TORONTO, Canada—What will undoubtedly be a critical offseason for Toronto FC gets started on Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday as MLS free agency officially opens.
With TFC choosing not to exercise contract options for Laurent Ciman ($435,625), Eriq Zavaleta (296,962), and Justin Morrow ($330,000), there is at least $1,062,587 in 2019 salary (player salaries were not published this year) which has been cleared.
While Morrow may re-sign, if he does so, it’ll likely be at a lower salary, and it still potentially leaves the door open for Ali Curtis and co. to bring in a new face or two.
So what does the team need?
Roster needs heading into free agency
With a number of homegrown talents filling out the roster, it makes sense for TFC to add players who are either starting caliber or versatile depth pieces that can cover multiple positions. And with a fairly old core, TFC should consider players entering or in their prime years (24-30), who can help bridge the gap between the veteran talent and prospects currently on the roster.
Positionally, it’s clear that the wings are the weakest part of the team. While a designated player (DP) winger is almost certainly arriving this offseason, that leaves Nick DeLeon, Tsubasa Endoh, Erickson Gallardo, Jacob Shaffelburg, Jayden Nelson, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty to split time on the other wing (assuming that Pablo Piatti doesn’t return), which is a fair bit less than ideal in comparison to other teams around MLS.
The defence needs a pretty significant refresh as well. A backup centre-back is required following the departures of Ciman and Zavaleta, and whether or not Morrow returns, another option at left-back is critical as the roster currently boasts a total of 0 natural left-backs.
Finally, there is no such thing as too much midfield depth, and adding a versatile option who can cover both central midfield and attacking midfield could allow for more rest for Alejandro Pozuelo and Michael Bradley. Is it likely the team adds in this realm, especially given the emergence of Ralph Priso? Probably not. But let’s keep it as an option because, again, you can never have too much depth in the centre of the park.
It’s worth noting that Curtis and management have cautioned that the club does not have the same salary cap luxury that they’ve had in recent years. While, of course, being back my Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment means they can and will spend to the budget, it appears that there may not be as much wiggle room as they’d like.
So with those parameters in mind, below are four players that I think TFC should target in free agency (in order of priority).
Age: 30; 2019 Salary - $546,254
2020 Stats (Regular Season) - Goals: 9; Assists: 2; Whoscored rating (subs excluded): 7.65 xG: 6.32; xA: 1.52; xG+xA: 7.84; xG+xA/96: 0.55; Goals Added Above Average (G+): 1.57; G+/96: 0.11
The prize of free agency, it was reported in late November that Minnesota was close to re-signing Molino. Luckily for the rest of the league, that hasn’t materialized so far. One of the standout performers of the playoffs, Molino also had an incredible regular season, finishing fourth in Whoscored rating among players with at least five starts. Johnny Russell, Raul Ruidiaz, and Alejandro Pozuelo are great company (and all DPs), and Molino sat comfortably among them in terms of performance this season.
While an excellent player throughout his career (7.17 Whoscored rating in 95 career MLS games), a switch to playing primarily as a left winger led to a breakout year (8.01 Whoscored rating in 7 appearances). He fits in perfectly as a right-footed left-winger who could bring the added goal scoring behind Altidore (or Akinola) and Pozuelo that TFC has lacked. His ability to get in goal scoring areas and generate goals is perfect to have on the opposite wing of Richie Laryea. In addition, Molino could fill in as a solid backup to Pozuelo at attacking midfield and switch to right wing as required.
Molino won’t be cheap to sign, but his production was elite last year and at 30 is likely to have a few years of high-end play ahead. He’s my #1 target for TFC in free agency and I’d potentially be willing to use TAM to get him signed, even if it means the departure of Piatti.
Time for TFC to flex that financial might and outbid his other potential suitors.
Age: 25; 2019 Salary - $205,000
2020 Stats (Regular Season) - Goals: 1; Assists: 0; Whoscored rating: 7.65 xG: 2.93; xA: 1.21; xG+xA: 4.14; xG+xA/96: 0.37; G+: 0.36; G+/96: 0.03
The youngest player on this list, Fagundez, 25, is high on my list of targets for TFC this offseason. Coming off a disappointing 2020, Fagundez is an incredibly versatile player with over 20 career appearances and a 7.0 whoscored rating or above playing as an attacking midfielder, central midfielder, and right winger. And that doesn’t take into account his 90+ appearances as a left winger, albeit with less success.
