TORONTO, Ont.—After laying the groundwork early in the offseason, it appears as though Ali Curtis and the rest of the Toronto FC front office may have quite a bit of money to play with in the new year.
Thanks to Michael Bradley’s desire
to play to win again in Toronto, accepting significantly less money to stay in the city that has reached the MLS Cup Final three times in the past four years, the Reds are set up to once again make a big splash in the transfer market in 2020.
A year ago, the front office set out to fill the designated player (DP) void left by star forward and former MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco, reaching out to Europe to lure a then-27-year-old Alejandro Pozuelo from Belgian side K.R.C. Genk to BMO Field. While it wasn’t a like-for-like move, it was still a gap, and a very big one at that, that TFC management were, in a sense, forced to fill — especially after a horrendous 2018 campaign.
Despite the loss of the greatest player in franchise history, Toronto FC fans realized very quickly that new toys aren’t always a bad thing.
And this year, after getting back to the MLS Cup Final, Curtis and the Reds are in an even more luxurious situation thanks to their captain and a few other under-the-radar early decisions.
The Michael Bradley effect
According to Toronto FC President Bill Manning, the first thing that Bradley asked him in contract negotiations was that if he were to take a pay cut to stay in Toronto and help the team, would the club spend that money elsewhere?
Well, not only did Bradley get the reassurance from Manning that TFC would spend that money, he also has a guarantee from the league as well.
According to MLS rules, Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) can be used to convert a DP to a non-DP by buying down their salary cap hit, as TFC appears to have done with Bradley. If TAM is used to free up a DP slot, however, the club must then subsequently sign a new DP at the same financial level as the DP they are replacing.
Essentially, with the Toronto FC captain selflessly opting to return on a max-TAM deal (worth roughly $1.5 million per season), TFC management now has to add another flashy — and expensive — DP into the mix to join Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore.
The club, along with several players, have made it clear that the team wants to add another dynamic attacking option, but who? We’ll get there soon.
(Correction: Toronto FC are not obligated to sign a player worth Bradley’s value since Bradley hit free agency, therefore he is considered a new signing).
The financial flexibility stems well beyond Bradley
While Bradley taking less money to stay in Toronto will steal most of the headlines around the city (and rightfully so), the Reds have also been (somewhat quietly) shedding money elsewhere.
With a heavy heart, veteran defender Drew Moor felt it was time to return to the Colorado Rapids organization where he spent seven years prior to coming to the 6ix in 2016. In the four years that the former U.S. international did spend with the Reds, he found an abundance of success as TFC made the MLS Cup Final three times, including capturing their first title in 2017.
While Moor brought stability and professionalism beyond belief, the 35-year-old — who will turn 36 in less than two weeks — also carried a guaranteed salary of $350,000 USD with him. With most of, if not all of his salary being directly charged to TFC’s budget, Moor’s money coming off the books isn’t the worst trade off for a player in the twilight of his career who appeared in just 17 matches in all competitions last season.
In a rather publicized move, Toronto FC will also not be picking up the purchase-option on French winger Nico Benezet and his $600,000 USD salary after the Guingamp player’s loan deal officially expired on Jan. 1, meaning the TAM-signing, who arrived at BMO Field in late-July, will return to France’s second division.
A good dribbler, passer, and finisher, Benezet was a casualty to Bradley re-signing as a TAM.
However, as many fans already know — especially if you follow him on social media — the outspoken Benezet feels he was done wrong by TFC management, citing an alleged clause in his contract that states if Benezet were to have started six regular season MLS matches (he started five before going down with “injury”), his loan deal would have automatically become permanent with the Reds. His now-ex agent, though, appears to have a different perspective than Benezet. This one’s ugly. Let’s move on.
A homegrown player, Jay Chapman was the first domino to fall this offseason for Toronto FC, as Curtis elected to send the Canadian international to expansion side Inter Miami CF in exchange for $100,000 USD in General Allocation Money (in other words, cap space).
“While we believe the trade is good for TFC, it presents a solid opportunity for Jay to start a new chapter in his life and playing career,” Curtis said at the time. “Jay will be missed but having been with both our academy and first team, he will always be part of the TFC family.”
