After poor season, Toronto FC looks to strengthen squad and return to winning ways
Toronto FC teammates joke around during practice ahead of the MLS Cup finals against the Seattle Sounders in Toronto on Friday, December 8, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, October 30, 2018 3:24PM EDT
TORONTO -- Calling the MLS season unacceptable, Toronto FC plans to upgrade its defence, add width and bring in another option up front.
One day after five top players met the media, team president Bill Manning, GM Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Greg Vanney faced the music Tuesday in the wake of a hugely disappointing MLS season that saw the defending champions tumble from first overall at 20-5-9 with a league-record 69 points in 2017 to 19th with a record of 10-18-6 and just 36 points.
How bad was Toronto's MLS regular season? Bezbatchenko, perhaps just reaching for the wrong metaphor, said an "autopsy" was needed on the year.
"But this team isn't done and this roster isn't done," said Bezbatchenko, saying a "massive overhaul" in personnel isn't needed.
Toronto defended its Canadian Championship and came within a kick of winning the CONCACAF Champions League. But the team never recovered from the April 25 penalty shootout loss to Chivas Guadalajara in the final.
"Champions League was the focus," said Manning. "I think there was a feeling with this group that we could turn it on and (the) MLS regular season wouldn't be an issue."
Instead "the wheels fell off the bus" with the injury-plagued team lacking a singular focus.
"It was one of those years that we couldn't get moving forward on anything on any consistent level," said Vanney. "Even just the consistency sometimes of being able to put the same group on the field, (to) build some consistency. It's frustrating and the frustration, I think, became distracting at time for guys."
Strengthening a defence that gave up a franchise-worst 64 goals in league play while posting a club-low three shutouts appears Job 1.
"Mistakes were made -- colossal mistakes -- mistakes that cost you goals," said Bezbatchenko.
Toronto has already invested heavily in its defence with players like Gregory van der Wiel (US$835,000), Chris Mavinga ($563,333), Drew Moor ($350,000), Justin Morrow ($300,000) Auro ($272,504), Eriq Zavaleta ($263,558) and Nick Hagglund ($134,629) and goalkeepers Clint Irwin ($221,312) and Alex Bono ($164,000).
Moor, the 34-year-old quarterback of the defence, and Mavinga, an athletic 27-year-old Frenchman whom Vanney calls the team's eraser, played just eight and 12 league games, respectively.
The two only played together twice -- for a total of 152 minutes against Mexico's Tigres -- over 47 games this season. When at least one of them was on the pitch (27 games), TFC conceded 1.37 goals a game. When both were missing (20 games), the team gave up 2.15 goals a game.
"We were unsuccessful in providing the cover for those two injuries," Manning said.
Moving captain Michael Bradley back into the defence hurt the midfield, the president conceded.
Toronto gave up 80 goals in all competitions. The 47 games included 34 in MLS, eight in the CONCACAF Champions League, four in the Canadian Championship and the one-off Campeones Cup.
Manning said the shopping list includes a commanding centre back and "another attacking option."
Vanney, citing loanee Lucas Jansson, also said today's game requires "wide players who can hurt the opposition."
The status of Altidore, Bradley and fellow designated player Sebastian Giovinco remains a question-mark after next season, the last of their current contracts. The three earned a combined $18.6 million this year.
Manning said the team has yet to sit down with the three to discuss next year and beyond. Those meetings are in the works, however.
It's clear decisions have to be made. Come the start of next season, Altidore will be 29, Bradley 31 and Giovinco 32.
Manning said he expects "some of these guys to be here longer term."
"But at some point. like anything, you will acquire new designated players," he added.
The team has targeted allocation money which can be used to convert a designated player into a non-DP. It can also be used to sign a new player or re-sign existing players whose salary and acquisition costs are more than the maximum salary budget charge ($504,375 in 2018) but less than $1.5 million.
Toronto has $4 million in TAM next season, some of which has already been earmarked for use.
Money has never been an issue with Toronto, thanks to the deep coffers of owner MLSE. TFC's total payroll of $26.6 million topped the league by a large margin.
"That's what disappointing about this season -- with the investment this club has made, to see ourselves sitting out of the playoffs is just unacceptable," said Manning, whose hope is that the disappointment of the 2018 season will be seen down the line as "a blip."
Manning and Bezbatchenko said the congested season schedule showed them that the team needs to rotate its roster better during multiple competitions -- instead of using 13 or 14 players, 16 to 18 players need to be capable of stepping up, which requires more depth and experience.
On Monday, Giovinco also cited the need for more experience in the squad.
Toronto had a 29-man roster this season with the salary cap of $4,035,000 spread over 18 senior players. The club has 13 players under guaranteed contracts, 11 going into options, one coming out of contract (Jordan Hamilton), one eligible for free agency (Jason Hernandez) and two loan options. Spain's Ager Aketxe, who was returned on loan to his Spanish team, is the 29th player.
The loanees are Argentina's Jansson and Brazilian wingback Auro. Bezbatchenko said both want to be back, with a decision expected by the end of November.
Changes will come in the pre-season in California in late January, with everyone expected to hit the ground running with the Champions League schedule looming.
The much-maligned BMO Field playing surface has already been ripped up. A new hybrid surface is in the works, with the new grass to be reinforced with artificial fibres to be stitched in in April.