TORONTO, Ont.—On January 9, 2015, a 20-year-old Syracuse University goalkeeper became the first Major League Soccer (MLS) draftee to be called up to their senior national team prior to being officially drafted.
Six days later, while he was still with the U.S. national camp, Toronto FC selected the NCAA junior, who was younger than most other available players, in the MLS SuperDraft, taking him with the sixth-overall pick.
Alex Bono, now 25, entered the league as a highly-touted Generation adidas player, living up to the hype early on by earning eight wins as TFC’s backup during their first MLS Cup Final run in 2016. He took it a step further the following campaign, winning the championship as the club’s first-choice keeper in 2017.
Despite emerging as the clear No. 1 on a record-setting, treble-winning squad, the then-23-year-old was making roughly just $102,000 USD—in other words, less than half of what former No. 1 Clint Irwin was making at the time ($221,312 USD). And with his shot-stopping prowess on full display as the Reds emphatically made history in 2017 (and again in early-2018 when they went on a
forgettable memorable run to the CONCACAF Champions League Final), other teams around the world—including larger, higher-profile clubs—started to take notice.
“There was interest and it was serious,” said Bono’s agent, Costa Smyrniotis, regarding European interest in his client at the time. (side note: if the name sounds familiar, Costa and his brother Bobby Smyrniotis founded Sigma FC; Bobby is heavily involved in the Canadian Premier League).
Thus, on June 20, 2018, amidst heavy transfer speculation, the TFC front office decided to reward the young goalkeeper with big raise and a new contract, one that saw the Syracuse-native earn $382,000 USD last season, but more importantly, graduate from his Generation adidas status (meaning his salary began to count against the Reds’ budget).
At the time, it made sense; the Reds were solidifying their carousel in net, locking up one of the most talented youngsters in MLS for his prime years. But it has been a year-and-a-half since, and once again, a lot has changed in the Toronto FC goal; what do the Reds do now?
2019... The emergence of Quentin Westberg
When Toronto FC General Manager Ali Curtis reached out to France’s Ligue 2 to sign a 32-year-old Quentin Westberg prior to the start of last season, many perceived the under-the-radar move as reassurance to Bono, who had a shaky 2018 MLS campaign in comparison to his previous two years.
And in fact, that’s how the Reds would begin 2019—with Bono starting and Westberg on the bench—and it appeared to work. Toronto, backstopped by Bones, would start the season with three wins and one draw, conceding five goals in the process.
After a 2-2 draw to the Chicago Fire with Bono in net, however, TFC head coach Greg Vanney elected to call upon Westberg for the club’s next match against the eventual MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders. The Reds would go on to lose the match 3-2, but as Waking the Red’s Gianluca Lia pointed out in his feature on Westberg, credit to Vanney, because despite the end result, he saw something different in the veteran goalkeeper.
“I like [Westberg’s] distribution, his capability [there],” said Vanney after the match. “There are probably a couple times that he takes a little more risk than necessary, but that’s just finding a balance with our team. [We] also can recognize his ability to do things, get to spots faster because part of his strength is to hit those spots. There is a relationship between getting used to him and him to the group that only comes with repetition and minutes. That was a nice add to the group.”
With Vanney’s imposed style of play intact—one that saw the Reds often use Westberg’s ability with the ball as an outlet at the back—the prestigious Clairefontaine academy product would go on to start most of the matches for TFC down the stretch, including a run of play which found Bono on the bench as a spectator for 15 straight between May and August before finally appearing in a Canadian Championship game against Ottawa Fury (who has since suspended operations).
Now here’s where it gets really interesting.
Last season, Westberg, now 33, made just $115,254 USD while carrying most of the workload in net as the Reds’ clear No. 1, and the veteran keeper will return again to Toronto (under his initial team-friendly contract) in 2020.
With Westberg once again set to lead the charge in Toronto next season, where does that leave a 25-year-old Bono, in what’s supposed to be the prime years of his promising career?
Interest in the 2015 TFC first-round pick still remains
Regardless of what has transpired over the past ~18 months, Bono is still a proven goalkeeper with post-season success who appears to have his best years ahead of him.
But the reality is, on Toronto FC—a team in win-now mode—the American has become a really expensive backup option.
