You get the impression Toronto FC are enjoying the fact that their offseason activity is making only minor waves around MLS. Chris Mavinga, signed from Rubin Kazan, is likely to be one of two major additions to the team this winter and yet his arrival on Tuesday was accompanied by a single short article on the club website and four sentences of comment from general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.
Contrast that with Romain Alessandrini, another Ligue 1 export who became the LA Galaxy’s latest designated player later in the day. At the time of writing, the Galaxy had dedicated five stories at the top of their website’s homepage and all manner of social-media promotion to the winger, who moved to California from Marseille.
Mavinga may not be a DP, but he may well be the next-highest earner on TFC’s books following the departure of Will Johnson. He is a gamble, for sure, but one with upside far beyond an average MLS player if he can fit in - both in between Justin Morrow and Drew Moor on the pitch and with the rest of his teammates off it.
The best-case scenario here is that TFC get the defender who played for France at every youth level and cost Rubin a sum of €5 million to sign from Rennes. That player can play at left-back or centre-back and could, as a result, be perfect for the role on the left side of the back three, adding speed and one-on-one ability to the defensive unit and having the technical confidence to step out and feed Morrow down the flank.
As well as Nick Hagglund played in the playoffs, that would be a major upgrade; Mavinga has more top-level experience than any player on the roster bar the DPs and the still-unsigned Benoit Cheyrou. It also has the knock-on effect of creating competition between Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta for the spot to the right of Moor. The goal with a new defender was to find someone else approaching Moor’s level, both to complement the younger players and provide insurance in case of an injury to the Texan; achieve that, and a good group in 2016 could become a dominant one this year.
There are two ways it could go wrong: either Mavinga does not settle on a personal level, which does seem to have been a problem for him throughout his career, or he is simply passable rather than great and not enough of an upgrade on Hagglund or Zavaleta to be worth the salary and the international slot, which was the case with Damien Perquis. I tend to think the former is more likely of the two, as Mavinga arrives at a better age and with a more modern, MLS-suited profile than Perquis and will also have the benefit of slotting in to a settled defence, which the Pole only enjoyed for a few months.
No move is made in a vacuum and Mavinga’s signing also raises some interesting questions, both tactically and financially, around Toronto’s pursuit of an attacking midfielder.
On the footballing side - and though we have been told he could play centre-back in a back four - the Mavinga deal seems to indicate a commitment to the 3-5-2 formation that served TFC so well in last season’s playoffs. If it is the case that four-midfielder formations will be spotted when needed rather than deployed full-time, Jonathan Osorio is most at risk of losing his place in the starting lineup if a high-profile new midfielder is signed and Jay Chapman chances of breaking through could suffer as well.
Then there is the question of how much cap space is left over. I would be surprised if Mavinga is earning less than $200,000 a year, which would take a decent bite out of what Bezbatchenko has to play with. I still doubt his assertion at the draft that TFC are up already against the cap due to bonuses from last season, but if they wanted to use targeted allocation money to facilitate a deal the new midfielder would carry the maximum budget charge of $457,500, and things would surely then be getting tight.
We’ll see how that pans out, and given that no one saw Mavinga coming it is fairly useless to speculate about the specifics of who the next international signing might be beyond their position and the team’s needs. TFC have at least seven and possibly eight international slots (depending on the undisclosed terms of a trade with Seattle last year) for the coming season, so there is room for Cheyrou and Clement Simonin, if required, in addition to a new face.
Mavinga joins the drafted Brandon Aubrey as a second box ticked, as far as the first team is concerned, for 2017. There are several more still blank with a month until kick-off in Utah.