Chapman, now 26, earned $138,500 last year playing for the Reds, appearing in 17 MLS matches. With 21-year-old Liam Fraser and 20-year-old Jacob Shaffelberg rapidly coming through the ranks, among other young Canadian talent, shedding Chapman’s senior salary (in terms of Homegrown signings) off the budget while adding further allocation money makes sense for TFC.
A few eyebrows were raised when Toronto FC elected to not pass on their pick in Stage 2 of the MLS Expansion Draft, instead selecting former New England Revolution striker and free agent Juan Agudelo. While he’s known around the league as a veteran MLS goalscorer, from a financial perspective, it was difficult to see Toronto justifying the 27-year-old’s price tag as Agudelo earned roughly $600,000 last season.
However, as most suspected, the Reds were merely testing the waters, seeing if the veteran — like Bradley — would take less money and perhaps a lesser role, to be part of a stronger squad. As it turns out, he wasn’t, and as a result, Toronto now has a third-round pick from Inter Miami CF to show for it. Salary cap saved, and a somewhat positive move. Cool.
The only Toronto FC player to last the entire decade, let’s not write Canadian international Ashtone Morgan’s potential return to BMO Field off just yet. What we can likely write off, however, is Morgan returning to BMO Field under the same $133,500 salary the 28-year-old was making last season (barring a drastic change to the collective bargaining agreement).
“While we have had positive discussions with Michael [Bradley] and his representation, we also remain in contact with Nico and Ashtone [Morgan] regarding a potential return to the team for 2020,” said Curtis, after the Reds declined his contract option prior to the Bradley signing.
Morgan, like Chapman, is a homegrown player that is on the higher end of the salary budget (relative to other homegrown players). And appearing in just nine MLS matches last season, it’s tough to justify bringing back the Toronto-native at that cost — especially with the Reds picking up left-back Justin Morrow’s contract option and the further depth at fullback in Richie Laryea and Auro Jr..
As of now, the following players from 2019 are no longer on Toronto FC’s 2020 roster (note: guaranteed compensation in USD): Nicolas Benezet ($600,000), Drew Moor ($375,000), Jay Chapman ($138,500) Ashtone Morgan ($133,500), Caleb Patterson-Sewell ($70,875), Jon Bakero ($70,250), and Aidan Daniels ($57,225).
Without getting too complicated, by excluding allocation money acquisitions and raises in 2020, Toronto FC cleared $6,415,350 as of Jan. 1, 2020 in strictly salary next season.
But there could be more cuts to the salary budget coming...
Could more money be shed by Toronto FC?
As we learned above, TFC have been steadily making moves to shed salary this offseason. In fact, the Reds have yet to bring in a new player for next season while saying goodbye to seven players (for now). And while a lot of this is based purely off speculation, there’s a chance that more moves out of the city could be coming.
When he first entered the league in 2015, goalkeeper Alex Bono had one of the most valuable contracts in MLS thanks to his Generation Adidas status (meaning his salary didn’t count against the team’s budget). As a result, TFC elected to take him in the first round with the sixth-overall pick. Immediately, the move paid off as the Syracuse-native would provide eight wins as the Reds’ backup during their first MLS Cup Final run in 2016, and lead TFC one step further the following year - winning the championship as their first-choice keeper in 2017.
However, amidst heavy European transfer speculation, TFC chose to sign the then-24-year-old, fresh off winning the treble, to a new deal that saw Bono earn upwards of approximately $380,000 for the next few seasons, but more importantly, lose his Generation Adidas status.
At the time, TFC management were still confident in their young, talented goalkeeper, despite the new cap hit. But fast-forward to 2020, where the now-26-year-old has been forced to take a backseat thanks to the stellar play from 33-year-old Quentin Westberg (who made just $115,254 last year), and it’s difficult to justify paying that sum for a mere seven MLS games last season.
Which brings us to The Athletic’s latest report that Bono is training with English Football League Championship side Barnsley FC for the next 10 days, and that if the Reds were to look to move him, there are “several MLS clubs interested.”
It’s possible that 34-year-old Laurent Ciman saved his spot on the 2020 Toronto FC roster with his late heroics in the post-season. The former MLS Defender of the Year was brought in almost a year ago to this date to salvage a TFC defence with glaring holes, though, failed to cement his place next to Mavinga at the back thanks to consistent lapses of judgement.
