It may be quite the understatement to call the first week of this off-season following Toronto FC’s hapless loss to CF Montreal in the Voyageur’s Cup as a whirlwind. The week began with sweeping changes at the apex of the TFC pyramid with the successive daily announcements that General Manager Ali Curtis was out, Javier Perez would not be retained, and, of course, the not surprising introduction of Bob Bradley as TFC’s newest coach and sporting director.
The TFC whirlwind just picked up Wednesday where it left off last week with the club’s end-of-season roster decisions. In his introductory news conference Bob Bradley hinted that a thorough review of the roster was in store, and that no one, including son and team captain Michael Bradley, was in for special treatment. Bradley Sr. made the point that everyone had to be invested in the re-establishment of the team’s former winning culture, although not necessarily the former winning team. A number of TFC players found this out with Wednesday’s announcement.
The TFC roster overhaul underway this winter will include the expected departures of several players, such as Nick DeLeon. Veteran Justin Morrow had earlier announced his intention to retire at the conclusion of this season. But before the new era begins there remains the business of the Charlotte FC expansion draft on December 14, 2021. Participating MLS teams were required to submit their 12-player protected list on November 23, 2021. Although this was the day before Bob Bradley’s introduction he undoubtedly had some input into this list. The list will not be publicly disclosed by the league until the afternoon of the day prior to the draft on December 13, 2021.
The key parameters of the draft can be found on the MLS website but some of the more pertinent draft rules are as follows: only one player may be selected from any one team; DPs are not automatically protected; home grown players under the age of 25 are not eligible for selection; and players on expiring contracts up to December 31, 2021 are still considered a part of a team’s roster for the purposes of the draft.
Our quick analysis of the TFC roster in light of Wednesday’s announcements and in relation to the expansion draft can be broken into three segments: Designated Players (DPs), eligible homegrown players, and the rest. Keep in mind the official list has already been submitted and we can only speculate on who was or wasn’t protected. In most respects, it will be post-draft where the fun (or hard work if your name is Bob Bradley) begins. Last week the question was whether the front-office “purge” would extend to the roster itself. The answer appears to have been answered with a yes so far.
(Projected salaries based off numbers released by the MLSPA)
Alejandro Pozuelo ($4,693,000) – Jozy Altidore ($3,692,250) – Yeferson Soteldo ($1,965,000)
As noted, DPs are not automatically protected in the draft and must be placed on the list if TFC wish to retain their services. Each of TFC’s three DPs have peculiar circumstances that will influence the club’s decision for or against their retention.
Alejandro Pozuelo has one year remaining on his current deal and at 30 years of age, he is still a player in his prime, who despite a miserable 2021 for him, both on and off the pitch, has expressed a desire to return and play an integral role in Bob Bradley’s project. Indications are that this feeling is mutual. The 2020 MLS player of the year will be protected.
Jozy Altidore, TFC’s longest serving DP, remains under contract and with what can generously be called a poor return on investment from TFC’s perspective. The now 32 year old has had injury woes and a corresponding lack of production these past two years but Waking the Red has learned that Altidore has a no-trade clause in his contract that requires the club to place him on their protected list per MLS rules. Although decreasing annually, his wage expense hangs like an albatross about TFC’s neck and there remains uncertainty whether player and club wish to continue their relationship. As Bob Bradley succinctly put it, “the Jozy situation is unclear”, and clarity is what is required for this circumstance.
Yeferson Soteldo was a celebrated signing in the spring and much was anticipated of the young diminutive Venezuelan. However, while showing flashes of brilliance and technical skill few in MLS can match, his inability to gel with teammates, particularly fellow DP Pozuelo (whenever the two were deployed together), resulted in disjointed play on the pitch. It often looked as though Soteldo either mistrusted his fellow attackers or he just felt he had to do it all himself.
Rumours began to materialize that the on-field dissonance was now spilling into the locker room. Reports have circulated that Soteldo is unhappy and wishes to return to South America. Whether TFC accommodates a move or whether Bob Bradley believes he can successfully integrate him into the team Soteldo will find his name on the protected list. An unprotected Soteldo might be an enticing selection for the expansion team, and TFC cannot risk a loss on their $6 million USD investment. Better to retain him and sell him on after the draft if that is in fact the direction TFC goes. For a more expansive review of what may be expected from the designated players see Michael Singh’s article.
