TORONTO, Canada—Eight days into the new year and so far, it’s been a quiet offseason for Toronto FC. But for those eagerly awaiting news, I wouldn’t lose hope just quite yet; there’s going to be a storm coming.
Bill Manning, Ali Curtis, and the rest of the club front office still have a number of question marks they need to address before the resumption of the 2021 Major League Soccer season—which the league still hopes will be sometime mid-March—including replacing coach Greg Vanney and signing the team’s next star.
It’s inevitably just a matter of time before significant dominoes begin to fall into place, so with that in mind, what exactly are the major question marks that TFC need to address in the new year?
Here’s my latest TFC Notebook.
Who will be the club’s next head coach & technical director?
The first domino that likely needs to fall in place, Toronto FC are now just one of two teams across MLS who are still in need of a new head coach. But no need to hit the panic button quite yet, as multiple reports have stated that the club has indeed narrowed its search to replace Greg Vanney, with a resolution hopefully coming in the not-so-distant future.
With apparent front runner Patrick Vieira to TFC all but ruled out on Tuesday, it’s tough to pinpoint who’s next in line and in pole position to take over from Vanney. Right now, your guess is honestly probably just as good as mine—and that’s by design.
“Ali (Curtis) and I have agreed that we’re not going to tip our hat one way or the other,” team President Manning told the Toronto Sun on Dec. 9, when asked to comment on the Laurent Blanc and Vieira rumours that were hovering around the TFC interwebs last month.
And for the most part, that’s been the status quo.
Manning, Curtis, and the rest of the Toronto FC front office have offered very little up front, so I wouldn’t be shocked if an unknown candidate for the position emerges out of the blue.
There’s not much more to add on that note, but what I will mention is that ideally, it’s probably safe to say that in a perfect world, the Reds would already have their next head coach in place, moving on to address other major items on their 2021 offseason agenda. But, as we learned in 2020, things don’t always go as smoothly as we’d expect.
When asked about the club’s projected timeline to name a new head coach in his end-of-year press conference, Curtis acknowledged that the Reds would like to have a Vanney replacement in place sooner rather than later in order to be a “part of the process of next year,” but did concede that sometimes, you simply can’t rush these major decisions.
“In our business, the timeline is now,” said Curtis on Dec. 1 “ ... with that being said, sometimes you’re not in complete control of the timeline, of the process.
“... but in terms of (our) timeline, yes, it’ll be before the season starts, but also we want to make sure that we honour the process in the right way. We get the right person. Like I said, we’re a big club, we need someone that can handle that—a new voice, a new leader—and we’ll see how it goes.”
Stay tuned. We should hear more on this front in the coming weeks.
Also, Eric G — you’re a savage.
Who will be Toronto FC’s next designated player?
If you think Toronto FC have been quiet when it comes to their ongoing search for a new head coach, then the team has been absolutely dead silent in their pursuit of finding their next designated player (DP).
So, what do we know?
Well, Toronto FC have one major need they’d like to address: scoring goals.
“The initial focus is an attacking player. It’s to find an attacking player—help us score goals, all these types of things,” said Curtis on Dec. 1.
“Obviously, our real only consistent goal scorer this year was Ayo (Akinola), so that’s an area we’re looking to upgrade as Ali mentioned,” added Manning.
What’s also safe to assume is that when the front office decided not to exercise Pablo Piatti’s contract option for next season, ultimately freeing up a DP spot on their roster, whether or not they’d admit it, it set a standard—and that was the tangible performance of the Argentine last season.
Four goals and four assists from Piatti in 17 games in his first season in North America, in addition to unquestionable chemistry alongside the league’s most valuable player, when you’re freely electing not to pick up his option for next season, it’s hard to dismiss the glaring narrative that the Reds felt they could find more value out of their DP.
“ … We understand that we’d like to create more goal scoring opportunities for the team,” answered Curtis, when asked about that rhetoric. “And so, we know what that demands. It was less about whether or not we were going to exercise Pablo’s option or not in terms of that being the indicator; it was more about the collective to be honest with you. It was more about the team—what the team needs. What opportunities we were creating and which ones we weren’t...”
So what exactly is it that Toronto FC needs? This was the clearest indication Curtis provided at the team’s year-end media availability.
“I think we (Bill and I) both understand that we need someone that can come in that can help us score goals at a very high clip,” said the TFC GM, “that can create relationships with our players on the field and off the field, that can contribute in a lot of different ways, that has a great character and personality off the field and all these types of things which is important for a Toronto FC player...”
If you’re looking for some potential transfer targets that fit that mould, I’d recommend checking out this TSN video by Kristian Jack. We won’t bother speculating here: there’s too many variables and the world is a big place.
But let’s move on...
How will TFC round out the remainder of its roster?
Looking ahead, there are still a number of roles within the squad that Toronto FC need to address likely before the start of the next season.
Taking into account 20-year-old Rocco Romeo’s loan deal with HB Koge through June 2021, the Reds enter next season with three open roster spots. Given that one of those will surely be allocated towards the club’s next DP, that leaves them with two.
And it just so happens that there two glaring positions on the field that the team will likely need upgrades at.
First, after Justin Morrow’s contract expired at the end of the year and Tony Gallacher returned to Liverpool following the completion of his loan stint, the club is in dire need of a full-time left-back. Auro Jr. and Richie Laryea, the team’s natural right-backs, have shown that they’re capable of playing down the left flank if asked, however, they’re both better off causing chaos down the right-hand side. And besides the duo, there’s not much depth behind them.
Beyond 2019 sixth-overall pick Griffin Dorsey, 21, who was converted to fullback over the course of the past year and played a total of four minutes last season—a brief appearance at the MLS is Back Tournament—and veteran Nick DeLeon, a natural midfielder, who has been able to do a decent job at filling in limited opportunity when asked, there’s no one on Toronto FC’s current roster who appears to be suited to play fullback.
