TORONTO—It was at this time last year that the wheels began to fall off for Toronto FC.
Sitting firmly in the top half of the Eastern Conference standings, the Reds went into a freefall after the World Cup, losing games and conceding goals at an alarming rate. The club was still in the playoff zone in late August when they fired Ryan Nelsen, but general manager Tim Bezbatchenko didn’t like the direction the team was headed in, and felt a coaching change had to be made if they were going to qualify for the post-season.
It didn’t work out. Greg Vanney couldn’t right the ship, and TFC slumped to a seventh-place finish in the East, eight points out of a playoff berth.
Currently, the Reds sit third in the East with a 7-3-7 record, just two points behind second-place. Crucially, they have games in hand on all but one team in the conference, including four games on leaders D.C. United. Eleven of their final 17 games are at home, this after playing seven straight road games to open the campaign. The team’s long-standing injury problems are almost behind them, and they’ll soon be getting some key players back who are away on international duty at the Gold Cup.
And, of course, new designated player Sebastian Giovinco has taken the league by storm. The Italian forward is an early candidate for the league’s MVP award, and leads TFC in goals (11) and assists (eight).
At midpoint of the season, Bezbatchenko is more than pleased with where his team is at and where it’s headed.
“We’re trending well, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Bezbatchenko said. “To be where we are at halfway through the year, I think we have an opportunity ahead of us to do great things.”
He later added: “Given the road trips at the start of the year, the (players) that we brought in, I think we’re in a good position …. Perhaps there’s some moves we can make the next month and really start to focus on the regularity of being at home and that normalcy will come back to our club, and that gives us a chance to build momentum. That’s what this is all about—building momentum leading into the final stretch.”
That’s not to say things are perfect. Far from it. The team is scoring goals, but it’s also conceding a lot—27 times to be exact, and has kept only four clean sheets. International absences and injuries have tested the team’s defensive depth, and it’s become quite clear that reinforcements on the back end need to be brought in.
The official retirement of veteran defender Steven Caldwell on Tuesday freed up some valuable salary cap space and opened up an international roster spot for the club. Combine this with the league introducing the new Target Allocation Money rule—basically teams have an extra $100,000 per year over the next five years to spend—and Bezbatchenko now finds himself with more resources to make a move during this summer transfer window. But while he knows they need defensive help, he’s not rushing into anything.
“You want to be smart, you want to be calculated. In the past, unfortunately, this club has made decisions that were made out of panic or sheer expediency—brought players in mid-season and jammed people up for years. It was tough getting free of a lot of these deadweight charges over the last years,” TFC’s GM admitted.
“I want to make sure that we’re not just thinking about this season and the short-term, but long-term. We have a great roster. We certainly have some needs just like every other team. Obviously we’re scoring at a high rate but we are conceding goals, and we are looking at (addressing) that.”
Bezbatchenko admitted he is actively looking at and is in discussion with players, as well as talking to club technical directors and other MLS general managers about possible deals. He argues, though, that the key to building team depth isn’t through transfer moves or trades, but by making the most of unused assets you already have—especially with the team employing three designated players.
“We have to be smarter, more creative because you can’t go buy the depth. That’s always the issue when you go the designated player model, is how do you get the depth on the roster? You can’t just go out and get it by committing to (new players) mid-season. You have to develop it,” Bezbatchenko explained.
“There are guys on our roster who are stepping up—guys like Daniel Lovitz and Marky Delgado. We’re really excited about people who are raising their levels when given the opportunity to play.”
Curiously, Giovinco was snubbed by voters for this year’s starting XI at the MLS All-Star Game when the roster came out on Monday. Just as curious, league commissioner Don Garber has two selections that he uses to select players that may have been overlooked by fans. Instead of Giovinco, he picked Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard—two stars who have yet to play a single MLS game.
Giovinco will, by all accounts, be added to the MLS all-star team, who will face Tottenham on July 29 in Denver. But make no mistake about it, the Italian not being named to the starting XI is a big snub—and it irks Bezbatchenko.
TFC’s general manager praised Giovinco for his performance in a 4-4 away to New York City FC on Sunday. The Atomic Ant scored a hat trick and collected an assist. What impressed Bezbatchenko the most, though, was Giovinco’s mental toughness, exemplified by his taking of a penalty and putting it in the same spot (lower left corner) after his penalty attempt earlier in the game hit the post.
“I just don’t think it’s the (statistics) with Seba. Obviously, the numbers are what people look at. … I just think you need to watch the games to watch him to see what he does. He scores goals of the highest quality. He’s phenomenal on the ball,” Bezbatchenko raved.
The GM also had kind words for Vanney, who’s been in the job just less than a year now and has impressed his boss with his ability to adapt.
“Teams tend to get found out in July. You have one system and one way of playing and over the course of the season things happen and people learn about you. Everybody is watching everybody’s games,” Bezbatchenko said.
“The best coaches and are the ones that have success over the years by adjusting, can make tactical changes, and are not just reliant on personnel changes. That’s what you have to do in a salary cap world, and Greg has shown a tremendous ability to make adjustments from game to game and during games. There’s not many coaches in the league who can do that,” Bezbatchenko offered.