TFC notebook: Back to work for reigning MLS champions

Michael-Bradley

Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley raises the trophy as Toronto FC celebrates their victory over the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup final. (Frank Gunn/CP)

There’s no rest for the wicked, or the reigning champions of Major League Soccer.

A little over a month after completing a historic, treble-winning season by winning the MLS Cup, Toronto FC officially opened training camp for the 2018 campaign on Monday as players reported for their pre-season medicals.

Here’s what you need to know as the Reds begin training camp.

Off-season moves thus far

Last Friday, Toronto FC announced the singing of midfielder Liam Fraser to a homegrown player contract. Fraser, a 19-year-old native of Toronto, is a former TFC youth academy product, who has spent the better part of the last two years playing for the team’s TFC 2 farm club in the second-tier United Soccer League. As a homegrown player signed from the youth academy, Fraser will not count against TFC’s salary budget.

The Reds also signed forward Ayo Akinola to a homegrown player deal last month.

The additions of Fraser and Akinola came on the heels of a series of off-season player losses, including midfielder Benoit Cheyrou (retired), winger Raheem Edwards (picked by Los Angeles FC in the expansion draft, then traded to the Montreal Impact) and fullback Steven Beitashour (a free agent who signed with LAFC).

Moor re-signs; options declined and picked up

Days after winning the MLS Cup, TFC announced it signed veteran defender Drew Moor to a one-year extension, plus an option year.

Moor, 34, made 34 combined appearances last year when he scored two goals and collected one assist, and has been a regular starter and key defensive figure for the Reds ever since coming to Toronto as a free agent prior to the 2016 MLS season. In total, Moor has made 384 appearances (regular season and playoffs) with 27 goals and eight assists in 13 seasons in MLS.

Veteran Jason Hernandez is out of contract and is eligible for free agency, although the club is currently in talks with him. Fellow defender Eriq Zavaleta is also out of contract, but it’s expected he will re-sign, with Vanney calling it “a formality.”

TFC exercised its contract options on goalkeeper Alex Bono, defender Justin Morrow, midfielders Jonathan Osorio, Jay Chapman and forward Jordan Hamilton.

The 11 players already under contract for the 2018 season are: goalkeeper Clint Irwin; defenders Ashtone Morgan, Chris Mavinga, Nick Hagglund and Nicolas Hasler; midfielders Michael Bradley, Marky Delgado and Victor Vazquez; and forwards Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts.

Wingers Armando Cooper and Tsubasa Endoh, defenders Brandon Aubrey and Oyvind Alseth, midfielder Sergio Camargo, forward Ben Spencer and third-string goalkeeper Mark Pais all had their contract options declined by TFC after last season.

Cooper, Aubrey, Camargo and Pais are gone. Endoh will essentially go on trial during this training camp and TFC could potentially re-sign the Japanese winger. Vanney said it’s very likely Spencer will re-sign with the team. Alseth probably won’t be back, Vanney confirmed, as he has options outside of MLS.

Cheyrou is still with the organization, and working within the youth academy.

Canadian Jason Bent is now with the senior team after coaching TFC 2 since 2014. Vanney did not confirm who will take over as TFC 2 coach.

Bye-bye, Beitashour

Beitashour entered free agency at the end of the 2017 MLS season, and considering his value on the open market, it’s not a big surprise that he left.

According to the MLS players’ union website, Beitashour earned $264,000 U.S. last season. TFC made Beitashour a contract offer, but he turned it down as it would have meant taking a pay cut. TFC wanted to keep Beitashour, but the club’s salary cap situation made it difficult to re-sign him, especially with players getting a bump in pay from their championship bonuses. Ideally, the Reds would have spent Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) to pay down his salary cap hit, but under league rules they aren’t allowed to do so on a player in Beitashour’s salary range.

Beitashour joined TFC prior to the 2015 season via a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and he quickly established himself as one of the club’s most consistent performers. He played in 56 regular season games during his time in Toronto, and started all 11 of TFC’s playoff matches as the Reds made back-to-back appearances in the MLS Cup final.

Who will replace Beitashour on the right side of the midfield in coach Greg Vanney’s 3-5-2 formation for the upcoming season? One option is Hasler, the Lichtenstein international who joined the team last summer after Beitashour went down injured, and looked impressive during the Reds’ second half of the season and playoff run. TFC could also spend the new pot of TAM money that all MLS clubs have been given on a replacement for Beitashour.

MLS SuperDraft recap

TFC traded its first-round pick (23rd overall) in last Friday’s MLS SuperDraft, the final pick of the first round, to Minnesota United for $50,000 in TAM and a second-round pick.

The Reds then turned around and used that pick (28th overall) on German-born Tim Kubel from the University of Louisville. Kubel is a versatile player who can play either as wingback or fullback on the right side, an area of the field Toronto needed to bolster following the off-season exit of Beitashour.

Toronto selected Western Michigan goalkeeper Drew Shepherd with its other second-round draft choice. TFC also picked University of Hartford defender Andre Morrison (third round, 69th overall) and defender Ben White from Gonzaga University (fourth round, 92nd overall).

All the draft picks will be with the team at the start of training camp in Los Angeles, as will a number of TFC 2 players, as they try to win a roster spot for this season. A few youth academy players will also make the trip to LA.

Late arrivals to camp

Goalkeeper Bono, defender Morrow and midfielder Delgado are not with the team at the moment. All three were named to the U.S. national team’s annual January training camp. They are expected to rejoin TFC after the U.S. plays Bosnia on Jan. 28 in a friendly in Los Angeles.

Pre-season schedule

The team will start and end training camp in Toronto, and will head to California and Mexico in between.

Here’s the schedule as it stands now.

• Jan. 22 – Players report to Toronto for medicals
• Jan. 23 – Team leaves for Los Angeles
• Jan. 27 – Exhibition match vs. NCAA’s UC Irvine in LA
• Jan. 29 – Exhibition match vs. NCAA’s Cal State Fullerton in LA
• Jan. 31 – Exhibition match vs. Mexico’s Club Tijuana in San Diego
• Feb. 2 – Exhibition match vs. LAFC in LA
• Feb. 3 – Team returns to Toronto
• Feb. 6 – Team leaves for Mexico
• Feb. 14 – Team returns to Toronto

Vanney said TFC will play a number of exhibition matches during its time in Mexico in order to prepare for the CONCACAF Champions League.

CONCACAF Champions League

Before kicking off the regular season, TFC will begin play in the CONCACAF Champions League. Toronto takes on MLS side Colorado Rapids in a two-leg aggregate series in the Round of 16 series. The first leg is scheduled for Feb. 20 in Colorado with the return match slated for BMO Field on Feb. 27.

Should Toronto advance, it would face the winner of the Round of 16 series between Mexico’s Tigres UANL and C.S. Herediano of Costa Rica. The Reds last competed in the Champions League in 2012-13 when they bowed out in the group stage. Toronto’s best showing was the year before when it reached the semifinals under Dutch manager Aron Winter.

Kickoff of regular season

For the first time in franchise history, Toronto FC will begin the MLS campaign at home when they host the Columbus Crew in their season opener on March 3.

The Reds then enjoy a bye week and 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.

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