Toronto FC has undergone a dramatic off-season transformation, driven by deep pockets and understanding of just how to push MLS roster and salary rules to the limit, and beyond
That is a sentence few in Major League Soccer would have bothered to utter at any point during the club’s seven years in the league, unless of course it was followed by the phrase “from embarrassing itself?”
Times have changed up north though, and now instead of being a league punchline, TFC is looking more and more like a team ready to turn MLS on its head with a revamped roster and superstar acquisitions.
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Take the team’s latest acquisition. Julio Cesar joined Toronto last week, and as much as it is being characterized simply as a loan deal for a World Cup-bound goalkeeper in need of matches, it is also the acquisition of a $6 million a year goalkeeper by a team that has already added the league limit of three designated players this offseason (while still trying to figure out what to do with incumbent DP Matias Laba).
TFC landing a player of Julio Cesar’s caliber on a loan deal, in which it sounds as though he won’t count a ton on the salary cap, is a head-scratching move. Not for Toronto, which can’t be blamed for wanting the player, but for MLS, which must be careful not to set precedents that other teams will exploit.
Consider the fact Toronto had re-signed goalkeeper Joe Bendik earlier in the offseason, rewarding him for what was a solid season amid the disappointment of another failed year for the club. Now instead of building on that promising 2013, Bendik has been demoted for a player who seems like a luxury item on a team already loaded with big-ticket acquisitions.
We really can’t be too surprised by TFC’s transformation. Tim Leiweke is a big-idea man, an alpha male in the MLS jungle, and he has brought with him the same brash and fearless approach that helped turn the LA Galaxy into a repeat champion during his time with Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Galaxy’s parent company.
Leiweke isn’t just adept at pulling off the big deal, as he has already done in Toronto with the signings of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. He also has a penchant for smart hires. He was the man who hired Bruce Arena to build the Galaxy’s most recent dynasty, and last year he made the under-the-radar hire of former MLS executive Tim Bezbatchenko as TFC’s general manager. Who better to run TFC’s roster transformation than someone intimately familiar with MLS guidelines and player and roster rules (inasmuch as there are rules)?
It has been that expertise that has helped Toronto land the likes of Dwayne De Rosario and Justin Morrow while adding big acquisitions from Europe, and getting it all to fit in the league’s salary cap structure.
As much as TFC has done an excellent job navigating the rules, the club is also trying to push those rules. Not only with the acquisition of Julio Cesar, which looks in every way like a circumvention of the league’s salary cap, but also with the Laba situation.
To catch you up, Laba was signed as a designated player last year, and after an impressive first season with the club (don’t let Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter’s dismissve comments fool you) Laba was expected to be a cornerstone of the team going forward.
That was before Bradley showed up.
Now TFC is stuck trying to figure out what to do with Laba. It can’t keep him as a DP because it already has three new ones in Bradley, Defoe and Brazilian striker Gilberto. It can’t restructure his deal to make him not count as a DP because that goes against league rules (which are in place to keep teams from stockpiling DPs and circumventing the three DP limit). TFC has tried shopping Laba around MLS, but while there are teams that rate Laba, those clubs fail into two categories: They don’t want to commit DP money to a defensive midfielder or they already have solid defensive midfield options.
TFC has to move Laba, but that isn’t stopping the team from starting to lay out subtle messages suggesting that being forced to move Laba was punishing and mistreating the player, insinuating that MLS should consider doing right by its player. It’s a pretty laughable notion because it was TFC, not MLS, that went out and signed a player to fill Laba’s very role.
Needless to say, given the scrutiny already being generated by the Julio Cesar pickup, MLS would face a serious backlash from clubs if TFC were somehow allowed to keep Laba on the team. No, he will likely have to be moved, most likely sent packing abroad.
Don’t feel bad for TFC though, because moving Laba won’t be a total loss. If the team loans him out, the loan fee generated for Laba will turn into allocation money Toronto can use to further improve the squad. If the team sells him outright, TFC will likely pick up a nice chunk of change.
That just shows you how much things have changed for Toronto. The club that has never made the playoffs, and seemingly found new ways to lose every year, is hitting all the right notes this winter — and even the team’s problems are essentially win-win situations.