TORONTO — There will be no more Sebastian Giovinco, no more Victor Vázquez and no more Tim Bezbatchenko in Toronto this season. The three-man backline that was a hallmark of the club’s success in 2017 will, for the most part, be banished, too.
Instead, head coach Greg Vanney has committed himself and his team to a 4-3-3 system and possession-oriented soccer of the type rolled out by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. It debuted with an embarrassing 4-0 defeat in Panama for the Concacaf Champions League.
Replacing Bezbatchenko in the general manager’s seat is Ali Curtis, who has not gone out of his way to reassure fans with details on how he plans to oversee this sensitive time at TFC.
And filling the considerable boots of Giovinco and Vázquez? Well, no one — yet.
Curtis’ pursuit of Toronto’s top target, Alejandro Pozuelo of Belgian league leaders Genk, appears close to completion but has dragged on and threatened to spill over into a legal battle.
Is Toronto FC headed back to the days of expensive underachievement?
Sweeping changes were once nothing to fear at BMO Field, given it was invariably a lack of success that brought them on, but Reds supporters greeted this winter’s sudden and dramatic overhaul less enthusiastically.
There are reasons to be skeptical.
But underneath the anxiety, Vanney is a skilled coach who cares deeply about the club and Curtis has been here before, navigating the rough waters of Mike Petke’s firing by the New York Red Bulls to take his former team to the next level. TFC needs reinforcements, though, and needs its existing group of players to keep the faith in the meantime.
New-look TFC begins on the road vs. Philadelphia Union
When: Saturday, March 2, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
Broadcast: TV — TSN 1/4; RADIO — TSN 1050
Live stream: TSN Direct (Canada), ESPN+ (U.S.)
The buzz: It was painfully evident that TFC was not ready for that aforementioned trip to Panama in the Concacaf Champions League. Fortunately, the MLS schedule-makers have afforded the Reds plenty of time to regroup. Toronto visits the Philadelphia Union on the first weekend of the new season but does not play its second game until March 17, when the New England Revolution visit Canada for the home opener.
The Union will not be a popular pick for MLS Cup, but with Mexico international Marco Fabian added to a group that claimed 50 points and reached the playoffs last year, they look a good bet for another top-six finish in the Eastern Conference. That should make them a useful yardstick for TFC as Vanney continues to implement a new system.
Other key matches
May 4 at Orlando City: This game may not stand out in isolation, but at this point the Reds need to be at least starting to figure things out. They play seven games in May and if the month as a whole is a write-off, the season will quickly start to look like one too.
July 13 at Montreal Impact: The first 401 Derby of the season will have extra spice thanks to Laurent Ciman’s return to Canada on the red side of the rivalry.
Quotes & notes
Jozy Altidore, who underwent a second surgery of 2018 late in the year to remove bone fragments from his foot, is targeting the home opener for his return and will not feature in Philadelphia. As a result, TFC will continue to patch together an attack missing its three MLS Cup-winning jewels as new signings continue to be worked on.
Greg Vanney: “Seba and Jozy and Victor… these guys have a lot of experience and a great education to understand and read situations (on the field). That’s why they are who they are. Right now, we’re trying to teach another group of guys, some of whom are young, to recognize these same situations in a similar type of way. That, for them, will take a little bit of time.”
Ali Curtis: “I deliberately wanted to take a step back (after leaving the Red Bulls) such that it could kind of give me some perspective on what it was I wanted to do moving forward — what organization would make a whole lot of sense. This opportunity came along and it’s the right fit. It’s the right club. It’s the right people. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and analyzing and watching games and speaking to different clubs and different GMs on their ideas and learning. I’m ready. I’m excited to get back to work.”
Biggest offseason moves
- With his contract expiring and no common ground found on an extension, Giovinco was acrimoniously sold to Saudi club Al-Hilal for a fee of around $2.5 million. The Italian departs a club legend, with three MLS Best XI nods, an MLS MVP award and an MLS Cup headlining his list of accomplishments.
- Giovinco followed Victor Vázquez to the Middle East. The veteran playmaker also made the MLS Best XI in 2017 — his first season with Toronto — and was arguably even better when fit last year, but plagued by injury. TFC chose not to stand in the way of a lucrative move to Qatari side Al-Arabi.
- Technically still on the roster but unlikely to ever play for TFC again is Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel, sent home from the club’s preseason training camp in California after a reported bust-up with Vanney.
- At the time this was published, Toronto was yet to finalize its pursuit of playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo from Belgian club Genk, but is reportedly close to a deal worth more than $11 million. Pozuelo is seen as a tailor-made replacement for Vázquez, but Genk has disputed whether his release clause can be activated outside of a Belgian transfer window, protracting the negotiations.
- Pozuelo would take Giovinco’s designated player spot, meaning the targeted allocation money used on Vázquez — and Van der Wiel, if he can be offloaded — is still available. Toronto plans to spend that on at least one, likely two, more players. Wingers top the wishlist.
- French veterans Laurent Ciman and Quentin Westberg bolster the centerback and goalkeeper positions, respectively. TFC sees unfulfilled potential in winger Nick DeLeon, and a backup to Jozy Altidore in fellow American Terrence Boyd. The Reds also made right back Auro’s loan move permanent.
Forwards — Ayo Akinola, 19; Jozy Altidore, 29; Jon Bakero, 22; Terrence Boyd, 28; Aidan Daniels, 20; Nick DeLeon, 28; Griffin Dorsey, 19; Tsubasa Endoh, 25; Jordan Hamilton, 22; Ryan Telfer, 24
Midfielders — Michael Bradley, 31; Jay Chapman, 25; Marky Delgado, 23; Liam Fraser, 21; Noble Okello, 18; Jonathan Osorio, 26
Defenders — Auro Jr., 23; Laurent Ciman, 33; Julian Dunn, 18; Chris Mavinga, 27; Drew Moor, 35; Ashtone Morgan, 28; Justin Morrow, 31; Gregory van der Wiel, 31; Eriq Zavaleta, 26
Goalkeepers — Alex Bono, 24; Caleb Patterson-Sewell, 31; Quentin Westberg, 32