Toronto FC made a pair of moves last week as the MLS Primary Transfer Window snapped shut, bringing in CJ Sapong from Nashville SC with Lukas MacNaughton going the other way and Aimé Mabika arriving from Inter Miami CF.
Transfer deadline day has long been a fixture in the world of professional sports; its stature in MLS has grown with every passing year.
Still, players can be caught off-guard by any last-minute machinations.
“I knew deadline day was approaching, but was just living life,” said Sapong on Friday. “Had a birthday party with a former teammate in Nashville, families, kids, teammates hanging out. The next day train as if it was another training day, said my goodbyes, and within an hour I had a call.”
“I was talking to the wife, got the call, and she knew from the tone and energetic shift that something was happening,” he continued. “From then on quite the whirlwind for sure, but opportunities to build character. When I look at my family, being able to add this chapter to our story is a beautiful thing.”
The forward had 48 hours to re-shift his focus from Nashville to Toronto.
“In this league, when teams are making moves, you're making that move because you need the impact, you want to start getting continuity with those guys,” outlined Sapong. “Credit to the staff, they allowed me an extra day just to breathe, get some logistics done. Got here, got over the border pretty smoothly, and I'm here now.”
No stranger to intraleague moves, Toronto is his fifth MLS club, Sapong admitted, “It definitely doesn't get any easier.”
“You learn over time the nuances, the shift, but this is the first time I'm doing it having a family and understanding the logistics for them and their lives being changed – that's the new, added dynamic,” he continued. “As a player, this is one of the better changes of scenery for me, an opportunity to come to a decorated club and to be in a position to have success and impact right away.”
For Mabika it was his first such transfer.
“There's feelings of sadness if I'm being quite honest because of the relationships that I've been able to build at Miami over the last few years,” explained the 24-year-old defender on Thursday. “With the coaching staff and players, all the way to the kitchen staff, equipment, security, all of those people, so it's that little bit of sadness of leaving those people behind. Miami is the first professional team and only team that I have played for.”
Everybody has had those little moments of uncertainty, forks in the road determining where will life go next, but few are as dramatic as getting traded.
“The little half-second pause between being told that you're getting traded and finding out the city that you're going to, just holding your breath because it could be a lot of different cities,” Mabika highlighted. “On the other side it's a relief, having a little bit of clarity and knowing what's going on. Happy to be here; my family is super excited for me to be here as well.”
Both come to TFC and Toronto eagerly.
“Always a highly-regarded franchise,” said Sapong. “I've been in the league for 13 years now, I've seen them win championships – I actually was here 2017 when they won, ‘we won’ now, so I'm trying to add to the trophy case I get to walk by here before training.”
“To be playing on that field and have it be my home field is a good feeling,” he added. “I just want to work for the team and score goals.”
That didn’t take long: Sapong scored his first goal for Toronto on Saturday against NYCFC.
“The history speaks for itself: the titles, the big players that have played here, and the stature in MLS – TFC is the only MLS club to win the treble – stuff like that, from afar, is super impressive,” said Mabika. “And then obviously I played here last season, BMO is probably my favourite stadium. It just has a special feeling to it. There's not many MLS stadiums downtown as well, that's an interesting aspect, so super excited now to be playing as a home player rather than an away player.”
And one of the benefits of coming in April is they arrive just as the seasons begin to shift.
“Beautiful city. I've always loved Toronto, always loved coming here for away games. I seem to have gotten here a little bit after the super frigid temperatures, so I'm very happy about that,” smiled Sapong. “Just looking forward to making it a home and learning more about the city and the country. I've never lived in Canada, so I got another adventure and what better city to do that than in Toronto.”
“Not too bad,” added Mabika. “Everyone was saying how cold it was. It doesn't seem too cold.”
“I don't have any big jackets right now because I just came from Miami and all my clothes are shorts and T-shirts,” he continued. “I heard it's about to get a little bit warmer now.”
“I had never been other than for soccer, but it's such a big city, I had friends at the University of Kentucky from Toronto and Canada, a lot of music and all that kind of stuff. You see it all the time and I always hear it's an amazing city,” said Mabika. “Even though I've been here just for two days at a time I always say, ‘Wow, what an unbelievable city.’ Got in not too long ago, excited to come to explore and see what the city is all about.”
In acquiring each, Toronto has sought to fill some needs.
Mabika, in his third season, is still defining himself as a player.
“He played a good number of games for Miami last year, including the game here. Physically he’s a big presence, he’s got an ability when the team steps up to still cover space behind,” said Bob Bradley last Wednesday. “I know some people that worked with him and we’re hoping that some of the things with the ball and some of his defensive footwork are things that we can help him with because physically, as a young defender, he’s got really good starting points.”
At 6’6” Mabika instantly becomes the tallest player on the pitch for TFC.
“I can't hide my size and it comes with a lot of advantages,” he said. “Along with that, speaking with Bob a couple of days ago, my ability on the ball as well. Deceptively good on the ball and having the ability to step out with the ball and make decisions. And then as big as I am, I move pretty well as well.”
His introductory press conference included far too many interesting passages to recount them all here, including taking the LSAT, but as a taste here’s one response: “I always have to take a quick pause when people say ‘Where are you from?’”
“My whole family is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, my parents moved to Zambia – I was born there – and then we moved to the United States when I was eight years old and lived in Kentucky my whole life,” recounted Mabika. “Went to the University of Kentucky and got drafted by Miami.”
Sapong, with 89 goals in 351 regular season appearances, is a known force in MLS.
“CJ is a relentless #9,” described Sean Johnson, one-time teammate with Sapong for the US National Team against Panama in 2012. “In Nashville, he worked tirelessly for that team, got rewarded with his goals, doing what he can to help the team in any moment. That speaks volumes to who he is as a person and as a player as well.”
“Big, strong, dominant, confident #9, who also adds an element to the group in terms of his personality, his leadership,” he added. “Overall, he's a great guy, so I'm excited to team up with him again.”
He showed all of that in his debut against NYCFC, lining up between Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi for the first time, even if it was Richie Laryea who he ultimately linked up with to score the game-winner.
“They're always threats, guys that you know at any moment can make something happen,” said Sapong of his new teammates. “It's motivation and inspiration to want to be in positions to allow their quality to show. It's going to help me out and it's going to help the team out.”
“It's a good position for me to be in: you know, at any moment, you’ve just got to be close to the goal, be hungry and you can get something out of it. That's my bread and butter,” he closed. “That's what I've done in this league, so I'm very excited for that opportunity.”