It’s nice to have choices, and Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney certainly has plenty of them ahead of the start of the new Major League Soccer campaign.
The majority of TFC’s roster from last year’s treble-winning season remains intact, with all three designated players in Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco still in tow, as well as playmaker Victor Vazquez and defender Chris Mavinga.
That said, there have been a few defections in the aftermath of Toronto’s MLS Cup victory last December. Right fullback Steven Beitashour explored free agency and signed with Los Angeles FC. Canadian winger Raheem Edwards was lost in the expansion draft. Veteran midfielder Benoit Cheyrou retired.
But never one to idly sit by when there are roster holes to fill, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has been busy this off-season – he’s signed Dutch international defender Gregory van der Wiel, Brazilian wingback Auro, homegrown product Liam Fraser and young forward Ayo Akinola.
The additions of van der Wiel and Auro, in particular, have major implications, giving Vanney the flexibility to more easily change his team’s formation and tactics. Vanney has experimented with his lineups during the club’s pre-season training camp games in California and Mexico, but even with so many options, he admits to having a pretty good idea of what his starting 11 will be when the season kicks off.
The reigning MLS coach of the year is not tipping his hand, though.
“By and large, we know what our [ideal starting lineup] looks like. … We have a good sense of it. We don’t have a boatload of new payers. Gregory is a new addition, but we like the group we have. We obviously added [van der Wiel] and will add a couple more pieces, hopefully. But we’re close to being ready for the season with a firm starting 11,” Vanney told Sportsnet.
If Vazquez and Mavinga were TFC’s best newcomers of 2017, then van der Wiel has to be considered the leading, pre-season candidate for 2018.
A product of Ajax’s youth academy, van der Wiel went on to play for the famous Dutch side from 2007 to 2012. He won 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. From there, van der Wiel went to Fenarbahce in Turkey and Cagliari in Serie A.
Thus far, the Dutchman has made a seamless transition, according to Vanney.
“He fits in with the group very nicely, in terms of personality and getting along with everybody. It’s a lot easier to integrate into a new team when [there is no language barrier] and it’s a great group of guys. He’s quickly settled into the group,” Vanney said.
Vanney has also been impressed with van der Wiel’s play on the field, explaining he gives the team something different compared to previous right fullbacks.
“In terms of his play, he’s excellent. He has an incredible engine to get up and down [the wing] and he has great athleticism. He’s a fantastic soccer player,” Vanney enthused.
“Guys have to get used to having someone out on the right side who is really looking to play and combine, and move and play multiple passes in an area, and who will get in behind [opposing defences]. He’s far more involved than some our outside players have tended to be in the past where they were really only looking to work up and down the line.
“Gregory gives us a new look on the right side.”
The addition of Auro, a right-sided defender and wingback, also means Nicolas Hasler can shift over into the centre of the midfield after playing on the right side last season when Beitashour was injured.
“With Greg and Auro, we can now slide Nico back in as a midfielder, which gives us added depth there,” Vanney said.
“It gives us versatility too, because with Nico, he did a nice job as a wingback, but he wasn’t as comfortable in a back four. Now, he can play in his more natural position in the middle.”
Toronto begins the 2018 MLS regular season on March 3 versus the Columbus Crew at BMO Field. It’s the first time in franchise history that the Reds will start a new campaign at home. Before that, TFC takes on the Colorado Rapids in the Round of 16 in the CONCACAF Champions League. Leg 1 is Feb. 20 in Denver, while the return match is Feb. 27 in Toronto.