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Memory Lane: What Toronto FC can learn from past European gambles?

Let’s take a trip down memory lane...

New York Red Bulls Vs Toronto FC. Major League Soccer. New York. USA. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

TORONTO, Canada—As Toronto FC’s MLS season opener looms closer, the club have yet to fill their third Designated Player spot following Pablo Piatti’s departure at the end of last season.

Piatti is one of various players who joined TFC from a club in one of Europe’s top leagues. The most notable example is undoubtedly Sebastian Giovinco, who left Serie A and UEFA Champions League giants Juventus to join Toronto. As we all know, The Atomic Ant cemented himself as an eternal club legend after winning multiple personal and team honours during his four seasons in Canada.

Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo also signed for TFC following spells in Europe, where they played frequent domestic and continental football for their respective clubs. Both Altidore and Pozuelo are vital figures in Toronto’s current squad and look set to lead the line once again this season.

While those three won over the TFC faithful, other big name signings from Europe simply failed to make the grade at the club. For example, Gregory van der Wiel had a disastrous spell in Toronto despite having played regular Champions League football for both Ajax and PSG. His inflated ego was the root cause of his failure as he struggled to effectively gel with his teammates. The infamous training ground bust-up with former manager Greg Vanney was ultimately the last straw and the Dutchman left the club by mutual consent.

Moreover, big-name signings from Europe are often times a gamble with regards to how well they will actually perform in a vastly different playing environment.

With the European market a potential source for TFC’s last DP spot, let’s take a look at how other DP signings from Europe fared during their time in Toronto.

Julian de Guzman

Vancouver Whitecaps v Toronto FC

As the first Canadian to play in La Liga, De Guzman’s homecoming in 2009 was especially significant since he was TFC’s first ever designated player signing. He was also the first-ever Canadian to become a DP in MLS.

Before making 116 appearances in four years with Deportivo La Corouña, the defensive midfielder spent three seasons at Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga, where he played 84 times in all competitions.

With experience in two of the world’s most famous soccer leagues, De Guzman was expected to light up the MLS and be a commanding force in Toronto’s midfield.

Unfortunately for the local lad, his time in Toronto was quite forgetful, something he spoke candidly about on Waking the Red Weekly earlier this offseason. Inconsistent performances and politics off the field caused De Guzman to fall out with the club, to the point where TFC left him unprotected in the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft.

Having featured prominently in both La Liga and the Bundesliga, the bar was set high for De Guzman to become TFC’s catalyst on the pitch, but he was ultimately unable to justify his $1.86 million salary.

He left TFC in 2012 and joined fellow MLS side FC Dallas for the remainder of the season. After short stints in the 2. Bundesliga and the Greek Super League, De Guzman played two seasons with the Ottawa Fury before calling time on his career in 2016.

Canada’s most capped player of all-time was the first of a few TFC DPs to highlight that there’s more to a signing than a big name.

Torsten Frings

Torsren Frings

The former German international joined TFC in June 2011 from Werder Bremen for approximately $1.5 million. Frings was on a salary of $2.4 million per year and in just over a month after arriving from Germany, the midfielder was made club captain.

He won every domestic honour in Germany, played regular European football, and was a part of the German national team squads that reached the 2002 World Cup final and the 2006 World Cup semi-finals.

With quite the CV, Frings was expected to engineer TFC’s midfield and serve as a role model for the up-and-coming youngsters in the team.

Over the course of his two seasons in Toronto, Frings made 44 appearances, scored twice and won the Canadian Championship in 2012. However, it was evident that the midfielder was well off the pace as he struggled with various fitness and injury problems.

Despite the excitement that came with his arrival in Toronto, the reality of signing a 34-year-old veteran means having to deal with the player potentially becoming progressively more injury-prone.

Frings was forced to miss the end of Toronto’s disappointing 2012 MLS campaign as a result of a troublesome hip problem. He then decided to hang up his boots due to slow progress in his road to recovery.

His time in Toronto may have been short-lived, but Frings was a genuine fan favourite who always wore the captain’s armband with pride.

