking the right approach when it comes to dealing with this need. Consider the fact that the Boca is the youngest player in that trio and he is already 33 years old and probably does not have more than a handful of good years left in him at best. More realistically, all three players would have been 1 or 2 year solutions to the issue and then the club would be back to where it is now. That would be fine if they were the final piece to the puzzle and signing them would be what puts the team over the top but that was never the case in Toronto.
A quick look around the top defenders in MLS and you can see that successful team have been following a very different model than chasing the top aging European stars that are on the market. Instead, teams like the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City have built their defensive units by making the most of the acquisition methods that the league allows. It has been smart draft, good trades, and then the odd signing to complete the puzzle. No big name transfers have been needed to help them build their defenses as they have been smart about building them over the years.
In the trio of clubs the biggest names that came from outside of the league were Andre Hainault and Aurélien Collin who were brought in after toiling in Europe's lower levels. Neither was a big money transfer but both were pieces that helped to push their respective club's defensive unit to a new level.
So what does it all mean for Toronto FC? Well, maybe it means it is time to stop chasing after that big name signing and start trying to find the kind of players that have made other MLS teams so successful. It is clear that you do not need to sign a CB like Nesta, Mellberg, or Bocanegra to win in this league as long as you are smart about the players you draft and the players you bring in via trades. Then when you have a solid group in place you can look to spend a bit more money to push that group over the top.
Right now, TFC has a defensive unit that cost them far too much to put together and is getting far too few results. They are not one piece away from winning an MLS cup but with O'Dea, Ashtone Morgan, and Richard Eckersley they do have the start of a defensive unit capable of getting the job done in MLS. Now the club should forget about chasing that big name that would fix everything and focus on the proven route of building a competitive team.