The process of rebuilding Toronto FC for the 2024 MLS season is underway.
In fact, it began in the middle of the year with the flurry of moves after Jason Hernandez was named general manager with Latif Blessing, Cassius Mailula, Prince Owusu, and Luka Gavran joining the side while Mark-Anthony Kaye and Matt Hedges departed.
“Over the summer we were able to make a couple of moves that increased our flexibility going into the off-season,” said TFC General Manager Jason Hernandez during the end-of-season media availability earlier this month. “The reality is we still have quite a few guarantee contracts into ‘24. The expectation is that not everyone will return.”
“The reality of football, especially us here at Toronto FC, is you can't finish bottom of the table and expect there not to be changes,” he continued. “We've seen in the past, the balance between too many changes versus too little, we've suffered from both of those since 2020. And so the challenge will be, from the contracts that remain, which ones of them are a great fit and are going to work for us moving forward and which opportunities we might need to find solutions for. That'll be the work. Inevitably, when you have a season like this there will be change.”
Everything is on the table: trades, transfers, the single buyout afforded to each MLS club per season, and ‘other’.
“There's versions of Player A understands that there's players in front of them in their position and you say, ‘If you're here, you're likely not in the 20 and you're going to spend a lot of time training, or do you want to kick on in your career and we mutually terminate, you go find a club and we'll help facilitate that move,’” laid out Hernandez of that other possibility. “There's departures that don't necessarily require a transfer.”
Hernandez was plain about the main task at hand.
“The reality is we don't have enough players at the level needed to have the success we want in MLS,” he said. “Moving forward we're going to have a clear style, a clear identity tactically, and a blueprint which we're working off of.”
“That's going to require certain things,” Hernandez continued. “12 months ago, we weren't targeting and identifying wing-back profiles. Now that's a necessity. Previously, operating in a 4-3-3, a winger would need to tick certain boxes, where now the width is provided by the wing-back."
"Fundamentally, we're going to be looking for different players who do different things.”
“We do have a lot of guaranteed contracts, so part of the incoming will be the outgoing. The challenge with that is we've seen what a gut renovation of a roster can look like and how you need to manage that to get off to a strong start,” he noted. “All of it will be a delicate balance and a fine line we're walking as we're trying to improve the roster in a way that makes sense for us next season.”
Toronto currently have 21 players under contract for next season.
In doing his player assessments upon coming into the fold, TFC Head Coach John Herdman saw the potential for some internal growth to fill gaps.
“It's difficult to judge this group of men given the context,” he began. “I've seen players shift in a 20-day period. There's been an absolute shift in some individuals: players that were low on confidence are feeling more like themselves.”
“And we're evolving, the technical blueprint is evolving,” Herdman continued. “Some players in positions they've not been asked to play before and we're seeing, maybe a player who was a centre-back in a back-four and playing in a two centre-back system, in three centre-back system they look different, very different. Some of the principles we've asked, which is a lower intensity build-up play, gives more think-time to players that may have had to play a higher intensity game, so you see things differently there.”
“The wing-backs have been really interesting,” he highlighted. “I’ve been really impressed with Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, really impressed with how he's handled this period of time and in [that] profile. He's stayed behind every training with Alex Dodgshon, the positional coach [Scouting and Analytics Coach], working on that wing-back role.”
“He'd be a prime example of a [position where we were] playing under capacity,” Herdman suggested. “You would say that wing-back position would be a big area we'd have to invest, but we’re seeing a shift.”
And then there are all the external tools at the club’s disposal dotting the off-season calendar.
“MLS is unique in that it affords us these mechanisms to go out and improve your team,” outlined Hernandez. “The Re-Entry Draft is a great tool to get assets either at their market value or maybe even negotiated below. Free agency as well is another opportunity. Free agents, because of the years served required, you’re typically getting someone that is a known quantity. You know they can compete in this league, you know what they can deliver.”
“The plan is to continue to utilize that lever,” he continued, addressing the idea that TFC may not be the attractive destination it once was. “I do think the outward perception of the club and where it is in this moment may not align to what's happening inside these walls today and how positive we feel about the project in front of us and the people that are involved. Part of it will be yet an aggressive push to show folks what we believe this club will be and that they should be part of it.”
