It’s been wear-your-name-tag to work week for Toronto FC at the BMO Training Ground. New players, familiar faces, and those returning from injury have made up for the depleted numbers over the last six weeks. The Gold Cup decimated the squad in recent weeks, and injuries in the team didn’t help matters. Now, with new signings and the return of players from international duty and the infirmary, Toronto FC training has had the first-day of school type feel all week long.
It’s players re-engaging, getting to know each other again and for the first time. There are actual numbers in the squad, just in time for the all-important summer stretch and the second half of the season. Really, it will be a virtually brand new looking team for this Saturday’s 401 Derby (@ Montreal Impact, 7:30pm ET).
Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are back from Gold Cup, and healthy as well. Omar Gonzalez has finally arrived after signing with the club on June 3. Venezuelan winger, Erickson Gallardo was introduced to Toronto on Tuesday. And the changes kept coming Thursday, with the acquisition of veteran forward Patrick Mullins. Mullins was acquired from Columbus in a trade sending striker Jordan Hamilton, an international roster spot for the rest of this season, $50,000 in TAM (targeted allocation money), and right of first refusal for an undisclosed player.
More on Mullins in a moment, but dealing Hamilton came as a surprise to some, with the extra questions surrounding the additional pieces sent to Columbus. Hamilton was easy to cheer for; a local boy from Scarborough who grew up at Toronto FC. He had spent eight years at the club, growing up before our eyes. And Hamilton scored some big goals this season, including two goals in two minutes to give Toronto FC a 4-3 home win over Minnesota United, and coming on to score the stoppage time equalizer to draw level with Sporting Kansas City last month. But too often when given a run in the team and extra responsibility, he failed to consistently deliver from an all-important position leading the line.
Hamilton has the natural talent and ability. But for whatever reason, it never completely clicked. The coaching staff was left frustrated at times, desperate for more reliable performances. There was and is a belief that a move away may be exactly what he needs to take the next step in his career. Head Coach Greg Vanney suggested as much earlier this season, saying Hamilton needed a situation where he would be forced to be the guy, embrace more opportunity and test himself in a different environment. This move is probably the best thing for the player. At 23, Hamilton has plenty of football in front of him and moves on after winning an MLS Championship in his hometown.
Make no mistake, TFC wanted Mullins and believe he is a better option for the team at this time. The trick was how could they acquire the player at a favourable cap hit. Hamilton makes about half the payroll commitment that Mullins makes in salary. The deal wouldn’t work with a straight swap. It was a complicated deal to make, and an agreement was eventually struck with Columbus retaining a significant cap charge on Mullins salary. Thus, Toronto FC was forced to sweeten the pot to make that happen. The international roster spot and TAM convinced Columbus to help make the deal cap friendly for Toronto. It was a tricky one, but Toronto FC comes out of it with the player they want without taking on the full budget cap hit. Mission accomplished.
Toronto FC likes Mullins personality, competitive nature and qualities he brings to the team on and off the field. He has scored 24 MLS goals over his career, but has found himself in difficult situations since his rookie season. Mullins started his career well in 2014 in New England, including scoring a goal against Toronto FC that spring that jump-started a run of goals in four consecutive games. Following his first year, Mullins was taken in the Expansion Draft by New York City FC, putting him in the unenviable position of playing behind the great David Villa. Starts were few and far between, and Mullins hasn’t played more minutes in season than he did as a rookie. From NYCFC, Mullins went to DC United during the 2016 season, initially impressing, scoring 13 goals in his first 34 games. His high-water marks included scoring a hat-trick against Chicago shortly after his move, and an incredible four goal performance in a 4-0 win over San Jose in 2017. Then came Wayne Rooney to DC, pushing Mullins down the pecking order once again, leading to another move out the door. After landing in Columbus, Ola Kamara, then Gyasi Zardes stood in his way, making for another frustrating short-stint at a club where the player wasn’t given opportunity or a defined role.
There’s no question Mullins will be the second striker in Toronto behind Jozy Altidore, but it’s a role up for grabs. Hamilton wasn’t the answer when Altidore was unavailable. Terrence Boyd has yet to score in Toronto and Ayo Akinola has struggled with form and injury after a hot start. That secondary striker role is one required at the club, and one Mullins can make his own. With an option on his contract next season, if it works out over the coming months, Mullins can cement a longer term stay in Toronto. If not, there will be more flexibility to address the position in the off-season.
In making the deal, General Manager Ali Curtis consulted with Jason Hernandez; a newcomer to the TFC front office. Hernandez played with Mullins in New York and had plenty of positive to say about the player and the person and was instrumental in convincing a move for the player was a prudent one. Hernandez is a well-regarded individual at the club, and his input played a significant role in the pursuit of the player. And it didn’t hurt Mullins happened to score in back to back games against Toronto in 2015 while both were at NYCFC. The research, pedigree and role all check out in acquiring Mullins. It’s time to this if this move, like the others made in recent weeks, pans out as expected.
These have been busy times for the Toronto FC front office. There have been no shortage of moves made, and the leadership team will remain active as the transfer window and opportunity for trades and signings remains open until August 7.
Curtis tells me no other moves are imminent at this time, and that he believes the core of the team is now solidified. There has been considerable maneuvering within the group, adding pieces that make the group deeper and more balanced. TFC has already brought a new DP and two TAM players to the club since March. The team has flexibility to add another TAM player and/or address other positions within the team, if need be. But there is a difference between need and want. TFC will always want to get better. But do the need to add anything else right now?