Danny Koevermans

Vancouver Whitecaps v Toronto FC

After 11 seasons in the Dutch Eredivsie, Koevermans was announced as a TFC player alongside Frings in 2011. His most prolific scoring campaign in the Netherlands came during the 2004/05 season where he bagged 24 goals in 29 games for Sparta Rotterdam. This was six years before he signed for Toronto.

The forward scored just 20 goals in his final three Eredivisie seasons combined, a hint that the aging striker was far from his best. Koevermans, who was 32 when he arrived in Toronto, had hoped a new challenge in North America would rejuvenate his goal-scoring instincts.

His TFC career started brightly, as he scored 8 goals in 10 games after joining midway through the 2011 season. The following year is where it all started to go wrong for the Dutchman.

He failed to score in TFC’s opening six games of the 2012 season and by the end of the campaign, Koevermans only managed 9 goals in 19 games in all competitions. But that was not all.

In what was probably his most memorable act at TFC for all the wrong reasons, the Dutchman claimed the club was “setting a record as the worst team in the world.” This showcased just how uninspiring of a signing he truly was in the eyes of both the club and its fans.

The remainder of his time in Toronto was plagued by a season-ending ACL injury that he sustained halfway through his second campaign. He returned in 2013 and played four more times for TFC before returning home to the Netherlands that summer. Persisting injury problems during his short time with FC Utrecht caused Koevermans to retire in March 2014.

In addition to his sour comments about the club in 2012, there’s no denying that like Frings, Koevermans joined TFC when he was well past his prime. The Dutchman was clear signal for the club to start investing their money in more fruitful DPs that could provide long-term impacts.

Jermain Defoe

Toronto FC

As many remember, it was phone call from Drake himself that persuaded Defoe to jump ship from the Premier League to the MLS.

The Englishman was signed on a $6.18 million salary and after lighting it up in the Premier League for years, the same, if not more, was expected in Toronto. As TFC’s first English signing who had played for England’s senior national team, he was set to be quite the invaluable asset to Toronto’s improving squad.

Defoe was very effective on the goalscoring front, netting 12 goals in his 21 appearances in 2014, but that was to be his only year as a TFC player.

After only one season in Toronto, the striker returned to England after reportedly failing to settle into life in Canada. He ultimately proved to be yet another case of a big name DP signing from Europe that failed to benefit the club in the long run.

The signing of Defoe in “The Bloody Big Deal” seemed more like a PR campaign as opposed to an effort to bring in a marquee player that would propel the club to playoff territory.

He was sold to Sunderland almost a year to the day of his transfer to Toronto, but despite his brief time in the MLS, the signing was significant with regards to the league’s ability to attract well-known talents from abroad.

Giovinco signed shortly after to give the club a DP who will forever be engrained in TFC folklore.

The Englishman claimed his injuries prompted a return to England, but nonetheless, his departure after just one season definitely left a bitter taste in the mouths of the TFC faithful.

All in all, we still feel the most sympathy for those who purchased Defoe jerseys upon his arrival.

Pablo Piatti

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Toronto FC

TFC’s most recent DP was another arrival from Europe that like Defoe, lasted just one year at the club.

The Argentinean midfielder made 294 La Liga appearances in 11 and a half years in Spain, where he played for Almería, Valencia and Espanyol.

Piatti joined the club on a one year deal right before the coronavirus pandemic began, and missed the opening games of the season due a hamstring injury.

He made 19 appearances for the club in 2020 and scored four goals, all of which came in MLS. His release from the club at the end of the campaign meant that Piatti in fact never played a single game (in front of fans) at BMO Field. He did, however, score an unforgettable screamer in a match in Toronto in Early August against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Earlier this month, Piatti returned to Spain and signed for relegation-threatened Elche on a free transfer.

The winger was definitely not the biggest name in TFC’s list of current and former DPs, but his one season in red is further evidence that the club should focus on bringing in a player who has long term potential.

Bill Manning echoed that sentiment on last week’s episode of Waking the Red Weekly:

“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,” said Manning. “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.”

Financial strains caused by the pandemic have affected clubs all across the globe with regards to signing new players, so an intriguing question remains between now and the start of the 2021 MLS season: who will fill TFC’s final designated player spot vacated by Piatti?