Wheelers Insider - June 6

Wheeler's Insider | Omar's Coming, What's Next, and Fraser Features

It may be 10 years late, but Omar’s Coming. Finally.

Toronto FC announced the signing of defender Omar Gonzalez Monday; a familiar name, face and regret for many long-time Reds. The 2009 MLS SuperDraft is one that haunted Toronto FC for years. A team at that time in desperate need of a centre-back to build around decided to use the second overall pick on midfielder Sam Cronin. Gonzalez went with the very next pick to the Los Angeles Galaxy.  From the time Gonzalez stepped on an MLS pitch, you just knew he was the real deal. The towering central defender went on to win the 2009 Rookie of the Year, 2011 Defender of the Year, was named four times into the MLS Best XI, and helped his Galaxy team to three MLS Cup triumphs and two Supporters Shields. 

Top centre-backs are essential to team success. Gonzalez proved to be a dominant force at the back in MLS before moving to Pachuca of Liga MX in 2016. Cronin, meanwhile, was traded away by then TFC head coach Preki in 2010, after making 33 appearances and scoring one goal in Toronto. Cronin went on to have a solid nine year career in MLS, but never came close to reaching the heights of Gonzalez. To make matters worse for Toronto, the Reds used the 4th overall pick on striker O’Brian White; a talented collegiate player whose professional career never panned out due to a combination of health/injury and form. Kansas City selected centre-back Matt Besler eighth overall; and all Besler has done is go on to become a four-time MLS All-Star, 2012 Defender of the Year and MLS Cup Champion in his own right, and remains a staple in KC’s defence.

It took Toronto FC until 2016 to get the backline right and, no coincidence, it came with the arrival of a durable and experienced centre-back in Drew Moor. With Toronto FC shipping too many goals, with regular centre-back coming in and out of the team due to injury, a reliable solution was needed. Enter Gonzalez. The US Men’s National team player was seeking a return to MLS after spending a season on-loan at Mexican side Atlas. The now 30 year old grew as a player during his time in Mexico, adapting his game to a different style of football. It was a learning process, but one that brought further success. Winning a Liga MX Clausura title in his first season at Pachuca, then going on to win a CONCACAF Champions League were highlights. With a mixed bag of results on-loan leaving his club career in Mexico in doubt, returning to MLS for a club with ambition made plenty of success for the player.

Toronto FC were able to make the move for Gonzalez after a shrewd bit of business by General Manager Ali Curtis. After his predecessor used the top allocation spot for players returning to MLS on Laurent Ciman in January, Curtis re-acquired the top spot in the allocation order in a trade seeing Nick Hagglund join FC Cincinnati. Receiving the top allocation spot and $300,000 in allocation money gave Curtis the ammunition to make this move, seen as being essential for the club to go on and compete with this best in MLS.

Toronto FC have struggled defensively on the season, giving up far too many cheaply conceded goals for the club’s liking. TFC have given up the sixth most goals per game (1.64 GA) through 14 games played, including giving up two goals or more in nine matches played. Their goals against record is nowhere near good enough for a team that needs better defensive shape and performance. By comparison, in 2016 and 2017 combined, TFC only conceded 76 goals, that’s just 1.1 goals against per game over 68 matches. The defensive problems don’t start and end at centre-back. But strengthening the spine will go a long way to facilitating defensive improvement.

Speaking with Curtis, the General Manager points to multiple reasons why Gonzalez was the right player for the club to earmark as an individual to build around now and into the future. Outside the fact Gonzalez is a very good footballer. The first attribute Curtis points to is the need for reliability. Gonzalez can go out and play 30-34 games a season. The way he takes care of his body and being able to stay on the field, week-in, week-out is a skill. TFC have found it difficult to keep their first choice centre-backs on the field for extended runs. The first-choice pairing of Drew Moor and Chris Mavinga, although very good players in their own right, have found it difficult staying on the field for extended stretches. The two combined to have just 17 starts and just 1503 minutes of league football last season. And this year, Moor has already missed six games through injury with Mavinga (hamstring) leaving the game last week in Vancouver and being listed as questionable for this week. The best teams in MLS need their best defenders on the field, and Gonzalez is seen as a more reliable option.

Curtis points to a track record of team success for teams with a reliable defender of Gonzalez profile. Nat Borchers with Portland Timbers in 2015, Chad Marshall in 2016 with Seattle, Moor with the Reds in 2017, and Michael Parkhurst with Atlanta United last season helped form the backbone of a Championship winning side. It’s no coincidence with the kind of stability the aforementioned centre-backs bring, success follows. It’s simple not a position you can mess around or experiment with.

Gonzalez brings a different kind of presence than current TFC centre-backs. At 6’5, he provides a much needed aerial presence on set-pieces. TFC have only scored two goals from an indirect free kick on the season. Curtis also sees Gonzalez as a leader and communicator. Curtis is impressed with the player who ‘just knows how to win’, with Gonzalez clearly a serial winner. The previously mentioned accolades make for an impressive resume. Add a couple of Gold Cup tournament wins and an NCAA Championship to his trophy case, there isn’t a competition he has played he hasn’t won (outside of a World Cup). There is something to be said being a player who knows how to see a game or competition through, and knows how to get the job done.

