With the offseason crawling along and March 4 still seeming a long way away, three Waking the Red contributors - Charlie O’Connor Clarke, Tej Sahota and Oliver Platt - caught up to discuss the winter so far. Don’t hesitate to join in the debate in the comments!
Oliver Platt: So, we’re reaching the final stages of probably the quietest preseason in TFC history. Is the lack of hype a positive, and the sign of a stable team that didn’t need to do much anyway, or a cause for concern given the lack of new arrivals?
Charlie O'Connor Clarke: I think for maybe the first time in this club's history, there's a legitimately solid plan. Management has finally put together a team that, while not perfect, can legitimately contend, so it's definitely a good sign that there's no desperation to make a big move - just small holes to fill now because the main core should be set for a while. This management group has already shown they make moves when they feel it's necessary, so clearly they don’t.
Tej Sahota: I think that anything BUT a quiet offseason would have been cause for concern. They were one Stefan Frei hand away from an MLS Cup - I would have been concerned if they had made lots of moves in the offseason.
CC: Any moves to be made will be depth or minor hole filling, nothing for the real core of this team.
OP: I liked what Greg Vanney said in this interview with ESPN about taking it step by step. First they found their DPs, the next winter they reinforced the defence and brought in some MLS veterans, and now it feels like they’re looking for the finishing touches. I don’t know if they actually set out with that exact plan when Bez took over, but it sounds nice on paper.
TS: I think there may be some retroactive revisionist history going on there but sure, I'll take it!
CC: That's interesting. Honestly, I'm not sure the front office or Vanney really thought last year was the big MLS Cup-push year at the beginning, it was more of a wait-and-see kind of approach to find out how the MLS vets and DPs would come together. Now that we've all seen they work well together, why mess with that?
OP: No, I agree totally. They didn’t even really feel like a contender as late as September, it just all came together at once. No one could have imagined Altidore catching fire like that, or Ricketts being unplayable as a sub, or Hagglund and Zavaleta suddenly turning a corner.
CC: Yeah, to be honest the first time I ever really felt like they had a very legitimate shot at the Cup was before the conference finals. It was a nice feeling!
OP: Or, you can imagine some of those things, but not all of them at the same time.
CC: In a single-knockout format, that's usually how championships are won.
OP: While we’re on that interview, Vanney also mentions not seeing Columbus’ freefall coming, and the same thing to a lesser extent happened with Portland. Is there any kryptonite you can see with this team?
TS: Health. When healthy, I think they're a club that redefines what an MLS team is capable of, as far as aesthetics and style go. But all three of the DPs last year showed some level of injury vulnerability, and unfortunately the balance is so delicate that even removing one of the trio causes a cascade effect on the entire roster.
CC: I agree 100 per cent, this team could be a couple serious injuries away from a disaster. When Seba was out down the stretch last season there were some really rough games where the team just could not score at all. And I don't like what the back line looks like without Drew Moor.
OP: Right. If Altidore gets injured, you get a lesser version of him in the team in Ricketts, and no Ricketts on the bench, to give an example of that knock-on effect.
CC: Yep. It's probably more of an issue in the playoffs, but having to start your bench players means you don't get that late-game surge from the supersubs that sort of defined this last playoff run.
OP: Moor is probably the scariest one because it’s not just his ability but his authority and leadership that you lose. Luckily - touch wood - he’s pretty durable and if all goes as hoped, Mavinga might be able to hold it together for a few games if required.
CC: We don't really know how Mavinga will fit in but Moor is one of the best defenders in MLS, and I have way more faith in him going backwards than any of Hagglund, Zavaleta, Beitashour or Morrow.
OP: None of us have seen him in a TFC jersey yet because of the lack of watchable friendlies, but thoughts on the Mavinga deal?
CC: If Vanney sticks with a 3-5-2 he could make a nice little addition to the first team. He's big and physical, can pick some balls out of the air. Seems like a pretty low-risk, high-reward signing.
