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Toronto FC caught in an awkward transition after Giovinco transfer

This might all be part of the plan, but the timeline definitely isn’t ideal.

MLS: Canadian Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing like the seemingly heartless jettisoning of a beloved player to remind everyone that soccer, after all, is a business.

Toronto FC fans had become accustomed to an ownership group that appeared willing to hand blank cheques to management. The sale of Sebastian Giovinco to Al-Hilal is an early sign that this is no longer the case.

The club simply wasn’t going to keep Giovinco at his current rate, which was apparently his demand. The mandate from the top is to cut salary after Toronto have had the biggest budget in the league for the past couple of years.

Toronto FC had a reported payroll of $26,167,498.69 in guaranteed compensation last year, easily the highest in Major League Soccer. This was coupled with that fact that they missed the playoffs while Atlanta United (about $14.8 million less in payroll) won MLS Cup and the New York Red Bulls (roughly $18.4 million less) broke their points record (per numbers compiled by The Oregonian). That doesn’t look good on a spreadsheet.

The way the club was spending money was never sustainable, and cutting salary is the quickest way to curb that spending. There is no doubt this was part of the reason why Ali Curtis was selected as the club’s General Manager. Long-term, it is the right move for the franchise, but it has already caused some unrest in the short term.

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It might get worse before it gets better. While offers have been made to both Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, it’s unclear how much of a pay cut they would take, or whether either will be with the team beyond this upcoming season. Altidore, in particular, has already brought up the possibility of moving to Liga MX.

Curtis has a reputation for being something of a stern negotiator. He has a distinct plan, and if a player isn’t buying into the vision then he has no problem with moving them on. He, after all, transitioned the Red Bulls from the Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill big spending years to the thrifty but highly competitive team they have been in recent years.

It’s not like Toronto FC is going to stop being one of the top-spending teams in the league. Bill Manning has been vocal about the fact that the club will use all of the sizeable TAM money it has accrued this offseason, plus the designated player slot they now have available.

The budget could well be restructured as well. Rudi Schuller of Sporting News brought up a good point on this week’s Footy Talks podcast that while Atlanta doesn’t spend a lot of money on salaries comparatively, it does on transfer fees.

This nets you a very different type of player. Players who have made a name for themselves over in top leagues, like Giovinco, tend to command large salaries in MLS. Players who have potential but have not yet realized it, or not as big of a global brand, may cost a lot in transfer money, but don’t generally command big salaries.

MLS: MLS Cup-Portland Timbers vs Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto already appears to be going in this direction, with their new DP target rumoured to command a large transfer fee. What’s the difference? It’s all about resale value.

A transfer fee in some ways can be seen as an investment. Atlanta, for example, purchased Almiron in the neighbourhood of $8 million and then sold him for around $26 million. Evidently, this is the best-case scenario in MLS history but this transfer window appears to suggest the league as a whole is trending in this direction.

Even a case like Ezequiel Barco, for whom Atlanta spent $15 million, still comes out as cheaper than Giovinco because he’s only paid $1.4 million per year while Giovinco came on a free but cost Toronto around $28.4 million in total salary. Plus, Atlanta will probably still get money back should they choose to sell Barco later on in his career.

Toronto, as a club, have rarely made any sort of profits on the transfer market. The approximately $3.4 million pounds they received for Maurice Edu in 2008 remains the biggest transfer fee in club history, although we still don’t fully know what they received for Giovinco.

It is also likely a reason why the club will be focusing on the academy more in upcoming seasons. There’s no doubt that some Toronto FC, and MLSE, execs were looking on with jealousy as Vancouver grabbed a tremendous fee for Alphonso Davies.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto is where, traditionally, the best Canadian players have come from. However, the club has mostly been unable to get those players through to the first team and develop them into products worth selling on to other clubs.

This will take some time still. But it will also take a distinct commitment to allocating minutes to younger players that we certainly have not seen from Toronto in recent years.

Again, this might not go over well at the start with a fanbase used to dominant teams filled with flashy stars who have plenty of big game experience and are all about winning now. One doesn’t have to dive deep into the #TFCLive hashtag to see that this is already taking place.

This doesn’t even mention the combining theme in the Instagram rants of both Sebastian Giovinco and Gregory van der Wiel, basically that the team wasn’t focused on winning. That’s always going to look like the case when the budget is slashed.

The atomic exit could also lead to some real struggles out of the gate to start the season. Even if the club is able to bring in players shortly, it is unlikely they will be anywhere near full speed by the time the Concacaf Champions League opens, let alone adapted to its unique conditions.

But balancing the budget was always coming. It will remain a long and tricky process for the club and management to deal with. Long-term, however, it could help the club take the next step forward towards a more sustainable future.