TORONTO – The build into the 2019 season began a little early for Toronto FC.
Having already made two big additions to the side with Laurent Ciman and Nick DeLeon in December, Ali Curtis was announced as the new General Manager with the departure of Tim Bezbatchenko to Columbus Crew SC last week.
With much already done, the emphasis at the BMO Training Ground was one of continuity heading into the new campaign.
“We spent about three hours together, Greg [Vanney, myself,] and Ali,” explained TFC President Bill Manning. “We went player by player, [Greg] gave a good synopsis of each of the guys on our roster. We stand at 25 guys right now. We have a few guys who we're targeting to fill up the rest. I don't think there is a whole lot to be done from that standpoint; [Curtis] will be a big part of that decision making process.”
The 2019 MLS SuperDraft, where TFC has the sixth-overall pick, as well as two in the later rounds, is set for Friday in Chicago and next week the players report for preseason.
“We have a great team,” said Vanney of his outlook for the season. “If we can stay healthy and everybody comes back in with the right mindset – get better everyday and work hard together – we can achieve big things again this year. Everybody is hungry to put last year's regular season behind us and attack this season with a new vigour.”
At the end-of-season press conferences last October, two key areas were highlighted for strengthening: defence and width.
In Ciman and DeLeon, as well as the return of Auro Jr., TFC have addressed those concerns. Moves that will also provide more clarity to others on the roster.
“Laurent's ability to pass out of the back, open the field up, and spray the ball from one side to the opposite is going to open up the middle of the field for us. We can really use that as a weapon to attack on the flanks quickly,” said Vanney of the veteran Belgian defender. “There are a lot of things at play that really help our team.”
“He's a guy that on the ball does special things,” continued Vanney, referring specifically to having to deal with Ciman's threat in combination with Ignacio Piatti at the Montreal Impact. “From my brief conversations with him, this is a place he has wanted to be for a while; he's a player we've always envied from afar as an opponent and had to manage whenever we played against him. It's always good to have those guys on your side.”
“He's an outstanding soccer player,” added Vanney. “We look forward to having him; it will create another little evolution in our group.”
Joining Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Nick Hagglund, and Eriq Zavaleta, as well as teenager Julian Dunn, in the defensive corps, Vanney has a plethora of centre-backs at his disposal.
“We have a lot of options: to play with three, with two,” theorized Vanney. “We played in a lot of competitions last year and saw a lot of variations in the back. If we can keep guys fresher, rotated in a more meaningful, purposeful way; not by necessity, but by plan, then we've got two real verbal leaders in Drew and Laurent; guys like Chris, who has got a phenomenal ability to make plays and understand the role, and Nick and Eriq who benefit from having leadership next to them. It provides us with a lot of opportunity.”
Necessity last season saw TFC cobble together back-lines. Gregory van der Wiel in particular was shuttled around as required, playing across the defence.
“For Gregory, I'd like to keep it more consistent this year,” said Vanney. “He played a lot of different [positions]. To the extent that we can keep everybody healthy and in selection, I'd like him to play on the right side. If we play with three in the back, he has [that] potential; maybe even sometimes in the midfield a little higher, if we want to use Auro and him together at times.”
Freeing up van der Wiel and the addition of DeLeon, who has played on both sides of the pitch for D.C. United – never mind the full-backs in place – goes some way to providing that sought after attacking width.
DeLeon has featured heavily at right-back for Ben Olsen's side in recent years, but Vanney sees the player somewhat differently.
“For me, Nick DeLeon is a midfielder, a winger, not a full-back,” stressed Vanney. “He can cover there because he's got a great energy, work rate, and experience to do that. He gives us a wide midfield or wing option; a guy who can make things happen.”
“I've known Nick since he was 15 years old,” added Vanney. “I actually played for his dad when I was 12; he was a phenomenal player. I'm happy to add him.”
That familiarity could come into play should Toronto be able to reach an agreement with CA Tigre regarding Lucas Janson.
“As of today, he's not coming back,” confirmed Vanney. “There is still dialogue going back and forth to see if there is something we can work out. We'll see where that goes.”
“I'd love to have him back,” continued Vanney. “[Janson got] better and better as the season progressed, had his best game with us the last game of the year, when we got into a shape and used him where we wanted to use him. If we can figure out the right way for both of us, it's something I'd love to do.”
With five open spots remaining, there will be a move or two to be made over the coming weeks. With the departures of Janson, Tosaint Ricketts, and Jordan Hamilton, Toronto has five 'forwards' listed on the roster: Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Ayo Akinola, Jon Bakero, and Ryan Telfer.
“We'll continue to look, have our discussions and see if there is something else that we add,” said Vanney. “We have some young players that continue to come along; [Jonathan Osorio] had a big year on the attacking side.”
“We don't have a problem right now scoring goals,” observed Vanney. “We had a problem last year conceding too many. We will look to continue to add to the depth. We like the guys we have; we'd like to keep them on the field as much as we can.”
Vanney also touched on the recovery of Altidore, who missed the final match of the 2018 season days after having ankle surgery.
“My understanding is he's starting to run now, do some of the physical stuff; not playing yet,” said Vanney. “It'll be a progression through preseason to get him doing all the things he needs to do to be competitively ready. And then it will be a match fitness thing. Hope is, in the first week to couple weeks of the season, he'll be ready to go.”
It has been a long offseason for TFC, one that is nearly over.
Preseason is set to begin, the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 against CA Independiente is only a little more than a month away, and the MLS schedule gets underway shortly thereafter.
“I've had more time than I wanted to think about this,” smiled Vanney of the last few months. “One of the big focuses is to get back to trying to be the best version of us.”
“After coming off of winning three championships, we started thinking 'championships' too much,” acknowledged Vanney. “There is a process that is more important, that will actually get you to the chance to win championships.”
“We've got to become process-oriented again; not just worry about each trophy as it lines up, but each game as it is in front of us. That's what we need to get back to: becoming the best version of us,” stressed Vanney once more. “I keep saying that over and over because it worked for us, kept us in right mindset. That's where we've got to be.”