We now know what’s on the shopping list.
Draft day in Los Angeles provided plenty of information as to the direction of Toronto FC’s offseason, and it’s pretty much exactly what we predicted in the aftermath of the MLS Cup final.
That list, to recap, comprises a new centre-back who can go straight into the lineup, a fifth-choice depth centre-back, a backup right-back and the unicorn: a high-scoring, high-assisting attacking midfielder.
With the attacking midfielder almost certainly an international signing, Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney were always likely to target a defender in the first round of the draft. A number of players could have fit the bill in terms of cover for Steven Beitashour, but the four best ones - Jakob Nerwinski, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Reagan Dunk and Colton Storm - were all off the board before the 15th pick.
Toronto could have been left with a bit of a dilemma as a result had Brandon Aubrey not dropped into their hands at 21st overall. Aubrey was a consensus top-10 pick before the combine and considered, along with Lalas Aboubakar, to be the best centre-back in the class after top-three prospect Miles Robinson. Aboubakar went fifth.
Aubrey’s decline can be attributed almost entirely, it seems, to his performance this week at the combine - an incredibly stupid phenomenon that some poor soul falls victim to nearly every year. Last year it was Jonathan Campbell, another centre-back who was seen as a top-five pick but fell to the Chicago Fire at 12th. He was one of few bright spots for the Fire last season, starting 30 games.
Exactly what convinces MLS teams that they should throw four years of scouting out of the window for a week of exhibition games and random exercises (yep, still doing the vertical jump) with strangers I have no idea, but luckily Toronto didn’t.
“It made no difference,” Vanney said of Aubrey’s combine. “We spend a lot of time and energy on scouting players and their environment to see how they do. The combine… it’s a little bit of luck, a little bit of what team are you selected on, how do you mesh with any of the guys around you, how’s the midfield working in front of you… there’s a lot of different things that come into play at the combine. These guys haven’t played a game in three months, so it’s just a small factor.”
Those situational factors Vanney touched on are more relevant for centre-backs than any other position on the field. If your team lacks structure and you are constantly exposed to one-on-one situations against the best collegiate players in the country, you’re not going to look very good. One thing that also struck me about Aubrey, watching the ridiculous speech each pick was forced to give and his interviews afterwards, was that he looked extremely anxious to say and do the right thing (before answering the first question in the scrum, he literally thanked the reporters for talking to him). I’m speculating, but that’s a quality that can hinder a player in an environment like the combine but is an asset if harnessed in the right way in the long term.
The front office was so pleased with Aubrey, in fact, that they decided to pack up and go home by trading their two second-round picks to Chicago for $75,000 in targeted allocation money.
That isn’t going to go down well with everyone given the two Generation Adidas Canada players, Shamit Shome and Adonijah Reid, were still on the board, but it reveals something about the low regard in which Toronto seem to hold the draft as a place to acquire prospects - and frankly, who can blame them? When the muddled world of North American soccer allows you to open an academy and develop players from their formative years like a European club but also throws these 22 and 23-year-old second/third/fourth-round draft picks with very low success rates at you, why would you bother with the latter?
As long as the academy is consistently churning out players - and that’s starting to become the case - it would not concern me in the slightest to see Bezbatchenko trade those picks for cash or other useable assets at every opportunity. It puts more pressure on to make the first-rounders count, of course, but the hit rate there is looking pretty good through Nick Hagglund, Alex Bono and Tsubasa Endoh.
“As we’re sizing up who we’re drafting we’re also looking at who we have coming through our academy, USL… all of those scenarios play into that factor,” Vanney added. “Also, cash is always important in our league to be able to get deals done and sometimes to get deals done that either are international players or whatever - money’s always important. It was an opportunity that came about there in the end and we took it, and hopefully we can soon make very good use of it.”
Vanney wasn’t the only one to drop obvious hints suggesting the prized attacking midfielder will be coming from abroad for a significant chunk of targeted allocation money.
“We’re looking at an attacking midfielder,” Bill Manning put more bluntly. “Possibly another centre-back - Brandon solves maybe some of that issue - but we’re going to use our targeted allocation money and this gives us another $75,000 to use towards that.”
Bezbatchenko, Vanney and Manning dropped a few other tidbits into their interviews:
- Bezbatchenko believes Sergio Camargo, who TFC signed a couple of days before the draft, would have been a top-10 pick in this year’s class.
- Manning said TFC had Aubrey in the top 15 of their list but would not be any more specific than that.
- Bezbatchenko seemed to suggest that at least two potential backup right-backs would be invited to training camp, but Manning said there was one player in particular Bez had identified as their man in that position. The general manager also pointed out that Hagglund and Justin Morrow could fill in there, but he didn’t seem particularly enthused by that idea.
- Bezbatchenko described TFC as “against the cap” due to bonuses from last season when explaining the trade for the second-round picks. I’m not sure I buy that when you look at the cash that’s come off the books and the $400,000 in extra TAM available, but shouting about having a ton of cap space wouldn’t be the wisest idea when trying to negotiate contracts with new players.