On Thursday morning Toronto FC confirmed their first major roster moves of the 2012 offseason. It is an offseason that many are expecting will contain a major rebuild once again and that started today with the club releasing six different players. All six players released had option years on their contract for 2013 but the club elected to part way with the players. Adrian Cann, Dicoy Williams, Ty Harden, Oscar Cordon, Keith Makubuya, and Nicholas Lindsay will no longer be with the club meaning that Toronto has released the first of its home grown players. It also means that in one swift move Toronto got rid of nearly half the Canadian content on the roster (4 out of 9 Canadians) and three of the club's seven home grown players.
The releases of Cordon, Makubuya, and Lindsay signal the first time that Toronto FC has parted ways with any of their home grown talent. The home grown player program was introduced for the 2009 season but Toronto did not sign their first academy talent until they awarded a contract to Doneil Henry on August 26th, 2010. He would be followed less than a month later by Nicholas Lindsay and it looked like Toronto was going to be one of the clubs that really took advantage of the rule.
The problem came in 2011 when Toronto entered training camp with a real lack of players on their roster and needed to find some warm bodies to fill spaces. They took advantage of signing players from the academy because they were off-budget and would not cost the team a thing to bring in. The club ended up signing Cordon and Makubuya along with Ashtone Morgan, and Matt Stinson. It was a move that was warmly welcomed as the club embracing its local talent pool and giving Canadian youngsters a chance.
Fast-forward to nearly two years later and you see the issue with plucking up local talent to fill out a roster when that talent happens to be nowhere near ready to contribute at the MLS level. It has worked out okay for Henry, Morgan, and Stinson who have all gotten decent minutes in the first team since signing and look like they have what it takes to stick around at this level. Then you have Lindsay who got off to a very promising start before suffering his nasty injury in a snowmobile accident. It seemed that he was ready to compete at this level when the club first signed him and impressed in a limited sampling. Now he is recovered from his injury but it seems he is still a long way off from where he was back in 2010 so the club has let him go. Then you get to Makubuya and Cordon, they were two players who Toronto probably should have not signed when they did. Neither is anywhere near good enough to play at the MLS level yet and they would have been better served being allowed to continue their development at another level with their peers. Now, having signed professional contracts, their options are more limited as going to play NCAA soccer is no longer a choice. Instead they are 19 year-old players who are now out of contract and will be forced to find a new place to play. They may get a look at the NASL level, they may be able to play CIS soccer, or they may fade away and return to the CSL. Either way, it is not the prettiest of outlooks for the young players and it begs the question of why they signed professional contracts in the first place.
The issues with the transition from academy to senior team are ones that have been discussed many times in the past and will again be brought up in light of these moves. That is for another time but suffice to say Toronto is not alone in struggling to integrate talent from the academy into the first team. Simply put, it is a program that is still in its early stages of existence and the league is still working out how to best take advantage of it. According to MLS numbers, there have been 56 players signed to home grown deals since Tristan Bowen signed the first one in 2008. In 2012, only eight players are listed as being signed to home grown contracts which goes to show that it is still not the league's main source of talent. The problem is that with Cordon and Makubuya being released they join the growing list of 14 players that are no longer on an MLS roster after signing home grown deals.
So in the roughly four years since the home grown player rule was introduced 15 of the 56 (27%) players signed are no longer with their clubs. It is a number that is sure to grow as for each success story there is also a couple of failures. It goes to show that it is not just Toronto that is still learning how to best employ the rule.
On the other end of the spectrum Toronto also released a trio of veteran centre backs. Williams and Cann both returned from major knee surgeries to make limited contributions this season. Cann, a Canadian international, had been with the club since 2010 and when he was healthy proved to be one of the more reliable CB's in club history. Problem is that he missed the majority of the last two seasons through injury and was starting to show signs of age. At the end of season press conference he seemed resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the club and was already focused on finding a new club. His options within MLS may be limited by his Canadian passport but having played for both Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps before they joined MLS he at least has connections to try and exploit.
Williams was pretty much a non-factor for Toronto this season after coming back from his own knee surgery. The fact that he played more matches for the Jamaican national team in 2012 then he did for his club team suggested he was more than surplus to the needs. He signed with TFC in 2011 and was showing signs of being a promising partner to Cann in the centre of defense before hurting his knee while playing for Jamaica in the 2011 Gold Cup. That was basically the end for Williams as he never really got a look in the squad this year and his departure comes as no surprise. His options in MLS may be limited by the fact that he takes up an international slot and has barely played in the past two seasons.
Then there is Ty Harden. Before coming to TFC he had already had his ups and downs. After a promising rookie season with the LA Galaxy he decided to retire and walked away from the club to pursue charitable work and finish his education. His rights were traded to the Rapids who he would eventually join after coming out of his early retirement. He made only seven appearances for them before coming to Toronto. He arrived as a bit of an enigma and remains the same to this day. He had games where he looked like the player who was a fixture for the Galaxy as a rookie but other games he looked dreadful. It was hard to ever know what to expect from Harden and if Toronto is serious about shoring up its defense Harden was never going to be a serious part of that. He may yet find himself on another MLS roster as a depth defender or he may retire again, it is hard to say with Harden.
The end result of all the roster movement is that Toronto now has the space that it needs to start yet another overhaul of the roster. Mariner has freed up a good chunk of change with the offloading of Williams, Cann, and Harden. He has also cleared out an international slot allowing him to sign another top rated Bermudan (I hope not!). This will certainly only be the start of the roster movement this offseason but so far there are no real surprises.