Luke Singh ($71,513) – Julian Dunn ($85,444)* – Rocco Romeo ($84,641)*
Ralph Priso ($70,476) Jacob Shaffelburg ($116,500) - Liam Fraser ($94,513)*
Noble Okello ($111,810) - Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty ($106,842) Ayo Akinola ($157,513)*
Jayden Nelson ($106,586) - Jordan Perruzza ($66,724)
* - out of contract in 2022
Homegrown players are not eligible for selection in the expansion draft and so do not have to be part of the 12 player protected list. But what are the plans for these young Canadian players for 2022? None have salary commitments that TFC would find burdensome. In fact, many are absolute bargains for the club. Here are a few observations about this considerable number of homegrown players.
Centre-back is a position where TFC requires a considerable upgrade in talent. After Wednesday’s news, Luke Singh remains the only signed homegrown centre-back on the roster. Julian Dunn and Rocco Romeo are both out of contract at the end of the year, although Waking the Red has learned that the club is still negotiating a potential deal with Dunn, whose contract officially expires at the end of the month. Romeo will move on from TFC after nine years spent between the academy and first team.
In regards to Singh, he was pressed into service on an emergency basis early in 2021, and his performance and minutes tailed off precipitously as the season wore on. While having a few bright moments early on including scoring his first MLS goal it appeared Singh’s lack of pace may be holding him back. Unless a similar emergency occurs next season or he takes a significant step forward, it may be doubtful Singh sees many minutes.
Dunn, meanwhile, was held back by injuries for much of 2021 but got a couple games in with TFC late on and generally gave a good account of himself. It will be nice to see him back in the squad next year to provide cover and possibly challenge for starts, if he doesn’t secure a move abroad elsewhere to play regular minutes. There are rumblings that a Norwegian club is interested in the Toronto native’s services.
Moving on to the middle of the park, before his season-ending injury Ralph Priso was a revelation in the holding midfield role, especially deployed next to veteran Michael Bradley. When fully recovered — which should be the case before the start of next season — he should again compete for minutes next season. Noble Okello also got a run of games in both holding midfield and attacking midfield roles in 2021. While his play was inconsistent he showed enough of his potential to warrant another look next year. After a season long loan with MLS rival Columbus Crew SC, Liam Fraser is an interesting situation. His overall play with the Crew and the CanMNT in 2021 suggests he deserves a look at becoming a holding midfield mainstay of the future, however, he is out of contract, and although TFC are keen on bringing him back into the fold, it remains to be seen if his future lies with TFC and Bob Bradley’s restoration project or whether he moves on in search of regular minutes at another club.
Jayden Nelson will be back to again fight for a spot in an attacking role with the club. But should his progress be blocked by players currently ahead of him on the depth charts he may be better served with a loan elsewhere.
In a similar vein Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, who is also returning to the club next season, is also deserving of an extended look next season. Recently named to The Guardian’s Next Generation list, recognizing the world’s best young players born in 2004, it is crucial for JMR to continue his development. Should minutes prove elusive he may too benefit with a loan elsewhere.
Jacob Shaffelburg has cemented himself as winger both off the bench and as a starter. Fearless and fleet of foot Shaffelburg earned a call up and some playing time with the CanMNT in World Cup Qualifiers in the October window. Shaffelburg’s option was unsurprisingly picked up. Should TFC move on from Soteldo, they have Shaffelburg ready to fill the void in the near-term.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the club not extending rising star Ayo Akinola. Another young talent with a catastrophic season-ending knee injury this past summer, Akinola was thought by many to be in the mix up front upon his recovery. After much fanfare about his switch of allegiance from the USMNT to the CanMNT this past spring, Akinola’s promising season came to a sudden halt when his knee buckled under the challenge of a US defender in the Gold Cup in July. It remains to be seen if TFC were truly scared off by the prospects of Akinola’s recovery or whether there was a disconnect between each party’s salary expectations. If it is the end of his TFC days Akinola is certain to elicit interest elsewhere in MLS or entertain offers from Europe.
Jordan Perruzza rounds out the home grown talent pool for TFC. Sent on a second loan stint with USL Championship side San Antonio FC, Perruzza returned in the summer but unfortunately saw little action. He did open his account for TFC in a late October match against Atlanta United, and he’ll likely be counted on in 2022 to play a bigger role for the Reds, although minutes will be determined by the quality of new recruits TFC bring in.
Quentin Westberg ($283,583) – Alex Bono ($482,000) – Kevin Silva ($66,724)
Richie Laryea ($226,953) – Auro Jr ($388,750)– Justin Morrow ($125,000)
Kemar Lawrence ($340,500) – Omar Gonzalez ($1,055,936) – Chris Mavinga ($887,500)
Eriq Zavaleta ($84,219) – Michael Bradley ($1,500,000) - Jonathan Osorio ($876,250)
Mark Delgado ($581,250) – Nick DeLeon ($263,242) – Erickson Gallardo ($331,913)
Tsbushah Endoh ($105,333) - Ifunanyachi Achara ($66,724)
Dom Dwyer ($81,375) - Patrick Mullins ($248,329)
TFC’s tandem in goal has proven to be equal parts blessing and unnecessary distraction this past year where both goalies struggled at varying stretches of the season. Alex Bono’s salary suggests he should be starting the majority of games but he has not consistently proven himself to be better than Quentin Westberg since the latter’s arrival at the club. Westberg, now 35 years of age, is clearly at the tail end of his career and is coming off a challenging year, both on and off the field. Westberg contracted COVID-19 as did his young family, which led to a slow start to the season.
