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TFC Notebook: State of the Union

Answers to some of the bigger story lines surrounding Toronto FC heading into the start of their 2021 campaign in Michael Singh’s latest TFC Notebook.

TORONTO, Canada—The 2021 Toronto FC offseason has been an offseason like no other, just perhaps not the way many fans were expecting.

In a change of pace in comparison to past years, it has been a quiet couple of months for Toronto FC after finishing second-place overall in the Supporters’ Shield race, overshadowed of course by a disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of expansion side Nashville SC.

In regards to the roster, there hasn’t been very much turnover and concerns are starting to creep in from the fanbase that the Reds and their aging stars could be in for a bit of a drop-off or decline next season.

But after hearing Bill Manning on Waking the Red Weekly presented by Footy Talks on Tuesday, despite the lack of movement, there is a belief from within the club that TFC will indeed take steps forward next season—and there does appear to be a method behind the (lack of) madness.

Here is my latest TFC Notebook addressing some of the more intriguing story lines that hover over Toronto FC heading into the start of the 2021 campaign.

Toronto FC taking its time to choose the right DP

SOCCER: MAR 29 MLS - New York City FC at Toronto FC

Believe it or not, making signings during a pandemic isn’t an easy task, especially when you’re investing millions—and in some cases 10s of millions—of dollars in a player. When so much is at stake, you want to do everything to ensure that you’re making the right addition.

“It’s been difficult,” admitted Manning. “We in the past have brought players to see our training ground. We’ve brought them to Toronto. They get an opportunity to see what we’re all about. We visit them. We go and we meet them in-person. We sometimes meet with the club. And we can’t do that now where we are, and that’s actually been the most difficult thing: we can’t see these players live.

With a lack of information and certainty, this is a move Toronto FC do not want to rush into.

“We’ve been leery to pull the trigger in certain cases just because we don’t have enough information,” added Manning. “We want to make sure when we’re going to spend millions of dollars—and in some cases 10s of millions of dollars—you know, that’s a heavy decision. We want to make sure it’s right.”

The good news for Toronto FC is that the club has time. The MLS transfer window was extended until June 1, and the secondary transfer window opens approximately one month later on July 7. With the majority of their players returning in 2021, the roster should be good enough to compete in the meantime, as since July 1, 2019, Toronto FC actually have the most points per game in all of MLS.

So what type of player are Toronto FC going after? We already know that the club wants more goal production, but the TFC President revealed a little bit more about their on-going search:

“We feel really good about the roster, but what happened at the end of last season, when you need that big goal like we’ve seen in the past from Sebastian (Giovinco) or Jozy (Altidore), against Nashville, we weren’t able to get that goal, and that’s why we need that player like a Raul Ruidiaz or a Josef Martinez—guys like that who are difference makers.”

“The thing we talked about it is: Pablo fit perfectly for our need last year, but we’re looking to have a bit more of a long-term solution here that can help build this team over the next three or four years. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do another short-term deal if the right player presented themselves, but our intention is to lock in another designated player that can help us win a championship over the next two, three, four years.”

While I do suspect Rafael Santos Borre is one of the names that Toronto FC are interested in to fulfill that third designated player slot, he certainly isn’t the only one that the Reds are considering.

What I will add is that whoever that player is that does end up coming in—whether that be later in the primary transfer window or the summer—expect them to be in a similar calibre as their reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo, because that is the bar.

‘Now is the time’: free the young guns

(Toronto FC/Twitter)

This is going to be a narrative that is explored heavily in the coming weeks, months, and hopefully years, so I’ll try and keep this point as brief as possible, but one of the reasons that Toronto FC haven’t made additions to their roster this offseason is because of their belief in their young guns.

“We actually don’t believe we had to make a lot of acquisitions,” explained Manning. “It was very important for us to renew contracts—Marky Delgado, Richie Laryea we locked up—and seeing this young talent emerging, you know, when we talked about it, it was like: why would we bring someone else in who was going to limit the minutes of a Jayden Nelson or a Ralph Priso?”

Rather than going out and buying an experienced MLS player or even an international, Manning adds that the team will be looking at their homegrown talent—the likes of the aforementioned Nelson, Priso, Noble Okello, Julian Dunn, Jordan Perruzza, Jacob Shaffelburg, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and others—to take a step forward in 2021.

And that’s music to ears of a former TFC youngster, Jordan Hamilton.

It’s also worth noting that Toronto FC will not be counting on just youngsters next season.

“We think we have a good blend of veterans because no team has ever won with all young players,” emphasized Manning. “You need veterans. You need stars. But then when you have some emerging talent, you do have to find them minutes, and I think this year will be the year where you see some of the kids emerge.”

Don’t let the team’s shift in philosophy fool you. This is still one of the highest-spending clubs in the league. But when you have kids who are as talented as the likes of Nelson and Marshall-Rutty—and you combine their growth with the continuity of being on one of the best rosters in the league over the past few seasons—it’s tough not to get excited about what 2021 might have in store for the Reds, especially if that means more minutes for Nelson and less for the likes of Tsubasa Endoh.

Don’t sleep on Jordan Perruzza

Syndication: Cincinnati

Speaking of young guns, the only offseason addition to Toronto FC’s first-team roster so far has been the signing of 20-year-old homegrown striker Jordan Perruzza from Toronto FC II. The deal was actually completed and announced by the club last summer, but wasn’t made official until January.

