This is the second in a two-part look at players that TFC could target for next season. This time the focus is on the area of the pitch in most dire need of an overhaul – centre-back. Veterans Omar Gonzalez and Eriq Zavaleta are out of contract and will not be returning. Rocco Romeo was released and Julian Dunn signed with Norway’s newly promoted first division club Hamarkameratene (Hamkam) leaving Luke Singh as their sole remaining homegrown centre-back prospect. With Chris Mavinga the only experienced centre-back returning next year, TFC will have a considerable task in replacing the four centre-backs that have left or were released.
However, this house cleaning was needed as TFC allowed a franchise-worst 66 goals in 2021 to bring home the second worst defensive record in MLS. While the overall team defence was fragile, nowhere was this fragility more evident than at centre-back. With injuries and suspensions compounding the centre-back situation, all too often TFC resorted to playing other players out of position there with predictable results.
With the centre-back spot swept clean let us take a look at who TFC president Bill Manning and sporting director Bob Bradley might target to rebuild the back line.
There are some depth pieces to be had from the Canadian Premier League but there are few options to choose from the available pool of MLS free agents. Players like ex-TFC first round draft pick Nick Hagglund, Brett Kallman and Aaron Long are out of contract. Long may be the most interesting of the lot but he is coming off a serious Achilles injury that entails a considerable amount of risk. As such, they are not foundational pieces to rebuild the back line with.
It will be overseas that TFC brass will undoubtedly be searching for centre-backs of quality to re-stock the back-line. As will be the case with TFC’s efforts to re-load the offence, the club will be seeking out players on expiring contracts in order to avoid, as much as possible, having to pay any transfer fees. With most non-North American players on expiring contracts that align with the traditional European club calendar that ends June 30, 2022 it remains possible that the players TFC are seeking may not be available until the summer unless they pay a transfer fee. Given the number of centre-backs currently under contract it appears likely TFC will be forced to pay some transfer fees.
What TFC urgently needs are defenders that excel at their defensive duties. Players of strength with decent speed and the ability to keep the game simple at the back are what the club requires. Players with tactical flexibility and able to adapt to either a three man or four man back line should also be considered as it is unknown what tactical formations Bradley Sr will adopt next season. In addition there is an urgent need for leadership qualities with defenders that can communicate with and organize their back line.
Unlike the attack, where forwards under consideration to sign for next year will likely include players requiring a designated player spot, TFC will almost certainly try to avoid acquiring any centre-backs that would use up a precious DP designation. The use of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) does look probable in some of the prospective targets reviewed. Here is a selected wish list of centre-backs that TFC should consider for 2022. Once again, the players are listed according to their expected current market value (MV) in US dollars as determined by Transfermarkt.
Francesco Vicari - Italy | Age 27 | 190 cm | MV $3.52M | SPAL - Serie B
Francesco Vicari appears to be the hard-nosed leader to organize a back line that TFC has been lacking. The most highly valued of this collection of centre-backs, the former Italy U-21 international may present a value opportunity not to be missed. Vicari has been with SPAL for five seasons including his first three when the club was in Serie A. Previously a target of Premiership sides West Ham United and Newcastle, Vicari has been described as an uncompromising centre-back in the Italian tradition.
Despite his height, Vicari is not known for his aerial ability, nor is he blessed with ball moving foot skills as many modern centre-backs possess. With his team mired in 14th spot in Serie B and opportunities at returning to Italian top flight football an unlikely happening in the near term, this constant presence in the SPAL lineup could be tempted to try his luck elsewhere should the right opportunity arise. Were TFC to secure the services of fellow countryman Lorenzo Insigne, a call from TFC might be very enticing to Vicari. Both SPAL and Vicari have options on another year but depending on how much cash TFC is willing to splash he might be had. Vicari, currently the highest paid defender in Serie B, would likely require some serious TAM considerations to bring on board, but the SPAL captain appears to be worth it.
Wallace - Brazil | Age 27 | 191 cm | MV $2.75M | Yeni Malatyaspor - Süper Lig
His formal name is Wallace Fortuna dos Santos but, as many Brazilian footballers are apt to do, he simply goes by the name Wallace. A former Brazil youth international, Wallace has plenty of top flight experience. He has played in Ligue 1 with AS Monaco, Serie A with SS Lazio, and Primeira Liga with Braga before his current club in Turkey. Wallace has been described as a no-nonsense defender who is comfortable moving the ball up from the back when gaining possession. Malatyaspor does hold an option for an additional season but it is believed that the player is seeking a new challenge.
Naby Sarr - Senegal | Age 28 | 196 cm | MV $2.20M | Huddersfield Town - Championship
The only left footer of this group, Naby Sarr seems to be well regarded by his team but faces stiff competition for starts. Sarr has steadily climbed the football ladder from the French third tier to the English second tier. At almost two meters tall, it is no surprise that he is an aerial threat on set pieces. A central defender also comfortable in the middle of a back three, Sarr likes to keep things simple defensively at the back yet after winning possession has decent passing accuracy to quickly transition his team to the offence. With much competition for spots at Huddersfield, Sarr may wish to move on in search of more playing time.
Fabián Noguera - Argentina | Age 28 | 193 cm | MV $1.98M | Estudiantes - Liga Profesional
Fabian Noguera has experience in the Brazilian top flight with Santos, and now with Argentinian top flight Estudiantes. Noguera’s efforts were an integral part of Estudiantes’ qualification for the next upcoming Copa Libertadores. An ever-present in the Estudiantes lineup, Noguera is a lethal scorer on set pieces with five goals scored for his club in 2021. Noguera is a natural right footer but is equally comfortable on either side of a back four or playing the middle of a back three as his current club often does. A leader on the back line and his team Noguera appears to possess all the qualities that would make him a terrific addition to TFC and a successful MLS player. Noguero has signalled that he would look forward to a new challenge abroad when his contract is up. TFC could use a defender of Noguera’s pedigree.
Reece Burke - England | Age 25 | 189 cm | MV $1.32M | Luton Town - Championship
The youngest of the group of central defenders being reviewed, Reece Burke is a former England youth international. Burke is also an ex-West Ham United academy graduate where he was selected as a player of the year and eventually had a run of 10 games in the premier league before the team was relegated and changed managers. He then bounced about between the Championship and League One with stints at clubs such as Wigan and Hull City. With Luton Town, Burke finds himself on a team laden with centre-back talent of Championship quality and has encountered a fair degree of competition for minutes. His young career so far has been up and down but Burke has always been regarded as a prodigy brimming with potential. Primarily a centre-back, Burke can also provide cover at right back. While Burke has aspirations to play in the Premier League, indications are that he may not quite be that level. However, at MLS he looks to have the tools to be an outstanding defender.
Bob Bradley has been handed a blank slate with regard to rebuilding the club’s central defence corps. It will be interesting to see how he selects the personnel to mould the look of his new back line. The defenders on this wish list provide a window into the quality of players that are available. For TFC to return to respectability and competitiveness next year it will require a minimum of two or three such players being brought on board to accompany Mavinga.