The recruitment hasn’t just been robust, but well-rounded and calculated; a 19-year old homegrown that can play now and who has real promise (Jacob Shaffelburg), a 22-year old TAM player filling a position of need (Gallardo), a 27-year old MLS veteran through trade to add depth (Mullins), and a 30-year old TAM centre-back with a track record of success (Gonzalez). All of a sudden, the TFC depth chart looks pretty impressive.
For the first time all season, Toronto FC has what looks to be proper depth and two good options at every position. You can move a player up or down on the chart that you like, or alter the positions I’ve placed them based on positional flexibility. But here’s a rough sketch of what the TFC depth chart looks like:
Pozuelo Altidore DeLeon
Shaffelburg Mullins Gallardo
Morrow Mavinga Gonzalez Laryea
Morgan Moor Ciman Auro
That’s a good looking group, when healthy and available. The players now available are more suited to play the way Vanney wants to play, preferably in a 4-3-3, but having flexibility in personnel to provide different looks and play different ways. This depth chart may vary in the eyes of many, but here’s what stands out;
i) Pozuelo can play either side of Altidore, or even drop into an attacking midfield role if preferred, ii) Vanney said Tuesday he likes the way DeLeon plays from the inside, suggesting his role could be altered with the arrival of Gallardo and the outstanding wide play of Shaffelburg, iii) it’s difficult to take Laryea out of the starting role based on this outstanding form, but there looks to be legit competition at RB with a healthy Auro Jr. back in the team, iv) while there is no clear back-up listed for Osorio, the fact Fraser or DeLeon can slide into various midfield roles solidifies the depth of the group, and v) Gonzalez changes the complete complexion of the backline, protecting players like Mavinga and Moor from over-usage.
All things considered, this looks to be a team that should be able to compete with the best in the Eastern Conference. How much better, on paper, is DC United? Or Philadelphia? Or even Atlanta? Which begs the question, does Toronto need to spend on another TAM player right now?
There will always be temptation to continue to add. Three TAM player adds in one window seems excessive. But if the right player at the right price comes available, Toronto won’t hesitate to add. Problem is, most really good players want long-term contracts and security. So a short-term contract or move may not jive with the quality of player TFC would be looking for to make this group better. And if you’re going to spend considerable assets to bring in a top player, they better be good enough to make it into a potentially very good starting XI.
There are advantages to saving the available TAM and using it instead for next season. It provides TFC with future flexibility and gives ammunition in paying down other contracts. It’s a balancing act here, matching short-term ambition with long-term planning and success. The form of the team over the next few weeks, or potential injuries and/or short-comings will go a long way to determine whether the TAM is better used this window or saved for future use.
Around the Wheeler
- Vanney characterized this week’s training sessions as ‘intense’. Other players tell me it even got chippy. This is a good thing, as for the first time in weeks, TFC has competition for places and real numbers in training. The Reds haven’t had requisite numbers for real first-team training since May.
- The importance of the next five games cannot be understated with four games coming against Eastern Conference competition, and a home date against the Houston Dynamo. TFC currently sit in a playoff spot; seventh in the conference. This should be a good stretch to pick up points. Toronto has been very good against the East, with a 5-2-3 record. The West has been another story at 1-6-2. A home date against Houston should be a decent cure for the drought.
- Vanney said Tuesday that Alejandro Pozuelo turned his ankle at practice. Good news is he looks to be okay and was back training Thursday. After taking an extended break on the bye-week last month, Pozuelo was said to have returned back refreshed and by all accounts feels great. His legs are active and lively; a good sign for a player who has played a lot of football.
- There was no chance Omar Gonzalez was going to push Bradley off the number 4. Instead, Gonzalez, who has worn number 4 over the course of this career, will wear 44. The decision was made easy: Gonzalez combined the birth dates of his two daughters, who were born on the 14th and 30th. His father-in-law was born in ‘44, for bonus points.
- Erickson Gallardo will wear number 9 for the club. A more orthodox Number 9 than the last player to wear that number: Gregory van der Wiel. Vanney made sure to point out Gallardo isn’t at the club to be the saviour. At 22, he’s a long-term project with short-term promise. And the profile of the player will flip how the wide players play in the team; from defend-first to a more attack-first profile of wide player.
- Gallardo, at this point, can only speak two words of English. Those words, “Thank you”. There are multiple Spanish speaking players in the team to help with the transition, including Altidore and Osorio. Pozuelo has made a particular effort to welcome to the new player, taking Gallardo under his wing. He’s in good hands. And TFC hopes they are too. Gallardo comes highly recommended, with standout play and attacking instincts. He’s won three championships, played over 100 professional games, and competed in Copa Libertadores. He also shares an agent with fellow Venezuelan and MLS Golden Boot winner Josep Martinez.
- Toronto FC continues to haunt the Montreal Impact, even when they aren’t playing them. Ryan Telfer, on-loan at York9 scored a sensational goal in a 2-2- draw against Montreal in the Canadian Championships Wednesday night. The second leg goes July 24 in Montreal.
- Saturday will be the first 401 Derby of the season. Montreal come in having won two of the last three against Toronto, and currently sit fourth in the East on 30 points; seven points better than TFC. The Reds, however, have two games in hand and play an Impact team pushed to the limit Wednesday. Remi Garde leaned on first team players at York, playing five of his seven most used players on the season. Zakaria Diallo, Saphir Taider, Samuel Piette, Maximiliano Urriti and Michael Azira were all called into action.