TFC notebook: Adding defensive depth an off-season priority

Toronto FC president Bill Manning and GM Tim Bezbatchenko will head back to the drawing board after following up their MLS championship season with missing the playoffs.

With its 2018 MLS season now over, Toronto FC held its final media session on Tuesday as club president Bill Manning, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney spoke to local reporters.

Here are some news and notes from the day:

PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE

Last December, TFC hoisted the MLS Cup after setting a new league mark for most points in an MLS season (69) with a 20-5-9 record, and won both the Supporters’ Shield and Canadian Championship.

Ten months on, the Reds face one of the most important off-seasons in franchise history after an MLS campaign that saw them go 10-18-6, collect just 36 points, and fail to make the playoffs. Not even a third consecutive Canadian Championship and a run to the Concacaf Champions League final could put a positive spin on what has been a hugely disappointing 2018 for TFC.

While noting he thinks this MLS campaign was just a blip, Manning stated that not making the playoffs is totally unacceptable.

“The expectation for this team is that we’re always going to be a contender for championships. … [We want to get] back to a being team that has a winning record, and is among the top teams in MLS. That’s where we need to go, and where we plan ourselves to be,” Manning said.

ROSTER OVERHAUL vs. MINOR TWEAKS

How do management and Vanney plan on restoring TFC as one of the top sides in MLS in 2019?

Whatever path they take, it’s clear that they don’t think a major overhaul of the current roster is required, but rather just a few tweaks.

“This [team] isn’t done. This roster isn’t done. There’s a drive and a collective mentality from this group that they want to go out and compete, and so I don’t think it’s going to be a massive overhaul in the roster that needs to take place,” Bezbatchenko said.

Vanney added: “I don’t think there will be a lot [of turnover]. There’s some key pieces that we need to add … In order to be competitive in all tournaments, we have to get a little bit deeper in terms of veterans.”

RE-TOOLING THE TEAM

How will management focus its time on re-tooling TFC’s roster during the off-season? The top priority is to add defensive depth, especially at centre back.

Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor combined to play 51 games as the quarterbacks of a TFC back line that conceded just 37 goals in 2017, the second-best defensive record in MLS. This year, Mavinga and Moor played only 20 league games due to injury issues, and Toronto’s defence coughed up a franchise-worst 64 goals.

To underscore the importance of Mavinga and Moor, TFC conceded 37 goals in 27 MLS games when at least one of them was on the field, but the defence was breached 43 times in 20 games when both of them were missing. The two only played together twice this year, in both legs of its Concacaf Champions League series versus Tigres.

Falling behind in games was an issue, as the Reds were 1-17-1 on the season when they conceded the first goal. Poor starts to matches (13 goals against in the first 15 minutes) was also a problem.

“We were unsuccessful in providing the cover for those two [guys],” Manning admitted.

Too many times Toronto looked lost without Mavinga or Moor in the lineup, and that’s why adding defensive depth is a top objective this winter.

Vanney also talked about adding another forward, as well as a player who can provide the team with more attacking width being a priority.

“You have to have wide players who can hurt the opposition. You can’t play through the middle of the field. Teams defend us through the middle of the field and play us in transition,” Vanney explained.

“If you can’t hurt [opponents] on the outside, you can’t make them respect the wide areas, and if you can’t make them respect the wide areas then you can’t go through the middle because it’s going to be too dense.”

PLAYER CUTS WILL BE MADE

While Bezbatchenko and Vanney said wholesale changes won’t be made, the reality is that MLS is a salary cap league, which means TFC has to make some choices in order to be roster compliant for the 2019 season. As a result, some players will be let go.

Bezbatchenko confirmed that 13 players are on guaranteed deals next season, and 11 are entering the option years on their contracts. TFC has the option on all of those 11 players, and must decide who to bring back and who to let go.

Even if the club does decline the contract option on a player, it can still negotiate and sign him to a new deal for lesser money. If Toronto decides not to pick up the option on Moor, he would be available for unrestricted free agency, but considering his age – he turns 35 in January – chances are that another MLS team likely won’t make a move for him at the same money that TFC would offer him.

Manning said that tough decisions will have to be made, but that TFC is committed to undergoing a “very thorough review” of the roster in order to determine where the team needs to upgrade.

“We have to be deeper,” Manning said, while adding that the goal is to have a 16-18 player rotation for next season.

THE FUTURE OF THE 3 DPS

All three of TFC’s designated players – captain Michael Bradley, and forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore – enter the final years of their respective contracts in 2019.

The future of those three players beyond next year has been a hot topic of discussion amongst TFC fans and local media. Bezbatchenko said the club will talk to the players on an individual basis and their agents during this off-season about possibly extending their deals.

“It’ll be a priority to sit down with and talk with those three players. …. Those players have been with us for the past few years and helped build what we built. So, it’s important that we sit down and have a conversation [about] what their expectations are for next year and beyond next near,” Bezbatchenko said.

AKETXE LIKELY WON’T BE BACK

Ager Aketxe’s future at TFC remains in doubt at the moment, as the club is in the middle of talks with his agent to determine whether or not he’ll return from his loan spell with Cadiz CF.

Aketxe joined Toronto in February via a free transfer from La Liga club Athletic Bilbao to great fanfare, with the hope being that he would be another quality midfield option.

But the 24-year-old Spaniard 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, who competes in Spain’s second division.

“We know that international players take time to adapt and assimilate to our league. Looking at his play, I think it took time for him to adjust to the speed of play. There are some players who think they are going to come to this league and dominate because of where they come from … I thought for him, that was one thing that we maybe didn’t see,” Bezbatchenko said.

LOAN SIGNINGS

Fullback Auro Jr. joined TFC prior to the start of the season via a loan deal with Brazilian club Sao Paulo. The Brazilian speedster had injury issues, but overall he was a welcome addition to the club, tallying three assists in 18 MLS appearance.

Forward/winger Lucas Janson joined TFC on loan from Argentine club Tigre during the summer, and he ended up scoring four goals and added two assists in MLS games.

Bezbatchenko confirmed that Toronto has the option of extending both loan deals, and adding both players on a permanent basis by buying out their contracts form their respective parent clubs.

“My understanding is they want to be back. … But at the same time, we’re examining everything about this roster, everything we did this year. Both players have helped our team in different ways,” the GM said.

ODDS AND ENDS

Manning answered “not at all” when asked point blank if he was considering making a coaching change or bringing in a new GM.

Bezbatchenko revealed he has the full complement of discretionary Targeted Allocation Money to spend next season, although he said some of the $4 million of TAM is already accounted for by some players currently under contract. TAM is a special pot of money that teams can spend to attract international players to MLS.

Vanney expects TFC’s pre-season camp to begin on or around Jan. 21, 2019, which would be roughly four weeks before it plays its opening game of the 2019 Concacaf Champions League.

FC Cincinnati will make the jump from the second-tier United Soccer League to MLS next year as the league’s 24th team. Under normal circumstances, Cincinnati’s arrival would mean TFC could potentially lose a player this off-season in the expansion draft. But Bezbatchenko revealed while the expansion draft rules still have to be finalized, there’s a good chance Toronto will be exempt after it lost Canadian winger Raheem Edwards to LAFC in last year’s expansion draft.

Toronto FC’s farm club TFC 2 will play home games next year at the team’s training ground following off-season renovations to the facility. TFC 2, who has competed in the second-tier USL, has played its home games at the Ontario Soccer Centre in North Toronto, Lamport Stadium, and at BMO Field.

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