But for what it’s worth, Morrow, who is still a free agent, expressed his desire to Waking the Red to finish his career in Toronto—something that was apparently reciprocated by the club. My best guess is that the club and Morrow will eventually work something out once the team’s salary budget situation becomes clearer.
There’s a similar dilemma at centre-back after contracts ended for both Laurent Ciman and Eriq Zavaleta. Between the two veterans who back-up incumbent starters Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga, they’ve accumulated 812 minutes in the shortened 2020 campaign.
With both Mavinga and Gonzalez not getting any younger—or any less injury prone—and with only 20-year-old Julian Dunn, who has one MLS game under his belt, as the only CB on the first-team roster to begin next season, it’s safe to assume that’s an area where TFC want to bring in some experience. To what pedigree, however, remains to be seen. Ideally, I’d like to think that the club would bring someone in that’s capable of pushing Gonzalez for minutes, but with the team tight against he salary budget, they may have to get creative here.
If they do decide to bring in a left-back, centre-back, and DP attacker, that would bring the team’s current roster to 30/30 players. Of course you could always send your youngsters out on loan to free up more roster spots to make additions, however, that begs the question...
Are the young guns ready for a bigger role?
The amount of moves Toronto FC make this offseason may potentially shape the future of some of their brightest up-and-coming stars.
Ayo Akinola, Jayden Nelson, Ralph Priso, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty headline the abundance of young talent Toronto FC possess heading into the 2021 campaign, however, just how big of a role they’ll occupy next season remains to be seen.
Last season, the young guns began to emerge onto the scene, but besides Akinola and to a lesser extent towards the end of the year, Priso, none of their youngsters were really given a an extended look. With a full year of experience under the belt, I’d expect all four of these players to see a significant increase in their playing time.
But there’s many more names that could make an impact beyond the headliners. Dunn, 20, and Romeo, 20, are currently third and fourth on the team’s depth chart at centreback, though Romeo remains on loan through June with HB Koge. Jacob Shaffelburg, 21, and Griffin Dorsey, 21, await their chances on the wing. Liam Fraser, 22, and Noble Okello, 20, will once again try to establish themselves in a crowded middle of the park. And Jordan Perruzza, 19, who officially joined the first team this month, is hungry to make a difference up top.
For those eager to see an injection of youth in Toronto, one positive takeaway is that both Manning and Curtis appear to have a grip on just how special the crop of local talent they have coming through the ranks really is. Both have made it clear that, when looking for their new head coach, the continued development of the club’s academy, along with winning will be the two most significant factors in making their decision.
And like in other salary-capped sports, with the club tight against the salary budget in comparison to past seasons, having young, cheap players who can contribute alongside a core of older stars is ideal when making up a roster.
So with MLS trying to move towards a younger league, is the inevitable youth movement closer than we anticipate? It’s something worth keeping a tab on.
Where will Toronto FC play in 2021?
I’ll keep this short, simply because it’s impossible to have any of the answers right now, but Toronto FC are still unsure if they will be able to host games at BMO Field to start next season.
It doesn’t bode well that the Toronto Raptors were forced to set up shop in Tampa, Florida to begin their NBA season and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators had to fight tooth and nail just to gain permission from the provincial government in order to play in a Canadian-only division.
If that is the case and the Reds are not granted permission to host games in Toronto, barring another TFC-VWFC-MTL set of matches, the team will likely once again set up shop in East Hartford, Connecticut and play out of Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
Of course, the club remains determined to work with local health officials for a more optimal resolution, but as it stands, cross-border travel seems unlikely if the season does begin in mid-March as expected. That’s not ideal news for a club whose adversities were well documented playing away from home.
And for TFC fans who hope to return to soon BMO Field ... let’s just take it one step at a time.
Can Toronto FC discover the next Achara?
I’ll leave you on this note, something to look forward to: the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, set to take place later this month.
Last season, Toronto FC drafted four players in the first two rounds, including Achara (25th overall) and 22-year-old defender and Ajax, Ont.-native Nyal Higgins (19th overall), whose contract option was recently exercised with Toronto FC II after spending most of last season on loan in Sweden.
Achara, of course, would go on to make an immediate impact, scoring the game-winner in the 2020 home opener at BMO Field, his only appearance of the year before losing the rest of his season to an ACL injury while preparing for the MLS is Back Tournament in July.
Given how COVID-19 impacted most amateur leagues in 2020, ultimately limiting scouting opportunities for prospective clubs trying to assess the potential of a prospect, it’ll surely be more difficult to uncover a gem this time around. But glass half-full, perhaps the lack-of-showcase opportunity will open the door slightly for the TFC and cause some of the better prospects in this year’s draft to drop to the Reds, who don’t pick until the No. 18.
While fair warning, rookies don’t often break onto the scene like Achara did last season, in 2020, Toronto FC did have 12 drafted players on their first-team roster: Richie Laryea (7th overall), Patrick Mullins (11th overall),
Justin Morrow (28th overall), Omar Gonzalez (3rd overall), Tsubasa Endoh (9th overall), Nick DeLeon (7th overall), Michael Bradley (36th overall), Alex Bono (6th overall), Jozy Altidore (17th overall), Eriq Zavaleta (10th overall), Griffin Dorsey (6th overall), and Achara.
You can watch the draft live on Jan. 21 at 2 p.m. EST. The first round of the virtual player selection event will be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com, the MLS App, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In addition, fans can follow every pick as it happens with MLSsoccer.com’s MLS SuperDraft tracker.
What other questions do you think Toronto FC need to address in the new year? Let us know in the comments.