TORONTO – The blame game has hardly subsided since Toronto FC sold Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal earlier this week.
The transfer of the Italian forward has led to a spirited and fiery debate among the TFC faithful who’ve been left scratching their heads as to who’s to blame for his departure. Two predominant and diametrically opposed camps of thought have clearly emerged: Team Giovinco and Team TFC.
Some have accused MLSE and club management of being too cheap in not re-signing Giovinco to a new deal, while others feel he was overcome by greed and left town because he wanted more money. Such matters are hardly ever clear cut. It’d be convenient to view things in black and white terms, but the truth often lies within the shades of grey.
Regardless of which side is responsible, or even if one side is responsible, it doesn’t change the cold, sobering reality of the situation: TFC is now without the greatest player in team history.
So, what’s next for Toronto FC?
That’s the burning question facing the Reds. What’s important right now isn’t just how TFC replaces Giovinco, but how nimble they are in doing it, especially with the start of the MLS regular season just over a month away. Time is of the utmost essence, and they can’t afford to drag their feet.
Giovinco’s departure means Jozy Altidore is the only remaining forward on the roster who is a proven goal-scorer. The quality up front takes a drastic drop after that: Canadian Jordan Hamilton, U.S. U-20 international Ayo Akinola, Jon Bakero and Tsubasa Endoh. TFC simply can’t go into the season with this group of attacking options.
Altidore was a key figure in Toronto’s historic treble-winning campaign in 2017, scoring 17 goals and tallying six assists in 31 games across the regular season and playoffs.
But last year was a different story. Altidore missed much of the early portion of the campaign after having foot surgery, and he also dealt with a lingering ankle issue. As a result, he was limited to just 13 MLS appearances — although he still managed to score a respectable seven goals. In total, Altidore bagged 13 goals and tallied three assists in 24 MLS, Canadian Championship and Concacaf Champions League games in 2018.
When he’s healthy, Altidore is one of the best forwards in MLS, and nobody could ever question his commitment. But his history of injury problems further underscores the need for Toronto to find a replacement for Giovinco sooner rather than later.
TFC is very close to announcing the addition of American international Terrence Boyd from German club SV Darmstadt 98, sources have told Sportsnet. This is a good depth signing, but Boyd shouldn’t be mistaken as a replacement for Giovinco. Toronto needs another top-rated forward who can share the goal-scoring burden and start alongside Altidore.
At the same time, expectations must be kept in check. Giovinco scored 83 goals and tallied 64 assists across all competitions in his four years in Toronto. Finding another a player like the Italian – a true “game-changer” – who can put up the numbers he did during his time in MLS won’t easy.
“The quality and what Sebastian brought to the table may not be exactly what the next guy has, but were going to be looking for something that fits the puzzle we’re trying to piece together,” coach Greg Vanney told Sportsnet in the aftermath of the Giovinco transfer.
It’s interesting to note that while Vanney conceded that TFC will have to evolve without Giovinco, the Italian’s departure won’t fundamentally change the team’s style of play or its approach.
“We have to adapt. When we bring in a new player, he won’t be like Sebastian; he probably won’t play exactly like Sebastian. Our team will evolve in this process. We won’t be the exact same team, but we’ll still play the same type of soccer,” Vanney explained.
“We’re still going to play an attacking style of soccer. We’re still going to try to do a lot of the things we’ve done in the past because that’s my vision of how we should play. When I put down a vision of how we’re going to play, it’s based on how I see the game, and then I fit the pieces and players together.”
Bringing in a star forward with name value and a tracked record of scoring goals is not only a must on the field. It would also do wonders in assuaging the outrage of fans over the sale of Giovinco, something that club president Bill Manning has already thought about.
“It is not lost on us, the magnitude of [the sale of Giovinco]. I do believe our fans will get excited over the next couple of weeks when they see some of the [players] we do bring in, some of the moves we make with this to improve the club,” Manning told Prime Time Sports on Thursday.
In the same interview, Manning dropped some hints as to the type of player TFC is after, and from the sounds of it, it’s someone who, like Giovinco when he came to MLS in 2015, has his best years ahead of him and who plays for a top foreign club.
“I think we’re going to bring in a player, hopefully, that we can finalize here in the next week … We are still going to make a significant transaction here. This is going to be someone that people who know soccer are going to say, ‘Wow! This is a top player in the prime of his career.’ There’s actually a number of players that fit that profile right now that we’re engaged with, but there’s one we’re really focused on,” Manning said.
If filling the crater-sized hole in the roster left by Giovinco is the first priority for TFC, then a close second is finding a successor for Victor Vazquez, who was recently sold to Qatari club Al-Arabi. The departure of Vazquez was a big blow for Toronto FC when you consider everything he has meant to the team as one of the league’s best playmakers over the last two years.
For the longest time, TFC searched for a creator of Vazquez’s calibre – someone who would serve as the key midfield link, who was masterful in possession and could provide quick and quality service to the forwards. When TFC signed the Spanish playmaker prior to the 2017 campaign, the hope was that he would put the team over the top and help lead them to glory after the club fell short in the 2016 MLS Cup final.
He proved to be the last piece of the puzzle for TFC in 2017, playing a starring role in a historic treble campaign that saw the Reds win the MLS Cup, the Canadian Championship and the Supporters’ Shield, as well as set the record for most points (69) in a regular season.
TFC needs to find the “next Vazquez,” the type of player who can set up teammates with scoring chances, score a few goals, and pull the creative strings from midfield. One player management has identified is Algerian playmaker Sofiane Hanni, sources told Sportsnet.
Hanni, 28, is currently with Spartak Moscow of the Russian Premier League. It’s easy to see why TFC is interested in him – he’s a talented playmaker, who is very good in possession and can play a number of different positions. Hanni might not be considered a high-profile player, but neither was Vazquez who, coincidentally, was named the Belgian league’s player of the year with Club Brugge in 2015 (the year before Hanni won the award with Mechelen).
The wild card in how all of this plays out could be newly-installed general manager Ali Curtis. It was former GM Tim Bezbatchenko, who left TFC earlier this month to become club president of the Columbus Crew, who was the main architect behind the Reds’ transformation from league laughingstock to MLS Cup champion. He played a major role in assembling one of the most impressive and expensive rosters in league history, signing the likes of Giovinco, Vazquez, Altidore and captain Michael Bradley.
Now it falls upon Curtis to quickly get his bearings and start tweaking this team in conjunction with Manning, ensuring that Toronto FC doesn’t suffer a repeat of its disastrous 2018 MLS season. No pressure.