Part of the reason that this signing makes so much sense is that Fagundez is very unlikely to perform as poorly as he did last year. Despite finishing with only a goal to his name, the chances he created and took suggested he should’ve scored three goals and had at least one assist. While not significant contributions, it highlights that he may potentially be significantly undervalued. When played in his best position (which appears to be attacking midfield) during the 2018 season, he scored nine goals and added seven assists while totaling 16.43 xG+xA (good for 16th in the league and right behind Nicolas Lodeiro).
Another reason why the signing makes sense is that his impressive production in 2018 came at the young age of 23. Whereas most free agents at the end or past their prime, Fagundez is squarely within it, and will be for another 3-5 years at least. Getting a prime-aged but undervalued Diego Fagundez at a budget cost of only $200,000-$250,000 is how you build championship caliber depth, and if TFC can sign him for around $200,000, I think he could end up being one of their best signings in recent years.
Age: 26; 2019 Salary - $155,004
2018 Stats (Regular Season) - Goals: 2; Assists: 1; Tackles/90: 3.8; Interceptions/90: 2.5 Whoscored rating: 7.60; 0.37; G+: 0.27; G+/96: 0.03
Medranda is the most interesting name on this list given that he has started only two games in the past two years, mostly due to two significant injuries. On it’s own, that’s a huge red flag. However, Medranda’s potential is too great to not give him a shot at regaining his early career form. Still only 26, Medranda was one of the best left backs in MLS during the 2016 season and made several impressive appearances there in 2018. Over 30 career starts at left back, he has an impressive 7.34 Whoscored rating and also has experience in midfield (both centrally and on the wing).
If Medranda is healthy and can get back to his play from earlier in his career, he could be a useful option to have at left back to platoon with Morrow. One particularly glowing statistic on Medranda’s 2018 season is his 0.03 goals added above average per 96 minutes, which ranks him just ahead of Brad Smith’s 2019 season and just behind Laryea’s 2020 season—not bad company to keep. And according to smarterscout.com, he also excels at disrupting opposition moves and ball recoveries, ranking at the 95th and 84th percentiles, respectively, among MLS left backs in 2018.
There is no guarantee that Medranda has recovered from his injuries and can match his earlier level of play. However, signing him to a similar short-term salary of around $150,000 would be a low-risk, high-reward move to supplement another area of weakness in TFC’s roster.
Age: 27; 2019 Salary - $300,000
2020 Stats (Regular Season) - Tackles/90: 1.8 Interceptions/90: 3; Whoscored rating: 6.78; G+: -0.02; G+/96: -0.003
Cabrera endured a difficult 2020 with Houston, putting up career lows in Whoscored rating and key defensive metrics like tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes. At 27 and still in his prime, he’s more likely than not to rebound closer to his career average of a 7.11 Whoscored rating. To put that in perspective, Chris Mavinga’s Whoscored MLS career average is 6.82.
Although I question whether Cabrera’s numbers are inflated compared to other defenders due to playing on mediocre teams (ahem...Montreal) and being forced to defend more frequently; he profiles as an active defender who excels at disrupting the opposition and is about average in terms of defending quality. As a third centre back, he is a definite improvement over Ciman (6.51 Whoscored rating, -0.008 G+/96 in 2020) and could add real value to TFC.
The main downsides to signing Cabrera are twofold. First, he would take up a valuable international spot on the roster. Second, his current salary is probably more than he is worth as a third centre-back. If TFC can get Cabrera signed for $200,000 or less, I think that makes this is a smart move to add veteran depth to the centre of TFC’s defence for 2021. Otherwise, it might make sense to use that international spot elsewhere.
Again, it’s difficult for us to know whether or not Toronto FC are going to be actual players this year in the free agency market or if most of their damage will be done on the transfer market or via trade. While more moves are certainly coming, it’s worth noting that the Reds’ current roster sits at 28/30 players heading into the 2021 campaign.
Add in the designated player they need to sign, and that leaves one open roster spot. But as I mentioned, more moves are coming, and I expect to see quite a few loan outs from the Reds, freeing up roster spots, in order to round out what they believe will be a championship-contending squad next season.
Free agency opens at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, and it could be quite an intriguing window if you’re a Toronto FC fan. As always, stay tuned to Waking the Red as we’ll have all your coverage as Bill Manning, Curtis, and the rest of the team embark on what will be ‘an offseason like no other.’