TORONTO – What do Victor Vazquez, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Chris Mavinga all have in common?
They were all either out of form or out of favour at their previous clubs before Toronto FC swooped in and lured them to Major League Soccer with a big wad of cash and the promise of better days. The result? They saw their respective careers revitalized in MLS, each of them becoming key starters and playing pivotal roles in guiding TFC to a record-breaking 2017 season that included winning the MLS Cup.
Now TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko hopes Gregory van der Wiel, the Dutch defender the Reds’ signed last month as a replacement for Steven Beitashour, can become the latest high-profile player to enjoy a renaissance in Toronto.
Van der Wiel, who turned 30 last weekend, comes from good soccer stock, having started with the renowned Ajax youth academy when he was seven. He went on to play for the famous Dutch side from 2007 to 2012 winning 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.
But less-than-stellar spells at Turkish club Fenerbahçe and Italian outfit Cagliari, where he was bedevilled by injuries and personal problems, saw him play only a handful of games over the past two years. His time in Turkey was especially challenging, as he ran into financial problems due to some poor investments. Van der Wiel previously revealed he was swindled out of $4.5 million US after moving to Fenerbahce from PSG. He claimed that the same Turkish businessman who defrauded him also tried to extort more money from him.
“My last two years were not the most successful for me, and I lost my pleasure for the game. In Turkey, I signed for four years [and a] big contract, but after three months I had problems there. The club treated me not well,” van der Wiel said during his TFC introductory press conference on Monday afternoon.
“It was not a good experience for me. Also, my private life was not good. I lost a lot of money there, so I had a very bad experience in Turkey, and I needed to leave Turkey to play football again, to find my pleasure back again, and that’s how I ended up in Cagliari.”
Van der Wiel missed the first two months of the 2017-18 Serie A season through injury, and when he was fit for action, the club changed coaches and he found himself on the bench.
Married to Belgian model Rose Bertram, van der Wiel enjoyed living live to the fullest at his previous clubs, as evidenced by his posts on Instagram, and he hinted that that has caused him problems in the past. The hopes of a quieter life where he won’t be hounded by the media and become fodder for the tabloids was part of his motivation for coming to Toronto. It was also why he turned down other offers from European clubs.
“The last two years I got judged and sidelined by other things than my football qualities. I can’t even explain sometimes why. Sometimes it’s the way I look, and what I do in my private life. So, I got a bit tired of that and I wanted to be in an environment that is different,” van der Wiel said.
The veteran defender, who has 46 caps for the Netherlands and started for his country in the 2010 World Cup final against Spain, has some big shoes to fill in Toronto.
The Reds’ move to sign van der Wiel came after Beitashour, the club’s starting right fullback for the past two years, turned down a new contract offer in the off-season as it would have required taking a pay cut. He chose to explore free agency and ended up signing with Los Angeles FC, the expansion club that is set to make its MLS debut this season.
Beitashour was one of the club’s most consistent performers over the previous two seasons. He played in 56 regular season games, and started all 11 of TFC’s playoff matches as the Reds made back-to-back appearances in the MLS Cup final.
The hope is that van der Wiel, who will wear No. 9 with TFC, can not only replace Beitashour on the right side, but also offer coach Greg Vanney the ability to be more tactically fluid and show opposing teas different looks aside from his preferred 3-5-2 formation.
“He can play as a wingback in a back five or a back three, and get up and down the line and use his qualities in attack and defence. … He adds a whole other level of soccer sophistication on our right side. He can play in a back four. On any given day, he could probably play in a back three. He could step into midfield positions,” Vanney explained.
“He’s a good soccer player first and foremost, which enables him to do a lot of different things on the field for us as a team.”
NOTES: TFC departs on Tuesday for Mexico where it will play a number of exhibition matches in order to prepare for the CONCACAF Champions League before returning home on Feb. 14… The Reds will take on MLS side Colorado Rapids in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. The first leg is scheduled for Feb. 20 in Colorado with the return match slated for BMO Field on Feb. 27… For the first time in franchise history, TFC will begin the MLS campaign at home when they host the Columbus Crew in their regular season opener on March 3.