TORONTO – The rich get richer.
Toronto FC – the best team in Major League Soccer with the highest payroll and deepest roster in the league – added another major piece on Friday with the signing of Ager Aketxe via a free transfer from La Liga club Athletic Bilbao.
Terms of the deal were not announced, but it is understood that Aketxe has joined the Reds on a two-year contract. The deal also includes a buy-back option for Athletic Bilbao, who terminated Aketxe’s contract last week, paving the way for his move to Toronto. The MLS club confirmed that it did use Targeted Allocation Money to sign the Spaniard.
“As soon as the [January transfer] market opened, there was a variety of teams interested in me. But Toronto FC showed a real keen interest in bringing me over. I want to be at a club where I’m wanted and where I can show my qualities,” Aketxe said through a translator during his introductory press conference on Friday.
Who is TFC’s newest player, and why is his arrival in MLS such a big deal?
First identified by TFC as a potential target in the summer of 2016, Aketxe is a 24-year-old Spanish playmaker who came up through the ranks of the well-respected youth system at Athletic Bilbao, playing for the club’s reserve side before making his first team debut in 2014. Injuries stunted his progress, though, and he only made 35 appearances in all competitions for Athletic Bilbao. Aketxe spent most of last season on loan with Cadiz in Spain’s second division, and he is a former youth international, having turned out for Spain’s under-20 team.
On the surface that doesn’t sound like an impressive résumé, but don’t let his lack of playing time at the Basque club fool you. By all accounts, TFC has added a bright, attacking midfielder who can open up defences with his deft passing ability. He’s also noted for his expertise as a free-kick specialist.
Coach Greg Vanney heralded the Spaniard’s versatility, explaining that he can play in a number of positions and fit into a variety of tactical formations and systems.
“What Ager gives our team is a unique skill set – an ability to see the pass, to work on both sides of the ball, to see [things] in a little bit of a different way because he is a left-footed player. … [Aketxe] gives us another goal-scoring threat from the midfield,” Vanney said.
Victor Vazquez, TFC’s other Spanish midfielder, echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“He’s going to have a good impact on our team, because maybe we miss these types of players who are faster with the ball… He’s a different kind [of player]. His left foot is amazing,” Vazquez offered.
General manager Tim Bezbatchenko added: “We like that he has the ability to create, as well as finish. His left foot is special. He has good intentions on the ball. He looks to play forward.”
In Aketxe, TFC is adding a La Liga-calibre midfielder to its roster – a roster that already includes designated players Michael Bradley, and forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Those three players have had a major role in TFC’s success in recent years, but they didn’t do it alone. Vazquez and defender Chris Mavinga were key figures for the Reds last season, elevating the club from MLS Cup contenders to MLS Cup champions.
Aketxe, as well as Dutch fullback Gregory van der Wiel, appear to be signings in the same vein as Vazquez and Mavinga – international players who were either out of form or out of favour at their previous club, but who still have plenty of talent to offer any aspiring MLS side. That they would all sign with Toronto, instead of exploring options elsewhere, speaks to the expertise of Bezbatchenko, with the full financial backing of MLSE, in building a roster in a salary cap league that is the envy of every other team in MLS.
It also speaks to the pure ambition and the long-term thinking of Toronto FC. Aketxe not only helps strengthen an already strong TFC side in the short term, but also in the long-term. Vazquez is in the second year of a three-year contract, and if he doesn’t renew and heads back to Spain to finish his career, as he has previously hinted, then the Reds appear to already have found a replacement in Aketxe.
TFC is stockpiling talented, international players at a much faster rate than their MLS counterparts. Earlier this month it was Brazilian defender Auro, a former under-20 international on the books at Sao Paulo, and van der Wiel, who started for the Netherlands in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final against Spain. With each such signing, TFC is putting a little bit more distance between itself and the chasing pack, and making it easier to go after similar players in the future.
“It’s impressive that the front office can somehow find a way to bring all of these players in. It speaks volumes about the ambitions of the club, and how well our front office has worked in creating this great roster that we have,” TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono said.
Club president Bill Manning is not satisfied with last year’s season, which saw TFC win its first MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian Championship while setting the record for most points in an MLS regular season. He has bigger goals in mind, namely duplicating the success of an LA Galaxy team that reached four MLS Cup finals, winning it three times.
"I point to the LA Galaxy. From 2009 to 2014, they hit four MLS Cups; won the Supporters’ Shield two years in a row. How do we become that type of franchise? We’ve now gone to two MLS Cups in a row, established ourselves as one of the preeminent teams in the league, but how do you do it for half a decade? No one has ever done it for a decade. Those are the things we look at, aspire to," Manning said last week.
It’s clear that TFC believes bringing in Aketxe can help them in their long-term goal of dominating MLS for years to come.