TORONTO – One of the more interesting questions about Toronto FC at the moment, especially after the club’s spectacular capitulation in MLS this year, surrounds its three designated players.
Captain Michael Bradley, and forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were key figures in TFC’s success over the past three years that included the team winning an MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield trophy and a trio of Canadian Championships, and reaching the finals of the Concacaf Champions League.
As it so happens, all three players will enter the final years of their respective contracts in 2019, raising serious questions about their futures beyond next season. But Toronto general manager Tim Bezbatchenko insists there’s no rush to re-sign the influential trio, and that the situation is far from urgent.
“I don’t really have a timeline on it. … We want them to be motivated to compete and play next year. In some cases, that might mean that we do something earlier. In other cases, it might mean we wait … it depends,” Bezbatchenko said during a Wednesday conference call with local reporters.
“But I’m not in any rush at this point and it doesn’t seem like the players are at this point; although I think everyone would like to get a feeling of where everyone stands, so that’s what we’re doing over this next month.”
Bezabatchenko did confirm that he’s already held “informal” discussions with the players’ agents, and that negotiations are expected to become more formal in the coming weeks.
“There’s been talks. It’s starting in more earnest now about what life looks like after 2019. … Certainly, it’s a conversation I’m having with their agents. I wouldn’t say it’s formal yet,” Bezbatchenko explained.
He later added: “It’s something that we want to feel out how they’re thinking, what they’re thinking, what they want to do, what their objectives are, and make sure that it matches what we want to do going forward.”
There have been recent reports in the Mexican media linking Altidore with a move to Tigres, one of the top clubs in Mexico’s first division. But Bezbatchenko anticipates all three of his DPs to be back in Toronto next season.
“They all have one more year on their contracts, and I fully expect them to be back and competing and playing at the level that we know that they can compete at,” Bezbatchenko stated.
Giovinco, who turns 32 in January, has established himself as one of the best players in MLS history during his four years in the league, providing Toronto with a glut of goals (73) and assists (57) in 125 regular-season and playoff appearances. He was also named league MVP in 2015.
Bradley, 31, has been a workhorse since coming to Toronto in 2014, logging more playing time than any of his teammates. A modest stat sheet (just nine goals and 26 assists in regular-season play) doesn’t provide a full picture of the midfielder’s wide-ranging influence as the heartbeat of this franchise.
Altidore, 29, is coming off an injury-plagued 2018 that limited him to just 13 regular-season appearances. Still, he scored a respectable seven goals, offering a glimpse of what might have been had he remained healthy. Even with his track record of injury issues, he’s a proven goal scorer in MLS, and his commitment to TFC has been exemplary.
On Tuesday, TFC announced it wasn’t exercising its contract option on Clint Irwin, the team’s backup goalkeeper who previously served as the No. 1 during the club’s first MLS Cup run in 2016. The Reds also opted not to pick up its option on Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts.
As per MLS rules, TFC can still negotiate and re-sign them to new deals for lesser money ahead of the 2019 campaign. The same applies to veteran defender Jason Hernandez and Canadian forward Jordan Hamilton, who are both out of contract.
Bezbatchenko said it’s not entirely out of the question that one or two of those players could return, and that he’ll continue to talk with their agents, while at the same time exploring other player options.
It does sound as though Irwin won’t be back, with Bezbatchenko saying the club will be looking for another goalkeeper – someone who can push starter Alex Bono and who can contribute when called upon.
“Clint was always ready. I don’t want to single out Clint Irwin as anyone that was anything but ready. There’s just other reasons why we made that decision,” Bezbatchenko explained.
Even though the loan deals for wingback Auro Jr. (from Brazilian club Sao Paulo) and forward Lucas Janson (from Tigre in Argentina) will expire on Dec. 31, Bezbatchenko said he is working on bringing both of them back next year, either by extending their loans or buying them on a permanent basis.
Auro, 22, was one of the Toronto’s most consistent players from the start of the 2018 campaign, while the 24-year-old Janson showed promise after joining the club in August and scoring four goals in 11 games.
“I’m actively speaking with both cubs and with the players about how we can make it work,” Bezbatchenko revealed.
The club also announced Tuesday that it has agreed to terminate the contract of midfielder Ager Aketxe by mutual consent. The Spaniard’s departure hardly comes as a surprise.
Aketxe 24, joined TFC in February via a free transfer from La Liga club Athletic Bilbao to great fanfare (and a big salary at $1.295 million), with the hope being that he would be another quality midfield option. But he had a difficult time in Toronto, and he made only 14 combined appearances in MLS league play and Concacaf Champions League. In July, the Reds sent him on loan to Cadiz, which competes in Spain’s second division.
Bezbatchenko felt that Aketxe struggled to adapt to life in MLS, and that in some ways “he didn’t want to be here.” A lack of a proper pre-season with TFC didn’t help the Spaniard’s cause.
“Ager was thrown into the mix very quickly, and we were hoping he could adapt. … I don’t think he got the physicality and the speed of our team and our league, or really understood how our team works,” Bezbatchenko offered.
Bezbatchenko said Aketxe’s premature exit won’t have significant salary cap implications for Toronto, claiming “it will not hamstring us at all.”
And speaking of the salary cap, TFC’s GM said he has the room to make roster moves this off-season, whether its bringing back Auro Jr. and Hanson, signing a new goalkeeper, or adding defensive depth.
“We’re in a good position from a salary cap standpoint,” Bezbatchenko affirmed.
As for Jonathan Osorio, Bezbatchenko confirmed Sportsnet’s earlier report that Octavio Zambrano, coach of Colombian club Deportivo Independiente Medellin, approached TFC about acquiring the Canadian midfielder on loan for part of next year. Zambrano shouldn’t expect Osorio to board a plane for Colombia anytime soon, though.
“Loaning him out, it’s not something we’d consider doing,” TFC’s GM said.