TS: I was surprised by how many people had actual thoughts on Mavinga when the deal was announced. Hats off to the readers of WTR, I was impressed. Having said that, everything that's been said or written about him is the ultimate projection. There's just not enough of a body of work to make a claim either way. I am completely neutral on the signing until I see him in 5-7 games. I honestly think his signing constitutes as minor a deal as the Ahmed Kantari one from two years ago.
CC: It's definitely hard to say much concrete about him, but just from what I'm hearing - six-feet tall, did decently in Ligue 1, can play both centre-back and left-back - sounds pretty positive to me.
OP: It’s projecting for sure, but I think with the information we have you can make a reasonable prediction of his chances of being successful without watching him for an extended period. There’s no guarantees and he could not settle and be gone by the summer, but there’s enough there on his resume to encourage me.
CC: I'll conclude that I'm cautiously optimistic.
OP: I’m also much more confident when it comes to players I’ve not seen before because I trust the management group. There’s going to be misses, inevitably, but I at least feel certain that they know what they were looking for and have done their homework. If Mo Johnston was the one signing a defender from the Russian league with a reputation for enjoying the finer things in life, I would 100 per cent be a lot more skeptical.
TS: I think they proved that with Armando Cooper. I'm huge on him. And to a lesser extent, when Jozy went down and everyone was wondering what kind of striker we were bringing in, Tosaint Ricketts proved to be the perfect signing.
OP: Exactly - I think nearly every signing they made last season filled a specific need, and a left-sided centre-back doesn’t sound like a shot in the dark.
CC: Cooper is actually a great example of a kind of off-the-board signing that's worked out well, which this Bezbatchenko regime seems to be good at.
OP: What about the attacking midfielder? Do they need someone now, in the summer or not at all?
CC: It's definitely an area for improvement the front office (and everyone else) has identified, but I think you need to wait it out a little bit. Use the first half of the season to fiddle around a bit, maybe try Cooper in the role, then if it's definitely still a problem pull the trigger in the summer, when there will probably be more available anyway.
TS: I've already been on record as saying that for this club to get maximum results, and the most out of Michael Bradley, an AM is necessary. Having said that, I don't think starting the season without one is disastrous. If they choose to wait until summer, that's perfectly fine. I actually like the idea of seeing what you have in Chapman and Delgado for a few months.
OP: It sounded like they had a deal on the table in January that fell through. I get the impression they’re more confident in the European market (Cooper is an exception, but he came on a try-before-you-buy basis first), which probably makes the summer more likely. As a card-carrying member of the Jay Chapman Fan Club, that’s fine by me.
CC: This team can certainly hold its own without an AM until the summer window, when they can assess the market and their need a little more accurately.
OP: Alright, a final question to finish off. Which young/underrated/lower-profile player do you see increasing their role this year and why?
CC: I could see a few more appearances from a guy like Ashtone Morgan, to potentially rotate the back line a little bit. Been with the club for ages now, I think he could get back into the squad a bit.
OP: Damn, Morgan was my answer! If he stays fit I think he could provide a nice little boost, especially given the demands of the 3-5-2 on the wing-backs. You could even swap Morrow to the right if you wanted to be really attacking.
TS: Nick Hagglund. I think if given the same opportunity and playing time as Eriq Zavaleta, he should be able to take the spot alongside Moor. He's been called the most athletic player on the roster, and his leaping ability makes him dangerous in cancelling out aerial balls on defence next to the more ground-based Moor. Hagglund also has the ability to get his head on balls on offensive corner kicks as well. I think as he picks up more of the nuances of defending one on one, he will solidify his position in 2017.
CC: Depending on how Mavinga works out, he could definitely help decrease the workload of people like Moor. Also, on Hagglund: he's definitely, 100 per cent surpassed Zavaleta for me.
OP: It’s tough to find a fan who doesn’t prefer Hagglund to Zavaleta now. Vanney likes Zavaleta though, and I don’t think it’s nepotism or anything like that - I think he’s trying to groom him into something like Moor down the line. Will be interesting to see how that battle plays out now they have Mavinga for competition.