However, when mid-season hero Omar Gonzalez went down due to injury right before the MLS Cup Playoffs, Ciman was thrown into the fire, and the veteran showed his ability and experience leading the Reds to three playoff victories against tough attacking sides.
With all of that said, the former Belgian national team player made $435,625 in guaranteed compensation last year — a significant dent on TFC’s budget for a player who isn’t getting any younger. With one year left on his deal, is there another club around MLS that would take a chance on the three-time MLS all-star?
Let me preface this by saying 27-year-old defender Eriq Zavaleta has played a pivotal role for TFC throughout his time with the club, especially in 2017, and has shown his ability to defend 1v1. Having been thrown in unfavourable situations last year, he isn’t the #TFCLive burden that many make him out to be.
But, I do think it’s clear that Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney now views the former Generation Adidas player as a definitive third-string backup on his current squad with the high-tempo style of play that his team wants to impose. Zavaleta carries with him a salary budget charge of $296,962, which is a tough pill to swallow for a potential third-choice CB.
Now obviously depth is never a bad thing, but I think the biggest question is at what cost?
With Toronto FC in win-now mode, if there’s a team willing to take Zavaleta, it may make sense for TFC to make the deal because as Mavinga and Altidore allude to, something big is coming...
— Jozy Altidore (@JozyAltidore) January 3, 2020
High-profile potential transfer targets
Since Toronto FC fell in the 2019 MLS Cup Final to the Seattle Sounders in early November, there have been many rumours — some realistic, some a bit more farfetched — floating around #TFCLive.
What we can confirm is that GM Curtis and his staff have been very busy travelling to Europe and South America, scouting the club’s next potential high-profile signing to supplement Altidore and Pozuelo up top. In addition, we know, thanks to TSN’s Kristian Jack, that about three weeks ago, Toronto FC narrowed down their search to three or four very strong DP attackers. What we can also confirm is that earlier this month, TFC President Manning told Sportsnet’s Writers Bloc podcast that there’s a player in his early 30s playing in one of the top four leagues in Europe on Toronto FC’s radar, however, the transfer fee’s “a little problematic.” (Note: Europe’s top leagues are well renowned as Spain, Germany, Italy, and England).
So, let’s dig in and dissect some of the potential transfer candidates (with a bit of speculation) that the Reds could sign in 2020.
One of the early dopplers that set the Toronto FC social-verse ablaze, the Reds were linked to Super Mario early and often this offseason.
The Italian striker, who was often found stealing the headlines as a younger player (not always for the best reasons), currently plays for Serie A side Brescia, where he’s scored five times and added four assists in 12 appearances.
Despite his strong play, Balotelli, 29, has been at the forefront of racist chants from opposing fans and even his own club’s owner, perhaps unsettling the Italian in his home country.
Now while there was traction when this rumour first took off, it’s difficult to see TFC prying the former Golden Boy away from Brescia without paying a hefty transfer fee as Balotelli reportedly signed a multi-year deal prior to joining the club in August. Let’s keep a distant eye, but it’s unlikely.
While this #TFCLive rumour appears to have made significant noise, Portuguese attacker Bruma joining Toronto FC this offseason seems very unlikely.
A very speedy and skilled dribbler, the 25-year-old plays for Dutch side PSV Eindhoven where he’s appeared to have fallen out of favour, finding himself on the bench for five out of the team’s last six league matches. However, like Balotelli, Bruma signed a multi-year contract when he joined PSV last summer, meaning Toronto would likely have to pay a hefty transfer fee to land the speedster.
Furthermore, there are several reports out of Turkey that have Bruma linked to The Süper Lig, and it appears Istanbul Basaksehir are close to securing a transfer. I wouldn’t hold your breath here.
Who is this 18-year-old teenage sensation? Well, what we can tell you is that Toronto FC are very much interested in the young Uruguayan.
With Boca Juniors and European giants Atletico Madrid also tracking Facundo Pellistri, if current club Penarol can hold onto their young prodigy for now, it may be in their club’s best interest, as a larger club than Toronto FC can obviously pay a larger transfer fee.