Despite the salary budget cost, Bono, at age 27, is the more likely candidate for protection. Although Westberg’s option for next season was picked, I believe that he will remain unprotected in the upcoming draft. Third string keeper Kevin Silva had his option declined as he will depart the club at the end of the year.
As Morrow transitions to a post-playing career following his retirement, TFC will be left with fullbacks Richie Laryea, Auro Jr,, and Kemar Lawrence. The latter remains a versatile contributor and has played wherever the club has asked this past year both in and out of position. Auro Jr. and Laryea are indispensable to TFC. Expect all three to have been protected by the club. However, Laryea may be headed overseas in the near term given rumoured interest in Europe and as it will now be easier to access UK work permits with Canada’s top 50 FIFA ranking. At this time, no concrete offers have surfaced to date. For a more in depth discussion on the futures of Laryea and Osorio see Corey Brady’s earlier article.
As noted previously centre-back remains a position lacking sufficient talent and depth for the club. Chris Mavinga remains under contract and when in the right frame of mind has been TFC’s best central defender. Mavinga will be protected but it doesn’t appear that towering veteran Omar Gonzalez and recent El Salvador international Eriq Zavaleta will return. The latter has been a depth piece whose play has been erratic when called upon and whose lineup spot can easily filled by a homegrown like Singh. The aging Gonzalez’s glaring lack of speed has become all too evident in the past year and his option was declined, however, there remains a very slim possibility that he is brought back at a much cheaper cost to provide depth and veteran mentorship for the younger homegrown centre-backs, should the price be right.
There will be a high degree of turnover in TFC’s midfield this off-season as well. Nick DeLeon, who appeared to have checked out months ago, has already stated his intention to leave the club over social media and has had his option declined. Oft-injured players like Tsbushah Endoh and Erickson Gallardo will not be protected either as both players’ contracts were not renewed, however, Endoh remains in talks with the club about a potential new contract. Should they not come to terms, Endoh is another player easily supplanted by any of Toronto’s home grown players and Gallardo’s salary can’t be shed soon enough.
Team captain Michael Bradley will be protected. Full stop. With dad Bob taking charge of the team it is expected that Bradley will continue to be relied upon for his veteran leadership in the coming year. Jonathan Osorio, whose 2022 option was picked up as expected, will also be protected as he is another indispensable player for the team. However, much like Laryea, he may look to a new challenge overseas in the coming year although approaching his 30th birthday next year he may find overseas suitors more difficult to come by. Mark Delgado provides another interesting decision for TFC brass. While undoubtedly on the protected list Delgado and his salary may find less expensive but equally reliable competition among TFC’s several homegrown alternatives.
Among the forward contingent only Ifunanyachi Achara appears destined for the protected list. Still young, inexpensive with much upside to his game makes this is an easy choice. The ineffective Patrick Mullins has seen his last day in a TFC jersey and will not be protected or contract extended. Dom Dwyer too, will be left off the protected list although he remains under contract for another season at league-minimum. The roles of Mullins and Dwyer can easily be replaced by the likes of Jordan Perruzza, who incidentally outscored both this past season with his first MLS marker in just six appearances.
Once the expansion draft is over there will be one final bit of business to address concerning the 2021 roster. That being the decision whether to exercise their permitted Guaranteed Contract Buyout. A club may buyout one guaranteed contract per year but only when exercised in the off-season will the team be permitted to off-set the salary shed with an equal measure of cap space.
Of the guaranteed contracts for next year, only Altidore and Dwyer’s are worth exploring. If Bob Bradley feels he cannot turn around and re-invigorate his former USMNT player then Altidore may be the one bought out, freeing up a much needed designated player spot.
However, a buyout of Dwyer’s considerably smaller salary may be more likely. Removing Dwyer’s contract provides only a minimal amount of cap relief but opens up another roster spot for a new acquisition who is more likely to see the field and contribute to the team.
With the potential for millions of salary dollars being shed this off-season Manning and Bradley are sure to transform the look of the club. How these changes transpire remains on the anvil. Stay tuned over the winter as the TFC roster makeover continues to evolve. This off-season is shaping up to be a cracker.