Toronto FC signs Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel

Gregory van der Wiel, left, in action for the Dutch national team. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

In signing Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel, Toronto FC appears to have killed two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, the reigning MLS Cup champions have found a replacement for Steven Beitashour, the Reds’ starting right fullback of the last two years who left town as a free agent this off-season to sign with expansion club Los Angeles FC.

Van der Wiel’s arrival also allows for some tactical flexibility, giving TFC coach Greg Vanney the ability to switch from his preferred 3-5-2 formation to a system featuring a four-man defence, with the Dutchman on the right and Liechtenstein international Nicolas Hasler (who deputized for Beitashour last year when he was out injured) playing further forward on that same side.

TFC officially announced the signing of van der Wiel on Thursday after coming to a transfer agreement with his former club, Italian outfit Cagliari.

“We are excited to bring Gregory van der Wiel to Toronto FC. He is an experienced player that has played with some big clubs in Europe and has represented his country at multiple international tournaments,” TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko said in a news release.

“Gregory has a great defensive sense and will provide an upside on the ball with his strong distribution when in the attacking third. He will be a welcomed addition to our club as we continue to strive to improve as a team.”

The move comes after a relatively short and intense courting process that included flying him and his partner, Belgian model Rose Bertram, to Toronto where they sat courtside alongside Bezbatchenko at a recent Raptors game.

Speaking to reporters on the opening day of pre-season, Vanney talked about wanting to inject a bit more tactical variety into his side so that they could line up in different formations and give opponents different looks to deal with in games. Vanney and team management clearly believe van der Wiel can help them achieve the level of tactical fluidity this coming season as they compete not only in MLS, but also in the CONCACAF Champions League.

If Vanney does go to a four-man back line, look for Chris Mavinga to partner Drew Moor in the middle of defence, with van der Wiel on the right and Justin Morrow on the left. That would spell bad news for Eriq Zavaleta, who started on the right side of the defence in Vanney’s 3-5-2 formation for most of last season, as well as backup Nick Haggund.

TFC’s newest recruit comes from solid, soccer stock.

A product of Ajax’s youth academy, van der Wiel went on to play for the famous Dutch side from 2007 to 2012. He won two domestic league titles during his time at Ajax, and was named Dutch young player of the year for 2009-10.

A four-year stint at Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1 followed where he won four league titles and played on a star-studded team that included Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani. From there, van der Wiel went to Fenarbahce, but things didn’t quite work out for him in Turkey and he left after only one season.

Most recently, van der Wiel played for Cagliari in Serie A last summer. But he only made a handful of appearances and fell out of favour with the Italian club.

He debuted for the Dutch national team in 2009, and was the Netherlands’ starting right back in the 2010 World Cup final against Spain. He was also a major part of the Dutch team that competed at Euro 2012. In total, he’s earned 46 caps for the Netherlands.

Van der Wiel is a player who, on the surface, is an upgrade on Beitashour. But he comes to Toronto with something to prove, after terrible spells with Fenerbahçe and Cagliari.

A player of van der Wiel’s calibre and reputation required TFC to spend Targeted Allocation Money on him. TAM is a special pot of money that all MLS clubs can use to buy top domestic and international talent – who are not at the designated player level – with a minimal salary cap hit. The Reds used TAM last year to sign Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, who otherwise would have been a DP signing.

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