In part one of this article series, I covered why Mark-Anthony Kaye (MAK) is an ideal tactical fit in Bob Bradley’s preferred system and the importance of having experience and quality in midfield. In part two, I will highlight why this move is an important step towards TFC fully realizing its aspirations of becoming a big club. As a reminder, these articles are not intended to debate who won the trade between TFC and the Colorado Rapids.
The merits of the business side of the MAK trade can certainly be debated. TFC has not been effective in the use of their financial resources for transfers. The club often expends more resources (money, allocation money, draft picks etc.) to fix its previous mistakes. The past moves for Jermaine Defoe, Gilberto, Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, Yeferson Soteldo and now Carlos Salcedo are all examples of this (there are many more examples).
In an ideal world, TFC executes a strategic and sustainable long-term plan that better maximizes its financial resources. However, the reality is that soccer is a sport where a team with significant financial spending power can easily and quickly rebuild a team. If funds are not limited and ownership is willing to continually invest in the club, there is less pressure to be fiscally responsible and to maximize every decision made. TFC greatly benefits from the financial spending power of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), as well as from the attractive market the city has for professional soccer players.
Regardless of how one may feel about the business side of TFC’s moves, the MAK trade is one that fits with the ethos of a “big” club. Going all in and building a squad that maximizes the superstar talent of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi for the next few years is exactly what the club should be doing.
Maximizing TFC’s window of contention for an MLS Cup with Insigne and Bernardeschi
TFC announced their intent when they signed Insigne and Bernardeschi to five and a half year deals. The MLS has rarely seen players this talented join the league, especially ones still relatively in their prime aged years (31 for Insigne and 28 for Bernardeschi). Many expected TFC to make more immediate moves prior to the start of the 2022 MLS season to provide clarity on the direction the club was taking. Six months later and that vision is coming to fruition.
There are many avenues to success in modern soccer when building teams. Signing expensive, marquee names alone is typically not enough. In the MLS this is even more true, as those signings need to be surrounded by as many talented players as possible within the rules of the salary cap. This often comes from a blend of homegrown players, experienced MLS players with a track record of success and talented players beyond MLS that are willing to play for below the Designated Player salary.
With MAK, TFC has maximized its roster construction by adding a homegrown player who has experience and a track record of success in the league, as well as a salary that is below the threshold of a Designated Player. While Ralph Priso could eventually turn out to be as good or better than MAK in the future, there’s no guarantee. TFC cannot afford to waste Insigne’s and Bernardeschi’s next five and a half years to see if that will happen. When trading for a player like MAK who is ready to contribute immediately and is a known quality to the league and to Bob Bradley, you are almost always going to surrender something that you are reluctant to part with.
In all likelihood, Insigne and Bernardeschi understand that title contention was unlikely during their first seasons with the club (one in which they are joining more than halfway through). The MAK trade, along with the signings of players like Domenico Criscito, and Richie Laryea shows that TFC recognizes that their success is contingent on how well they surround their superstar players with other talented players.
Contingency planning for Jonathan Osorio
Osorio’s contract with TFC expires in December 2022. If he does not re-sign with the Reds, he will become a free agent. In the past, he has mentioned that this could be his last chance to fulfill his dream of playing soccer in Europe.
The MLS off-season occurs when almost all soccer leagues around the world are midway through their seasons. Most clubs beyond the MLS are typically not willing to sell players during that time. TFC currently lacks depth at the CM position beyond Osorio, MAK and Bradley. If Osorio leaves TFC after this season, the acquisition of MAK means that TFC would only need to focus on adding one more starting caliber CM and depth CM options during a period where ideal talent acquisition can be harder.
Furthermore, Osorio is TFC’s vice captain who came through the academy. He is proof that TFC academy players can break through to the first team and play a meaningful role for the club. Younger academy players can also lean on Osorio for advice. If Osorio were to leave, MAK could capably fill the leadership and academy mentorship role despite experiencing a different journey to TFC’s first team.
Continuity is not only important on the field for playing chemistry, but also off the field for building team camaraderie and culture.
Big clubs often lose academy players, but are willing to buy them back later
Seeing an academy player break through into the first team and become a club icon is a point of pride for most soccer fans. These players have often spent most of their lives in the club’s city and have a closer connection to the club and its fans. They often wear their heart on their sleeve and are willing to do anything it takes to help the team win.
However, according to research by the Football Association in 2015, only 1 in 200 youth academy players signed by a professional club under the age of 9 make it to the first team. As a result, many academy players are forced to leave their clubs to try and find success as professional soccer players.
Many of the biggest clubs in the world let talented academy players get away. Some talented academy players become frustrated with the lack of opportunity to prove themselves with the first team. Others are deemed not good enough and move to other clubs where something suddenly starts to click for them.
As frustrating as it is to see this happen, a good club can find ways to bring back those talented academy players that got away. These players still often hold a special place in their hearts for their first clubs that signed them to a contract. It’s not too uncommon to see former players return to the club they started their professional journeys at.
It's official: MAK is back @MarkThEwizz | #TFCLive— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) July 11, 2022
Having another club develop your former academy players is not necessarily a bad thing. It can take a young player out of their comfort zone and help them mature both on and off the field. They may also get more opportunity to play first team minutes at a new club. While you may have to pay a cost to bring them back, that player may not have been able to develop at the same rate as they did within your own academy.
Why is all this important for TFC? Well, if TFC is hoping to be the big club they aspire to be, then they should not be afraid of seeing talented academy players leave and find success elsewhere. TFC’s competitive advantage is in its financial spending power and ability to attract big, marquee players. If a talented academy player has become successful at another club, TFC should use its competitive advantage to try and bring that player back once that happens.
These players are almost always willing to return to the club that they began their soccer journeys with. There is a special connection they have with the club. For someone like MAK, who initially never got the opportunity to play for TFC’s first team, there is a little something extra to prove.
Beyond just marquee signings, the trade for a former academy product like MAK shows that TFC is starting to become the big club they always envisioned they would be. Bringing back former academy players that have a proven track record of success to complement those marquee signings is a model that will hopefully continue in future years.