As always the off-season heralds a time of change for a soccer club.
This time for Toronto FC there will likely be more than most in recent memory.
“You can define change a lot of different ways,” began TFC General Manager Ali Curtis. “There's change in style of play, there's change in philosophy, change in personnel, all these different types of things.”
“We'll have some consistency as it pertains to our roster, but I do think it's important that we add some new players to the team,” he continued. “I'd like to do that in collaboration with a new head coach. In that sense, there's a lot of change that will occur when you do hire a new head coach. That was my experience when I was at Red Bull [New York], when I hired Jesse [Marsch]. There will be change for sure, but there will also be a lot of consistency as well.”
New faces, new blood are imperative to a team looking to advance from 2020.
Toronto announced their initial roster moves on Monday. Having exercised several contract options, 28 players are set to return for the upcoming season.
Three players – Justin Morrow, Laurent Ciman, and Eriq Zavaleta – are out of contract, Tony Gallacher’s loan from Liverpool FC will expire at the end of the year, and Pablo Piatti’s option was not picked up.
Though that is close to the maximum roster allocations an MLS team has, Curtis sees plenty of room for movement: “We still have an opportunity to loan players out, to bring players in. There's still flexibility in that regard.”
Without Greg Vanney at the helm, a new era for TFC is about to kickoff.
“I'm excited about next year. Every off-season we're excited about the next year. It's an opportunity to win. It's an opportunity to get a trophy,” anticipated Curtis. “We'll have to deal with all the different moving parts and we'll figure that out. Change, it's such a relative term, but there will be change. We have to bring in a new coach. We've got to find a way to get better, such that we can win these trophies.”
The headline opportunity in the roster is the open designated player spot that was held by Piatti.
“The initial focus is an attacking player,” replied Curtis. “It's to find an attacking player, help us score goals, all these types of things. With that being said, you always have to have an open mind. Things change, transactions happen, and so we're open minded with everything, but what I would say is the game plan is to get an attacking player that could fill that spot.”
Added TFC President Bill Manning: “Our only consistent goalscorer this year was Ayo [Akinola] and so that's an area we're looking to upgrade.”
The club are hopefully of having Piatti back.
“Pablo was an important addition this year. He fit in very well with the team, his goals against average was the lowest on the team, we won a lot more games when he played, lots of positives,” said Manning. “Ali has had very good discussions with his agents, so if we're in a situation where we can have a new designated player and Pablo on the team together, we're going to be better.”
Curtis described those conversations as ‘really good.’
“Pablo is a fantastic human being as well, such a good guy, well liked with amongst his teammates. He had a couple injuries this year, but for the most part when you look at his data, logged in so many miles on the field during games in different moments,” he elaborated. “Pablo was a great addition in that respect, we're just looking for something slightly different. But if we can bring back Pablo then fantastic. Really our cap and those challenges will give us ideas in terms of if that can be achieved.”
Something different is the key phrase.
“It was more about the team, what the team needs. What opportunities we were creating and which ones we weren't. It was less about Pablo and what he could provide and more about what is the team need,” Curtis explained. “That'll be the focus moving forward.”
“We need someone that can come in help us score goals at a very high clip, that can create relationships with our players on the field and off the field, that can contribute in a lot of different ways, that has a great character and personality off the field, which is important for a Toronto FC player,” he continued. “Whether or not we exercised Pablo’s option was more about opening up the designated player slot than anything.”
The lessons of 2020 are being incorporated into the future direction.
“The season gives you information about the team and about what the needs of the team are. We were looking to go deep, make an MLS Cup run, and win a trophy and that didn't happen,” said Curtis. “Over the course of the season it became more clear about what we needed in that slot and so that's what we're going to try to achieve in the off-season.”
Toronto are hopeful that Morrow, one of the longest serving members of the club, will be back as well.
“We've had conversations with Justin and his representation over the last months and we'd like for Justin to come back, but we also recognize that he's earned the right to be a free agent,” said Curtis. “He showed true leadership off the field and really has done fantastic things for our league as well, as Black Players for Change, but he's got a lot of juice in him as a soccer player.”
“We would like to find a way to bring him back and we'll have those conversations. It's not in our complete control, but we'll talk and go from there,” he added.
Having joined the club in December 2013, Morrow means a lot to the club and the fans.
This Curtis knows too.
“[Before this year] Justin was a player on this team,” said Curtis warmly. “And this year he's become a friend.”
TFC will be looking to hit the ground running when the 2021 season begins. There will be important matches to be played right off the bat.
First there is the final of the 2020 Canadian Championship, which will grant the winner a spot in the Concacaf Champions League.
Manning has been keeping in close communication with the Canadian Soccer Association and CSA General Secretary, Peter Montopoli in particular, as those developments continue.
“It will be played sometime during the first quarter in 2021,” said Manning. “There is no timetable right now.”
An excellent way for a new coach to be introduced to the larger TFC family.
“Greg actually mentioned to me when I had a conversation with him [Monday] morning that he sees this as a really good opportunity for a new coach coming in to win a trophy right away and then have an opportunity to compete in CONCACAF,” shared the TFC President. “It'll be played sometime in the first quarter, I imagine that would be towards February/March, before CCL.”
Though the first order of business is the coaching search, the rest of the off-season business must be accomplished concurrently.
“In an ideal world, you'd like to have your head coach, his or her perspective, involved as you make some of these big decisions on players,” admitted Curtis. “With that being said, this is 2020, it's not ideal and nothing's normal. We’ve got to move on and every move has got to move forward.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to do things on a dual track and so we'll continue to have player conversations in the same vein that we'll have coach conversations. It's not ideal, but that's the universe that we're going to live in,” he continued. “Bill's been doing this a long time, I've been doing this a long time. We have the necessary experience and the thought process. We'll work off each other. It won't be easy, but that's what we've got to do, that's what the demands are, and we'll do the best job we can.”