“[Alex Bono] loves this city and the club,” said Smyrniotis, when his client re-signed in Toronto. “He wanted to be here and Toronto FC made it clear with their actions they wanted him as their No. 1 for years to come.”
The latter half of that statement from Bono’s agent is crucial here. With the keeper no longer the Reds’ “No. 1 for years to come,” is the 25-year-old, and perhaps more importantly is the TFC front office, still content?
Last year, the 2015 first-round pick appeared in just 13 matches in all competitions, posting four clean sheets while conceding 17 times. There was even a low point for Bono where he sat for 23 straight league matches before eventually replacing an injured Westberg for his 100th club appearance against the Chicago Fire on Sept. 29.
And with first-choice GK Westberg making less than a third of what Bono is making, it’s difficult for a team in Toronto’s position to justify paying that sum again for what was just seven MLS games last season.
This brings us to The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio’s latest report on Jan. 3 which said that Bono would be training with English Football League Championship side Barnsley FC until Jan. 13, and that if the Reds were to look to move him, there are “several MLS clubs interested.”
Another nugget that could’ve fit in this notebook: #TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono is training at Barnsley for the next 10 days, per source. Several MLS clubs interested in Bono, who played just 7 games last season, should Toronto look to move him. https://t.co/4gQWdLT5WR— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) January 3, 2020
It’s really no surprise to hear that other clubs around the league would be interested in Bono. On most teams in MLS, the U.S. international would be assured playing time as the outright starter.
Another relative tidbit from this offseason to note is when Toronto FC dealt Canadian international and 25-year-old Jay Chapman to Inter Miami CF for $100,000 in General Allocation Money.
“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,” said GM Ali Curtis in a press release at the time.
If a similar opportunity presents itself, where the Reds can trade Bono to a positive environment with more playing opportunity while acquiring further allocation money (on top of shedding his 2019 guaranteed salary of $382,000 USD), it’s difficult to see Curtis and co. turning it down.
The case for keeping Bones
Words cannot describe how grateful I am never would have believed you if you told me 5 years ago that I’d play games for this fantastic club.. I love you, Toronto ❤️ https://t.co/ebNZCsM5F2— Alexander Bono (@Alex25Bono) September 30, 2019
Most of the arguments for keeping Bono are already in between the lines.
First, it hasn’t been Bono’s ability to stop the ball that has kept the TFC keeper out of the net, but rather Westberg’s ability to play with the ball at his feet, adding another element to Vanney’s team. It’s tough to fault the Toronto FC draftee as this was a case where it was almost out of his hands.
Secondly, as mentioned above, Toronto FC’s goal has historically been a revolving door; since 2007, there have been 16 players make appearances for the Reds in net. In fact, when Bono made his 100th appearance in September, he surpassed
Stefan Frei he who must not be named for the most in club history by a goalkeeper.
Earlier this offseason, the Reds also elected to decline the 2020 contract option on third-choice GK Caleb Patterson-Sewell, further thinning out their depth in net.
With the team’s fragile past in goal, the lack of MLS-ready keepers in the system, and assuming the Reds can’t get anyone else extraordinary to be a backup keeper, are TFC fans willing to enter such a crucial year with just a 33-year-old Westberg?
Or is it perhaps safer to gamble long-term here?
What should Toronto FC do with GK Alex Bono?
This poll is closed
Sell him to get his contract off the budget
Sell him only for a king’s ransom
Try and keep Bono
Bono, who will turn 26 in April, was re-signed in 2018 to be Toronto’s long-term No. 1 option. He already has 100 first-team appearances, an MLS Cup, a Supporters Shield, and several Canadian Championships under his belt. He has also rarely stepped out of line and is proud to call Toronto his home.
With Westberg already being paid like a backup option (he made just ~$45,000 USD more than Patterson-Sewell last year) and the French goalkeeper not getting any younger, does it make more sense for TFC to keep the reassurance in net, despite the cost? There’s a lot of different ways this one could go, but either way, as coach Vanney put it:
“[Alex Bono]’s brightest years are still very much ahead of him.”
Have your say #TFCLive. What do you think Toronto FC should do with Alex Bono?