Of note, if Pellistri does join the Reds, he’ll come over to MLS as a Young Designated Player, meaning his salary budget charge would be only $150,000 — substantially less than the $550,000+ of a standard Designated Player (DP). (Young DPs are still considered to be one of the team’s three DPs, so Pellistri would potentially be joining Altidore and Pozuelo.)
This one is certainly possible, but with TFC in win-now mode, does it make the most sense?
Let’s not get too excited yet, #TFCLive. It would take quite a bit for the soon-to-be 33-year-old Seba to return to Toronto.
First, TFC would have to mend the relationship with the Italian stallion that forced his move away from BMO Field (which they appeared to have done last year). Secondly, Al-Hilal would have to accept a cheaper transfer fee for Seba than the reported 2-3 million that TFC received from the Saudi club one year prior. Thirdly, Toronto FC would then have to acquire the top spot in the MLS Allocation Ranking Order, which currently belongs to Nashville SC (Toronto FC are at No. 25).
And since TFC doesn’t have a TAM slot — even if Giovinco were to take next-to-nothing on his new contract to return to Toronto — unless Al-Hilal were willing to basically let him go for free, the former MLS MVP would have to return as a DP. With the caliber of other names linked to the Reds, I’m not sure bringing a 33-year-old Seba back at this time makes the most sense, despite how storybook the ending would feel.
Who would you like to see Toronto FC sign?
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This is one that actually checks all of the boxes.
33-year-old Olivier Giroud, who currently plays for Chelsea FC, has reportedly been approached by Toronto FC. The big goal poacher, whose contract in England will expire at the end of the 2019-20 season, was contacted by the Reds amidst rumours that the French international will be leaving Stamford Bridge.
A prolific goal scorer, Giroud has notched over 200 goals in all club competitions over the course of his career, including finding the back of the net 12 times in the UEFA Champions League. The natural striker has also found success on the international stage, scoring 39 times for France — including once in the 2014 World Cup.
Bringing a goal-scorer of Giroud’s caliber to BMO Field would automatically make Toronto FC’s offense more dangerous. And while it appears Giroud’s first choice is to keep playing top-flight football (perhaps with former manager Antonio Conte in Italy with Inter Milan), the 33-year-old may find himself short of offers having gone scoreless in just five Premier League appearances for Chelsea this season.
Another player who checks all the boxes for Toronto FC, Giroud’s Chelsea teammate Pedro could also be on the move in January with several MLS clubs reportedly interested.
While the report does not specifically link TFC with the former Barcelona man, instead stating that Inter Miami CF and New York City FC have interest, the speedy and talented Spaniard would seem like an ideal fit with the current Reds’ roster thanks to his pace and directness.
If Curtis and Manning could convince the former World Cup winner, who will turn 33 in July, to come to BMO Field in 2020, Toronto FC will have rounded out their roster with a player with pace to compliment Altidore and Pozuelo, who is still capable of finishing.
But two significant things still stand in the way of the Reds making this transfer.
First, the transfer fee, which, according to transfermarkt, has Pedro at $19.38 million USD — though, I suspect that number is a little inflated. The second would be Pedro’s desire to play in Toronto, with the Spaniard reportedly willing to do whatever it takes to return to Barcelona, although the latest has the Catalan giants far from interested in their former player.
If Manning and Curtis can work their magic and bring Pedro to the 6ix, it could be a perfect fit.
2020 is going to be fun, #TFCLive
Whichever DP Toronto FC decides to bring in next season, that’ll be just one of many new faces that we’ll likely see wearing the Red at BMO Field in 2020.
As we learned last year with the additions of Gonzalez, Ciman,
Terrence Boyd, and Nick DeLeon among others, Ali Curtis and the rest of the TFC front office likes to bring in established names that can make an immediate impact.
And as Mitchell Tierney pointed out last month, the closest to this situation that Toronto FC has ever been in was back in the 2016 offseason... and we all know what happened in 2017.
Stay tuned, Toronto. With the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 9 just a few days away, moves are going to begin to trickle in. As always, WakingtheRed will have all of your coverage.
2020 in the 6ix is going to be fun.