Ever since that double-decker red bus parked in Maple Leaf Square, MLS offseasons have been a lot of fun in Toronto. Each winter saw the club open their pocket books and add top talent, building the team that would “win f—ing everything” in 2017.
First came Bradley, Defoe and Gilberto, then Giovinco and Altidore, Moor, Irwin and Beitashour followed in 2016, with Vazquez and Mavinga providing the final push in 2017. Even the shortened 2018 offseason made headlines, with the reds adding a World Cup finalist in Gregory van der Wiel, along with an exciting Spanish midfielder named Ager Aketxe.
But that streak of “offseason championships” distinctly ended in 2019. It all started with the shock announcement that Tim Bezbatchenko, the architect behind it all, would be on his way to Columbus. Then Victor Vazquez was sold to Qatar. Not to be outdone, club legend Sebastian Giovinco’s time at the club ended in an ugly divorce. The Gregory van der Wiel practice nonsense, as well as the dragged out Alejandro Pozuelo saga, didn’t help matters either.
It’s a scenario that Toronto FC desperately has to stop from happening again. After an unexpected run to the MLS Cup final, and with plenty of space to add to an already solid roster, the club has a real opportunity to return to the league’s elite in 2020.
The past week, however, felt a little too much like last year. First, it was the news that Michael Bradley would miss four months with an ankle injury that had not properly healed over the offseason. Then it was Jozy Altidore speaking out against Toronto FC’s handling of the situation, which brought on seemingly far fetched rumours that the club were shopping him.
Finally, despite the club’s intent to get a new designated player deal done early, the process seems to be dragging on. Concerns about new age restrictions surrounding the DP spots reportedly have Toronto FC, among other clubs, cautious about which player they select.
The club’s signings so far have been limited to academy players. The youth movement is without a doubt a positive progression for the club, but it is unlikely any of these players will make a significant impact next season. Maybe one of their draft picks can step up, but in modern MLS that is hardly expected.
So far, the team has also lost a reasonable amount of depth with Nicolas Benezet, Jay Chapman, Ashtone Morgan and Drew Moor all finding new homes in MLS. Add in a solid chunk of the season without Michael Bradley and the lineup is looking a little bit shaky heading into the start of the season.
So how much does all this matter? After all, there’s an argument to be made that last year wasn’t so bad in the end. After all, the pieces fit together almost perfectly over the last third of the season and the club made its third MLS Cup final in four years.
But the chaotic offseason took away any chance of Toronto FC going deep in the Concacaf Champions League. It also probably played a role in their Voyageurs Cup final loss, with the club not fielding its strongest lineup in the first leg in Montreal because it still needed to secure a playoff spot.
On top of this, it meant the club never really got the play the system that Greg Vanney had intended. Throughout the season, he had to play players either out of position or tweak his formation to fit the assembled personnel.
Toronto FC mostly tried to get their business done early this offseason. They tied up the Michael Bradley contract relatively quickly, giving them some added time to hunt for a designated player replacement. As aforementioned, that hasn’t worked out.
DPs are always big signings, ones that a team should consider carefully and make sure they get right considering the investment they make both financially and in terms of the player’s importance to the team. Michael Singh made a compelling case as to why Toronto might end up waiting until the summer to make their critical signing.
At the same time, Greg Vanney also made a good point about summer shopping this week in training, namely that it is tricky. Players usually take time to adjust to the league, which can be done much easier at the start of the season than right in the middle. Toronto were able to effectively summer shop this past year, but only because their main acquisition, Omar Gonzalez, was already an MLS veteran. Benezet and Erickson Gallardo took longer to integrate.
So far, Toronto FC have a lot more continuity than this time last year in both the front office and on the field. But with a team that is still mostly aging veterans, one of whom took a significant pay cut with the assurance that it would make the team better, the club is still in a window to win.
The way they started last season was not conducive to winning. It’s critical that the front office makes sure this group is on the same page to start 2020. If not, they risk playing the same catch up game that ultimately hurt them last year.