TORONTO – Even after a short pre-season, Saturday’s MLS opener was a long time coming for many of Toronto FC‘s players, but maybe none more so than Gregory van der Wiel.
The Dutch fullback signed with TFC on Feb. 1 after the MLS champs came to a transfer agreement with his former club, Serie A outfit Cagliari. Van der Wiel’s time in Italy was short – he spent six months there, as he fell out of favour after Cagliari changed coaches, and he ended up making only a handful of appearances.
Needless to say, van der Wiel was anxious to get on the pitch after a lengthy layoff. He finally made his debut for TFC in Saturday’s game against the Columbus Crew, his first competitive action in several months. The former Ajax star lasted the full 90 minutes in a 2-0 loss, and while it was his first taste of MLS action, Van der Wiel is already firmly embedded into the club.
He also seems to have a new lease on life in Toronto after his spell at Cagliari, and before that his troubled tenure at Turkish club Fenerbahce where he had financial issues.
“I feel good in the team already for the last couple of weeks, better than I felt ever before in a team. I played in Turkey one year; I played six months in Italy and there I was always the quiet one. Here, I’m really opening up myself, and being myself,” van der Wiel said after Monday’s practice.
He’s also a fan of Greg Vanney’s tactics, and how TFC’s coach has set up the team to play, with an emphasis on possession and building out from the back.
“Football wise, this team is made for me. They really try to play football from the back, and that’s what I’m used to, playing at Ajax and PSG, they are clubs that did the same. The philosophy is the same, and I’m happy here,” van der Wiel said.
“For me, it’s a perfect situation. Now it’s just time for me and the team to get used to each other, to get used to my playing style, I have to get used to their playing style. I have to get the games in my legs.”
And what does he think of the standard of play in MLS based on that 90-minute performance against Columbus?
“To be honest the level was high. The opponent was very good. It [wasn’t] easy. Sometimes I read, or people say, ‘ah, the MLS. It’s not like Europe.’ But for me, it was just as tough as a game in Europe,” van der Wiel offered.
The Dutchman is loving life on the pitch in Toronto, and off of it, as well. He became a father for the first time when his wife, Belgian model Rose Bertram, recently gave birth to a baby girl, Naleya Rose.
Becoming a father has quickly changed his perspective on life.
“Other things are going to be less important, I think. Things you used to be upset about or something, you just look at it in a different way now. I think [fatherhood] is a beautiful thing,” van der Wiel said.
Looking ahead to Tigres
TFC hosts Mexican side Tigres at BMO Field on Wednesday in the first leg of its CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final. The return match is the following Wednesday in Mexico.
Based in Monterrey, Tigres is one of the top teams in Mexico’s Liga MX, and has won the Mexican league title six times, including last year. It currently sits 10th in the Mexican standings after 10 games. Aside from a host of Mexican internationals, Tigres’ roster also includes French forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, former West Ham United winger Enner Valencia, and Chilean midfielder Eduardo Vargas.
“We have to start aggressive. We’re playing at home. The pitch is not too good, but we know that already. We have to forget about Saturday and start aggressive [vs. Tigres]. We have so much quality in this team. … Just be aggressive and don’t let them play, and just play our game when we have the ball,” van der Wiel said.
The winner of the TFC-Tigres series will meet the winner of Club America (Mexico) vs. Tauro (Panama) in the semifinals.
Victor Vazquez update
Victor Vazquez was subbed out of Saturday’s game in the 53rd minute due to injury.
A TFC official told Sportsnet that Vazquez is day-to-day with hip discomfort, and that coach Greg Vanney will provide an update on the Spaniard’s status on Tuesday.
The potential loss of Vazquez would be a big blow for TFC beyond losing its star playmaker. Vazquez spent one season in Mexican club Cruz Azul before coming to Toronto last year, so he has experience playing in Mexico.
Regular season break
The Reds enjoy a bye in MLS this week and will next travel to Montreal to take on the Impact on March 17 in Week 3. Back-to-back home games against Real Salt Lake and D.C. United follow their trip to Montreal.