When Curtis met with Gonzalez in Mexico ahead of the move, the player’s motivation to win stood out. Curtis says Gonzalez is hungry and still has something to prove. Gonzalez reiterated his desire to get back on top early this week, saying Toronto was a natural fit, convinced of club ambition and quality in the team. He was impressed with Toronto watching last season’s CONCACAF Champions League run and wants to be front and centre as the group climb back to the top. While short-term success is priority, Curtis also mentions Gonzalez eagerness to work with young players at the club. Curtis sees him as a “beacon for player development”, with his experience and person an asset for the players coming up. Toronto FC did extensive research on the player, and former coaches, administrators and teammates raved about the type of person and player he is. No coincidence, Gonzalez roomed with Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley at the most recent US Men’s National team camp; a natural leader with another who has come of age.

Gonzalez isn’t eligible to join Toronto FC until July 9th when the secondary transfer window opens. Gonzalez played 90 minutes in a friendly against Jamaica Wednesday night, and has been named to the USMNT Gold Cup squad, along with fellow Reds in Bradley and Jozy Altidore. The tournament provides a good platform for Gonzalez to hit the ground running, with his last appearance for Atlas coming back on May 5. For a player who should have been in Toronto 10 years ago, it’s worth another month’s wait to have Gonzalez in Red. Like it was then, Gonzalez fills a position of need now. And the hope is Omar can can be the difference maker for the second half of the MLS season.

What’s Next?

Centre-back is one of multiple positions of need for Toronto FC. And Curtis remains busy working to improve the squad. The GM acknowledges he is in active conversations with clubs, agents and players to bring to the club in the secondary window in July. Curtis stresses it’s important to look to improve in all areas, saying they believe they have a good team but it is his responsibility to finds ways to get better. Gonzalez is part of that process, but by no means not the final piece. 

Gonzalez was brought in on a contract and price meeting Toronto’s valuation of the player. The assets used to bring Gonzalez to the club in no way effect Curtis plans to pursue other targets. They have projections on what it will take to land other players that fit a need, and multiple targets fit the clubs valuation. Assets and resources are there to add, and Curtis remains confident they will be able to make multiple moves this summer. This may include bringing young players through the TFC set-up, pending further evaluation if the players can contribute now and whether stepping up into the first team is in the players’ best interest at this moment.

There is clearly multiple moving pieces at present time, and adding in July is top priority. A difficult stretch over recent weeks clearly highlights areas in need of improvement, and Curtis is well aware of what needs to be done. Signing Gonzalez doesn’t effect anything TFC may, can or will do in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Around the Wheeler

  • Auro Jr. (hamstring) will remain out of the team again Friday night. This will be the second time he’s missed back to back games this season. This comes after the player missed 13 of 14 games through injury between July 1 and September 22 last summer.  There has been far too much rotation at right-back since Steven Beitashour’s departure before the 2018 season. One has to wonder if this may be an area required to solidify in the transfer window. Richie Laryea has done well when given opportunity, but may be more suited playing a more advance role. Nick DeLeon can also play the position, but same story as Laryea. Laurent Ciman could be another option, but perhaps fits better playing on the right-side of a three. With no sure-shot option, this could be a position needed to be dealt with.
  • Jonathan Osorio and Ashtone Morgan have both departed for Gold Cup duty and will be unavailable Friday night. 
  • Ayo Akinola continues to rehab his ankle injury that saw him leave the USA U-20 World Cup team prematurely. The 19 year old hasn’t played since May 8, but has drawn rave reviews from within the club. For a team needing goals with Altidore away, a swift return for Akinola would be a welcome sight.
  • Count Liam Fraser as the latest TFC player taking advantage of opportunity. Fraser was a stand-out in the 1-1 draw in Vancouver, being named to the MLS Team of the Week in the process.  His 97 passes with a 95 percent accuracy, and five created chances were all the most in the game. Fraser is full of confidence and at 21, this is a good time to make a push for regular action.  He’s started three games on the season and looks to add to that in the coming weeks with Bradley away. Even when Bradley returns, Fraser’s very good range of passing will give the coaching staff something to think about, potentially playing Fraser alongside Bradley in a double-pivot.
  • Fraser joins other TFC players with 2019 inclusion in the Team of the Week: Bradley (1), Akinola (3), Alejandro Pozuelo (5, 8), Altidore (6, 7), Jordan Hamilton (8), Osorio (10), Marky Delgado (10) (another young TFC player)
  • Some perspective:Toronto FC remains tied third in MLS goals scored per game (1.7) in 2019 despite only scoring three times in the last six games. 
  • Reminder: it’s a 7pm kick-off at BMO Field Friday night, with the match moved forward to coordinate with the Toronto Raptors game 4 tip-off in Golden State. Come for Toronto FC, and stay for the Raptors viewing party, as the basketball game will be played on the big-screen following the final whistle.
  • Friday is also the third annual Pride Night, in support of You Can Play; a project dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all who participate in sports, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans. You will be able to bid on the Pride warmup apparel worn by Toronto FC players, and can purchase Toronto FC Pride-themed items from the team store, with a percentage of the proceeds going towards You Can Play.
  • Sporting KC are experiencing a familiar CONCACAF Champions League hangover. Kansas City have struggled with league form after a run to the semi-final in the Champions League. 10th place, 15 points from 14 games is an unfamiliar place for a perennial Western Conference contender. In fact, Sporting KC has only won one match from their last 10. Even more surprising is the alarming number of goals conceded, giving up 25 goals in 14 games (1.79 per game, sixth worst rate in MLS). KC has featured a stingy backline for years, conceding among the sixth fewest goals against in each of the eight years, including the fewest in MLS three times over that span.
  • Sporting KC are short-handed Friday as well, with four players away on EURO 2020 qualifying, including going leading goal scorers Johnny Russell and Krisztian Nemeth (each with 7), and former TFC midfielder/fullback Nico Hasler.