The MLS trade window opens on December 11, the End-of-Year Waivers process begins the next day, free agency opens on December 13, Stage 1 of the Re-Entry process follows on December 14 (Stage 2 is set for December 21), and the 2024 MLS SuperDraft will be held on December 19.
December will be a busy month, but there is a need to be patient as well.
“We have enough budget space, assets, and resources to make moves today if we wanted to,” confirmed Hernandez. “A bit of MLS and the salary cap is it's a moving target. We could go out and identify a player who costs $500,000, but then a week from now we've made one or two moves and you actually could have spent $900,000 there if you just waited.”
“It's a delicate dance we're going to do,” he continued. “We are operating from a more advantageous financial position on the salary cap than we have the last couple of seasons, so that's certainly a positive start. We will have the constraints, same as every club, unless we make a big sale, from a salary cap perspective.”
“It certainly is going to be a fun challenge,” he anticipated. “We're looking to improve the team and use all levers. We all understand the MLS landscape."
"We were the beneficiary of free agency last year, getting some good players to join us, we have the Re-Entry Draft, and we have the number one pick in the draft, all of these things will be utilized to the maximum to give us the best shot at competing next year.”
The lack of goal-scoring punch in 2023 was one need to be addressed.
“From the striker position we didn't get a whole lot of production,” levelled Hernandez. “If you look around the league and you see some of the teams that are continuing to play meaningful games right now, the production they get from their nine is clear. That's a space on the field where we're going to need production.”
Whether that is as a designated player or not depends on other factors.
In 2023, Jonathan Osorio was technically speaking TFC’s third DP. It was a budgetary manoeuvre that freed up additional resources to be channelled elsewhere on the roster. Just another of the intricacies of roster building in MLS, this lever has these consequences, that label creates those freedoms or restrictions.
“We're taking a serious inventory to utilize all potential scenarios,” outlined the general manager. “There's a world in which we believe we can move a lot of players off of our books, but we don't, and so which levers and abilities can we utilize to make the most out of the space that remains?”
“There's a world in which we can get a lot of work done in clearing up our cap and having a ton of flexibility,” Hernandez compared. “The question will become, ‘Are we better served to now get five players at $750,000 or will it be better to get two players and bring Oso off the third DP slot and use that on someone else?”
There are lots of moving pieces as the off-season permutations begin to swirl.
That said, there are some touchstones that will guide the front office as they proceed.
Bill Manning recalled the past and key pieces that were brought in ahead of Toronto FC’s success.
“They were experienced pros. They knew what it took to be in battle and win soccer games,” said the TFC President. “When you look at the teams that are doing well in our league, you watch LAFC the other night against Vancouver and you look at their back-line, they weren't going to lose that game. Those guys were not going to give in.”
“That's what a Drew Moor, what a Steven Beitashour added to our club back in the day. One of the things Jason, John, and myself talk about is how do we acquire some more men that come into this team with a grittiness and with a mentality of knowing what it takes to win,” continued Manning. “A year ago that's what we wanted, the way the season turned out we just didn't have enough of that grittiness.”
“Drew, greatest guy off the field, but on the field you don't want to play against him. Clint [Irwin] was one of the guys that set goals for the team back then. Guys that had a real impact,” he closed. “Those types are profiles that we can use.”
Another is the clarity provided by Herdman and his staff.
“That fundamentally has been the biggest shift since the summer,” said Hernandez. “To be quite honest, it was very much a bit of damage control as far as the roster goes. The ability to move off of some unfriendly contracts, the ability to gain some space and some resources in return, but as far as acquisitions and understanding what is the perfect fit for how we're going to play, it didn't exist.”
“And so now to have a clearer understanding of what we're looking to do, how we're looking to do it, to have profiles and characteristics for each position that aren't guesswork. That makes my job a lot easier – not only my job, but [TFC Technical Director] Sean Rubio’s job – to go out and identify the players that are going to be the right fit for us, that provides a lot of clarity.”
It’s going to be a busy few months.
Preseason begins in January, Herdman hinted that he and his group will put together something a little different to what the group has experienced previously, possibilities of time in Miami and then a spell out on the west coast. Soon enough the 2024 season will begin and there will be matches at BMO Field once more.
The proof will be in the pudding.
“The reality is we don't have a game to play next week,” allowed Hernandez. “Historically, our club has shown big ambition, our club has shown the ability to resource [that] ambition, and, having the right pieces in place as part of the structure to guide us to what comes next, we're on the right track.”