TFC notebook: MLS champs still have money to spend

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)

Toronto FC heads off to Mexico on Tuesday for the second portion of its pre-season training camp.

Here are some news and notes on TFC as it enters the home stretch of its preparations ahead of the start of the 2018 Major League Soccer regular season.

TFC still looking to add 1 or 2 pieces

Toronto made a big splash last week when it completed the signing of Gregory van der Wiel. The veteran Dutch defender previously played for such big European clubs as Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax, and has made 46 appearances for the Netherlands, including as a starter in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final against Spain.

A player of van der Wiel’s calibre and reputation required TFC to spend Targeted Allocation Money on him. TAM is a special pot of money that all MLS clubs can use to buy top domestic and international talent who would make as much as $1 million, but whose salary cap hit can be reduced to as little as $150,000. Toronto used TAM last year to sign Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, who earned $700,000 and would have otherwise been considered a Designated Player.

MLS gives each team $1.2 million per season in TAM for both 2018 and 2019 that they must use – if they don’t, they lose it. Teams are allowed to spend their 2019 TAM this year if they choose. MLS clubs can also spend an additional $2.8 million of their own money, considered a discretionary fund, in each of those years on TAM players.

TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko confirmed the club did not spend all of its mandatory and discretionary TAM money in landing van der Wiel, so they have the potential to use more of this special fund to sign top players this season. Bezbatchenko went on a number of scouting trips to Europe and South America during the off-season, and previously said he’s interested in adding depth to central midfield and another attacking player.

“We still need maybe one or two more signings to really complete what we need to do,” Bezbatchenko admitted.

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What’s up with Jason Hernandez?

Bezbatchenko told Sportsnet that he plans to continue to have contract talks with veteran defender Jason Hernandez, but that re-signing him is somewhat difficult due to the team’s salary cap situation.

Hernandez, 34, has been out of contract since the end of last season and is eligible for free agency. He signed with Toronto as a free agent last March and proved to be a valuable backup option when called upon, making eight regular-season appearances.

Four games planned for Mexico trip

The Reds have some high-profile opponents lined up for their stay in Mexico City.

Toronto will play exhibition matches against Club America, Pachuca, and Cruz Azul – three clubs who play in Liga MX, Mexico’s top division. TFC will also face a local side that routinely plays against Mexico’s first division teams.

Coach Greg Vanney said he will take fewer players down to Mexico compared to the group he brought to California for the first leg of training camp that ran from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3.

“There won’t be as many minutes to play … We’ll start to get tighter, and start to look a little bit closer to what our final roster will look like,” Vanney said.

“There will be 20 to 24 guys who will get the vast majority of [playing] time while we’re down there.”

More emphasis will also be put on tactics in Mexico.

“A lot of what we were doing in [L.A.] was about fitness, and some of the principles by which we’re looking to play, and getting everybody on the same page. Now we’ll get more specific in some of the tactical things,” Vanney explained.

The Mexico trip is part of the Reds’ preparation for the CONCACAF Champions League where, if they get past their first opponent, they’ll likely face a Mexican team.

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 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.

Vanney said he fully expects van der Wiel to be available for selection against Colorado. The Dutch defender hasn’t started a game since Dec. 22 for Italian outfit Cagliari, his previous club.

“Physically he’s ready. … We’ll get a couple of games with him down in Mexico. In my ideal scenario, he’ll be ready to provide whatever minutes we need as soon as the series starts,” Vanney stated.

Should Toronto advance past Colorado, it would face the winner of the Round of 16 series between Mexico’s Tigres and 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.

Tsubasa Endoh still on trial

Tsubasa Endoh remains with the team as he attempts to earn a new contract, but coach Vanney is talking as though the Japanese winger will be part of his plans for this season.

Endoh was one of several players who had their contract options declined by TFC after last season. While some were let go outright by the club and others explored other options, Endoh was invited to go on trial during pre-season training camp. He’s looked solid thus far, scoring in last week’s 2-2 against Los Angeles FC.

“Tsubasa has been doing well. It’s going to get down to the wire as we look at these final roster spots, and what our international player count looks like, and what role he’ll play with us on a consistent basis. There’s a few different factors there,” Vanney said.

“Tsubasa is a good player. There’s no question he’s capable of playing in this league, so it’s just a matter of where he’ll fit in in the big picture and at what moment.”

Kickoff of regular season

After the two-game set with Colorado in the Champions League is out of the way, Toronto will have a short turnaround to get ready for the start of the MLS season.

For the first time in franchise history, TFC 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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