The best way to get over an MLS Cup final defeat is to look forward to next season, and luckily we’ve had plenty to digest since Monday’s contract news and expansion draft.
Already, Toronto FC’s pieces for 2017 are starting to fall into place. Armando Cooper signed permanently from Arabe Unido, cementing the strength of a deep midfield group, and Mark Bloom was lost to Atlanta United in order to ensure Clint Irwin’s swift return. A further eight players are either out of contract or will not have their existing options exercised.
With that information, we can put together an early depth chart and take a look at the task at hand for Tim Bezbatchenko this winter.
This lineup graphic assumes Toronto will continue with their 3-5-2 formation, which they likely will for the most part while having variations such as the 4-4-2 diamond available when needed. It also does not include Tsubasa Endoh, who can play a few different positions but is more suited to formations with a four or five-man midfield, and Mo Babouli, who is probably the fifth-choice forward at this point. It wouldn’t be a shock to me to see Babouli begin the year with TFC II.
Beyond that, two things stand out. Firstly, Toronto have kept a very good MLS starting XI intact, though that is not to say that Bezbatchenko will not bring in one or two new players who could break into the lineup. Secondly, with the caveat that Ashtone Morgan and Benoit Cheyrou - who Bezbatchenko says he wants to re-sign - could be back to cover Justin Morrow and Michael Bradley respectively, there is a lot more depth in midfield and up front than at the back.
Toronto don’t need to carry six centre-backs, but if they plan to use a three-man defence they’re going to need five; in an ideal world, the fifth would be someone versatile enough to fill gaps elsewhere on the field and fit into different systems. Josh Williams could be re-signed, but I tend to think Bezbatchenko will look for someone who can come in and push Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta more than Williams did during the latter stages of the season. If that’s the case, I’m not sure Williams will bite at the chance to be fifth in the pecking order if he has other MLS offers on the table.
At right-back, Bloom will need replacing. He’s a good player and one TFC would have had no problem keeping around in the hope he could improve his troublesome injury record, but his departure does open up an opportunity; Steven Beitashour is reliable enough that Toronto can take a low-risk gamble on a backup with a low salary but a bit of upside. Those are the types of players scouts and general managers love digging out.
In midfield, the situation is more complex in terms of the options Toronto already have, their out-of-contract players and the profile of player they would like to bring in. Jozy Altidore suggested the Reds could do with a creative midfielder or winger to open up games, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go down that route.
The question is where exactly such a player would slot in. On the right side of the midfield three, Marky Delgado seems a natural backup for Cooper and has just signed a new contract. On the left, Jay Chapman has the skill and craft to push on and take some minutes in the spot that has mostly belonged to Jonathan Osorio.
Then there is Will Johnson. He’s a player you love to have around for his experience, intangibles and versatility, the latter of which allows Greg Vanney to invert the triangle in midfield and have him sit next to Bradley when Toronto need to be more defensive. The problem is putting a price on what all of that is worth; I would suggest it is less than the current $395,333, the highest non-DP salary on the roster, and it’s difficult to guess what Johnson will see as an acceptable figure next year.
Up front, I don’t think we’ll see any movement. Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco will always start when fit, and there is no point blocking Jordan Hamilton’s progress with another new signing when you already have an excellent third choice in Tosaint Ricketts to turn to from the bench.
That said, it’s vital in other areas that Toronto do not stand still and simply add depth this offseason; they need at least two signings who can immediately add something to and freshen up the starting lineup. For an example of the perils of relying too heavily on internal improvement, look to Tottenham in the Premier League; they signed several players (Moussa Sissoko, Victor Wanyama, Vincent Janssen) who made them deeper but not necessarily better, and have fallen behind teams they appeared to have taken a decisive jump ahead of last season.
The good news is that Bezbatchenko should have plenty of salary cap space to play with. Daniel Lovitz, Chris Mannella and Clement Simonin, none of whom I expect will have their deals renegotiated, plus Bloom open up $290,000 immediately, more money than any individual player earns besides the DPs and Johnson. In Johnson, Cheyrou, Morgan, Williams and Quillan Roberts you have another $880,000 and while there is a good chance some of those players will return, Bezbatchenko has all of that money off the books as of today.
The only bloated contract that remains on the roster, in fact, is Beitashour’s $244,000 - and that’s hardly a disaster for a perfectly good starting right-back. With teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York City in the market for a game-changing signing or two, Bezbatchenko will need to ensure the money he has available is put to its best use if TFC are to contend again.