Toronto FC’s next task is figuring out how to keep its designated players

Toronto-FC's-Sebastian-Giovinco.-(Frank-Gunn/CP)

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – What a year it’s been for Toronto FC.

From a league-record 69 points and hoisting the MLS Cup at BMO Field in 2017, to recording just 36 points and failing to make the post-season in 2018. All in the span of less than 12 months.

As a result, TFC now faces one of the most important and interesting off-seasons in franchise history.

Talk to the players and you’ll get a general consensus that some minor tweaks, rather than an exhaustive overhaul of the roster, is required ahead of the 2019 campaign. A reset might be needed, but there’s no sense in blowing things up. The foundation is there, the main pieces in place for this team to climb back atop the MLS mountain.

General manager Tim Bezbatchenko thinks long-term. He doesn’t look a season ahead at a time. Rather, he maps out the next four to five years. It’s why Bezbatchenko spent so much time, energy and resources in 2018 in locking up key players before their contracts expired. Influential midfielders Victor Vazquez and Jonathan Osorio, starting goalkeeper Alex Bono, defender Chris Mavinga, and fullback Justin Morrow were all inked to extensions. In doing so, Bezbatchenko ensured that five pivotal players from last year’s treble-winning team will remain with the Reds for the foreseeable future.

Now comes the big challenge for Bezbatchenko: Making sure that Sebastian Giovinco ends his career in Toronto.

Giovinco will enter the final year of his current contract with TFC in 2019. When asked during Monday’s end-of-season briefing with the media if he’d like to have his contract renewed prior to the start of the 2019 campaign, Giovinco seemed to suggest he was waiting for the club to reach out to him to talk about a new deal.

“This is not my problem. This is their problem. It’s not mine. … If I am without contract I can leave,” Giovinco said.

He later added: “Every year I say the same thing. I [would] like to stay here, [I would] love to stay here. But it’s not only about me.”

Extending Giovinco’s contract has to be a top a priority for TFC this off-season. In four short years, the Italian has established himself as one of the best players ever to compete in MLS, providing Toronto with a glut of goals (73) and assists (57) in 125 regular season and playoff appearances. He was also named league MVP in 2015.

Giovinco’s small stature – he stands only five-foot-four – has hardly slowed him down in a league known for its physical and punishing style of play. The diminutive attacker has led the league in total shots in three of the last four years, a testament to his ability to get in front of the goal and make things happen in the final third of the pitch.

Giovinco has also proven to be incredibly durable, averaging 28.5 games and 2,408 minutes of playing time per season during his MLS tenure. He turns 32 in January, and his goal production has dipped each year he’s been in the league. But he’s still on top of his game, and is widely regarded as one of the most feared and dangerous players in MLS. Quality forwards and genuine game-breakers are at a premium in MLS. Bezbatchenko should move heaven and earth to re-sign him.

The same can be said of captain Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, TFC’s other two designated players who, like Giovinco, will enter the final year of their respective contracts next year.

Bradley has been a workhorse since coming to Toronto in 2014, logging more games and playing time than any of his teammates. A modest stat sheet – just nine goals and 26 assists in regular-season appearances – doesn’t provide a full picture of the midfielder’s contributions to TFC or his wide-ranging influence.

Bradley is the heartbeat and nerve centre of his franchise, the central figure for a TFC side that over the course of the last three years has won an MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, three consecutive Canadian Championships, and came achingly close to becoming the first MLS side to win the Concacaf Champions League.

The American international played an important role in the remarkable culture change that this team undertook since his arrival. He speaks bluntly and plainly, holding his teammates and himself accountable at all times. More than anybody else, Bradley sets the tone in the TFC locker room, his level of commitment to the cause an example for his teammates to follow.

Even at 31, Bradley has much more to give this franchise, and by all accounts he’s keen to do it.

“I love this city; I love the club. I’ve given my life to this club over the last five years, [and] until the day comes that I walk out the door – if I walk out the door – I will always do that,” Bradley said.

Time doesn’t appear to be an issue with Bradley, though.

“I can only speak for myself, but my contract has never been a distraction. Not one little bit, and it won’t be,” TFC’s captain asserted.

Altidore is coming off an injury-plagued year that limited him to just 13 regular season appearances. Still, the 28-year-old forward scored a respectable seven goals in that limited action, offering a glimpse of what might have been had he been able to remain healthy.

To be sure, injuries have dogged Altidore during his four years in Toronto. But again, he’s a proven goal scorer in MLS, and his commitment to TFC has been exemplary. Locking him up would be a good piece of business by TFC.

As much as MLS teams rely on their depth, it is a salary cap league, which means sides with star players generally excel. TFC has three of the best in Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore. They have been the cornerstones of this franchise for the past several years, and can continue to be for the next few seasons.

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