The brightest stars burn out the fastest. That is about the most dramatic way to describe Toronto FC’s history with big signings. Given the way things have gone around the club the last few weeks, dramatic just seems like the right tone.
The latest bit of theatre comes courtesy of ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, who reported Thursday night that Jozy Altidore will be training on his own, away from the rest of the team, after a disagreement with head coach Chris Armas. Toronto FC has yet to comment publicly, other than to say that the matter will be handled internally.
Earlier this year, Carlisle reported that Altidore had a falling out with Toronto FC GM Ali Curtis, with rumours suggesting that the striker could be moved. Multiple reports, including from The Athletic, say that the club has been open to moving Altidore since the start of the season.
It is the latest chapter in Toronto FC’s complicated history with star players. If this is how it all ends, it would be a heartbreaking way for Altidore, the man who delivered some of the biggest moments in club history, to leave. Unfortunately, in some ways, it would also be par for the Toronto FC course.
The first true star in the club’s history was Canadian icon, Dwayne De Rosario. The local boy joined the team in 2009 and helped them hoist their first-ever trophy later that season. He did so, however, under the impression that he would eventually be given a designated player contract.
Evidently, that never materialized, and he shared plenty of frustrations with this fact in his new book, “DeRo: My Life”. This culminated in the now-infamous “cheque signing” celebration that was the precursor to his exit from the club in 2011 when management still didn’t make his contract situation work.
De Rosario would eventually return to Toronto FC, in 2014, just in time for the “bloody big deal” and the next superstar fallout. English international Jermain Defoe joined the team to much fanfare that year, but after an incredible start to the season, both team and player trailed off in a big way.
Defoe’s failure to make the English national team for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, attributed partially to the fact that he was playing in Major League Soccer, was ultimately the beginning of the end. The then-most expensive transfer in club history would depart after just one season.
It was Defoe who ultimately led to Altidore joining the team in the first place, by way of a rare “trade” with English side Sunderland in 2015. But it was another player that truly indicated TFC management had learned from their mistakes, as Sebastian Giovinco became the club’s first player to win league MVP and led the team to their first playoff appearance.
Add an MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield, and an incredible Concacaf Champions League run, and Seba was central to the golden era of Toronto FC. But even he didn’t have a fairy tale ending. In January of 2019, another contract dispute resulted in a sudden exit for the Atomic Ant to Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal. In a scathing Instagram post, Seba said, among other things, that “it seems management prefers to focus on things other than the pure desire to win”.
That offseason of chaos is likely a big reason why Altidore was signed to his latest deal. This isn’t to say that he didn’t earn the contract in the years prior to 2019, but the fact that Tim Bezbatchenko, Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez had all left the team... Toronto had to do something to indicate stability. That offseason from hell even saw its own coach-player fight, with Greg van der Wiel and Greg Vanney getting into it in preseason leading to the former’s exit.
Early returns were actually very good on Altidore’s new deal. He connected with incoming designated player Alejandro Pozuelo almost immediately and had 11 goals and 7 assists in 22 matches in 2019. However, an injury would sideline him for the latter part of the regular season and almost all of the playoffs — returning only for a brief cameo and goal in the 2019 MLS Cup final.
In the following two years, however, Altidore has only played 17 times, scoring just three goals. The writing has perhaps been on the wall for a while now in terms of his departure, but even as the injuries and absences piled up, it still feels like this clearly could have been handled better on all sides.
It goes without saying that, especially in MLS with all its many roster mechanisms, managing a soccer roster is a very complicated task. Player departures are always going to be unavoidable, their egos and personal ambitions always a hurdle. But the circumstances under which club legends leave does matter. Fans have grown attached to these players and having them at odds with the club on their way out sows distrust.
It feels like any time some sort of incident happens around the Toronto FC training ground now, it is informed by the club’s rocky past, which can blow these things out of proportion. There’s no doubt that management, in general, has become significantly better at dealing with these incidents, but it still feels like things can spiral quickly with this club.
It is not all negative either. Michael Bradley in particular has been the perfect picture of a star signing that has gone completely right. His loyalty to the team, and willingness to take a massive pay cut to help the team improve, should not go unmentioned. Altidore has been similarly loyal, but the aforementioned injuries have made his legacy much more complicated.
No matter what happens in the coming weeks, time heals almost all wounds. De Rosario is back with the club as an ambassador, Giovinco attended a game with Bill Manning after his departure and is largely remembered for the good rather than the bad.
Altidore will always be the man who, in the words of Luke Wileman, “set BMO Field alight on Toronto’s biggest night”. But, like the aforementioned players, the epilogue of his Toronto FC doesn’t look like it will be so rosy and that is unfortunate.