“We have a young guy in Jordan Perruzza who is very under the radar,” said Manning. “He is another one that we are really high on.”

Perruzza has been prolific at every level he’s played at so far, most notably in 2019 when he scored 15 times in 24 appearances for Toronto FC II—one goal shy of capturing the league’s Golden Boot as an 18 year old. He followed that up last season on loan with USL Championship side San Antonio FC, where he scored three times in six appearances—including a couple of top-shelf screamers that no goalkeeper would stop.

Earlier in the week, I actually had the chance to pick Chris Armas’ brain about Perruzza, and I asked him how the new kid on the block is faring in TFC training camp early on. Here was his response:

“Jordan, so far, has been a guy that has shown up with something to prove,” said Armas. “He comes with a lot of passion, he works hard, he’s hungry. He’s a young player that has a lot of self-confidence—as you’d want a striker to be—and you can clearly see that his movements in-and-around the box are good. He doesn’t need a lot of room to get off shots. He shoots the ball well. And again, he’s a striker. He’s a 9. He’s a striker that understands how to live inside the 18 there, inbetween the posts even. And he’s gotten himself going in a good way, he’s scoring a bunch of goals in training now.”

As for what role does Armas expect Perruzza to play with TFC?

Well, according to the TFC head coach, time will tell, but he’s leaving the door open for the youngster to potentially come in and contribute right away.

“We really just got going with him,” said Armas. “Once we started, there was a little injury that he had in his quad early on, but he’s (back) full in training, and he’s making a case for himself up the field that he can be relied upon to score, to create, to meet all the other demands in the system. So he’s grasping at that, he’s an intelligent player, and he has a track record of scoring goals. So our job will be to push him and create clarity and let him do his thing up there, which many times, he’s that type of striker that’s instinctive so he knows how to move and operate up there.”

Armas adds that Perruzza has communicated well with TFC’s attacking core like Patrick Mullins and Alejandro Pozuelo. And Jozy Altidore, in particular, has completely blown away the Reds’ head coach thanks to his willingness to go above and beyond to help the TFC youngster(s)—a recurring narrative that we’ve heard others within the club voice in the past.

“I’ve never worked with Jozy in that way, to see him really, really invested in these young players and trying to pass on really good information. I mean, how fortunate for Jordan Perruzza?” said Armas. “So, Jordan’s open to it and hungry for it, so hopefully we can utilize him in the right moments.”

No Akinola, Achara, or Endoh for trip to Mexico

SOCCER: NOV 08 MLS - Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls

If you were to ask Bill Manning, the one trophy he would want to win is the CONCACAF Champions League trophy.

Unfortunately for Manning and the Reds, they’ll have to overcome a difficult first-leg Round of 16 match against Club Leon in Mexico without one of their most prolific attackers: Ayo Akinola.

According to Armas, Akinola (undisclosed) is not expected to be available for their April 7 encounter after recently recovering from a setback that has kept him sidelined the past couple of months. While the 21-year-old striker has returned to training, TFC are in no hurry to push Akinola, with the youngster’s best years still ahead of him.

The good news for the Reds is that Akinola is not expected to miss an extended period of time, as according to Armas, their No. 20 has been in high spirit, acting as a leader among the TFC youngsters in training camp. There’s a chance he’s involved in limited capacity for the return leg on April 14, depending on the result of the first match.

As Steve Buffery reported last month, Achara will also not be available for the start of the season as he continues to recover from ACL/LCL surgery, while Tsubasa Endoh is also questionable for that first leg in Mexico after he picked up a knock in training a few weeks back.

Jonathan Osorio, meanwhile, who missed out Canada camp due to a last-minute training injury picked up on Sunday, is expected to be available for the Reds’ April 7 encounter, along with every one else on the TFC roster, barring any injury between now and then.

Look for a combination of Jozy Altidore—who is healthy and motivated according to Manning—and Alejandro Pozuelo to carry the bulk of the workload up front in Akinola and Achara’s absence.

Toronto FC hoping to return to BMO Field ‘early summer’

Toronto Raptors Victory Parade & Rally

I’ll end this TFC Notebook on a positive: Toronto FC isn’t planning to set up shop in Florida very long.

While the Reds will start the season down in Orlando—and have actually travelled there today—according to Manning, there is a greater sense of hope now than there was a few months ago that TFC will be able to return and play their matches North of the border as soon as early this summer.

“We’re excited to go down to Florida, and we’re encouraged that it won’t be as long as a trip as we had to do in Hartford with how things are coming along,” said Manning.

When asked whether or not he’s more hopeful that the Reds will return to Toronto now than he was a few months ago, the TFC President offered some more insight that should have fans excited.

“Yeah, I think what we’re starting to see is that health officials and government officials are trying to find solutions and they’re understanding that the sports world is a big part of the community,” said Manning. “Certainly health is always the top priority, but as the vaccine is getting rolled out, as we’ve learned so much about who this virus really infects, I think there’s an appetite to find solutions for us... The vaccine has been tremendously successful in its rollout so far in the US, and we get tested every other day: we’re on top of things.

“So, we’re hoping that it’ll be in the summer, and early summer, that we can be back here playing games.