Toronto FC has taken the phrase "May you live in interesting times" to the extreme this offseason.
It appeared the Reds would return nearly all of the pieces, both on and off the field, that won a domestic treble in 2017. All were ready to make amends for a brutal 2018 that saw Toronto miss the postseason.
Then the departures started piling up.
The first loss was GM Tim Bezbatchenko, who left to take over as president of the Columbus Crew. Ali Curtis was picked to replace him, but then TFC started losing some key on-field pieces. Victor Vazquez, keen to make one last payday, left for Qatari side Al-Arabi. Gregory van der Wiel's strained relationship with manager Greg Vanney burst out into the open, and Van der Wiel has been told he'll never play for the club again.
The biggest blow of all came at the end of January, when attacking linchpin Sebastian Giovinco, unable to agree terms on a contract extension, bolted for Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal. Giovinco, upon his departure, didn't hide his disappointment, taking to Instagram to voice his displeasure at how his time in Toronto ended.
"Recently, after refusing to exercise the club option for 2020, I was offered terms that I deemed unacceptable," Giovinco wrote. "They may say I left for a more lucrative deal, but this is not the case. Their offer and lack of transparency is a clear message. It seems management prefers to focus on things other than the pure desire to win. After having grown the brand and elevating the overall reputation of TFC both at home and abroad, it seems I no longer serve a purpose. I would have accepted less to stay in Toronto. Therefore, I reluctantly announce that my tenure as a TFC player has come to an end."
It left TFC management having to sit back and take the brunt of the written fusillade, even though they felt they were within their rights to not meet Giovinco's demands -- which, according to club president Bill Manning, meant a contract term in excess of three years.
"I just think that [Giovinco] lashed out at us because he was angry," Manning said. "He was angry that we wouldn't meet his long-term commitment and his wages, so I understand that. It's not the first time it's happened, but we had to just look at our club, and say: Are we willing to pay those wages over that term? And we weren't."
The departures have left the franchise in an unsettled state. Curtis' reputation when he was with the New York Red Bulls was one of cutting payroll and taking an approach that eschewed stars and emphasized the academy, the USL team and more modestly priced imports. But Manning insisted that will not be Curtis' mandate in Toronto. Some faces may have changed, but the methods in terms of roster building will remain the same: aggressive in spending, but also strategic in terms of targets.
"We are going to be a team that has three DPs, has four or five TAM players," Manning said. "We absolutely are going to be a team that uses all the mechanisms. I think that was something that was really attractive to Ali, because he was in a different circumstance with the Red Bulls. We're going to be amongst the top quartile in spending always. And always it's the right player. We don't want to overpay for players. We want to be able to pay the right market value and get the right players."
Toronto is also sitting on the top spot in the allocation order, and Manning indicated that there are two players on the list whom the TFC brain trust find compelling.
Manning said with the funds that have been freed up, the team is hoping to sign a new Designated Player as well as two players who will fall in the Targeted Allocation Money bracket. In terms of its next DP, Toronto has been linked with KRC Genk attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo, he of the $8 million release clause, although it remains to be seen how the tug of war between Pozuelo and Genk will end.
All of this is offered up as proof by Manning that the appetite for TFC to be competitive hasn't waned, and owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment haven't threatened to reduce budgets, even in the wake of last year's failure to make the postseason. Manning added that TFC recognized the potential for the departures of Vazquez and Giovinco, and had been planning accordingly.
"We always knew that there would be different roads to take depending on what decisions get made, either by us or by the players," Manning said. "You kind of have your various options, and when it comes down to Seba, and he wants to go, you say, 'this is the path we're taking,' and you make sure that you get the best deal you can there and make sure we appropriately use that funding to get the right player on how we want to look. I think it's something where you plan for multiple scenarios, and as they come to fruition you act appropriately. So it's really been nothing that caught us out of the blue or surprised us."
Giovinco's exit coincides with a tweak in the tactical philosophy of Vanney. In recent seasons, Giovinco played as a slightly withdrawn forward, usually in tandem with Jozy Altidore. But Vanney is keen to place more of an emphasis on flank play combined with a big, central striker. It explains why the team went out and signed former U.S. international forward Terrence Boyd to provide cover for the injured Altidore, who Manning estimates is two weeks away from rejoining the team after undergoing ankle surgery late last season.
As for the next DP, if the rumors about Pozuelo are any indication, the player will be more of a direct replacement for Vazquez rather than Giovinco. Manning referenced former Real Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales as his prototype. Manning, it should be noted, saw Morales up close during his time as an RSL executive.
"Our guy would be Morales on steroids," Manning said about the club's next DP signing.
Manning understands that it's a balancing act that TFC is trying to play here. On the one hand, Vazquez and Giovinco were known commodities with proven track records of success in MLS. There are no guarantees that anyone brought in will be as effective. But both players were getting older, and Vazquez in particular had difficulty staying healthy last season.
"I think as we continue to evolve here, you're going to see us get younger," Manning said. "It's something you do as an organization. Every year the best clubs in the world go through these transition periods where some of their great players move on and it's how you replace them and how you reposition yourself."
The game waits for no one, however, and Toronto's CONCACAF Champions League commitments are set to begin next week against Panamanian side Independiente. Manning insists, "We're going to get after it," and points to veterans such as Michael Bradley, Marky Delgado, Chris Mavinga and Jonathan Osorio as players who nearly brought Toronto to the CCL promised land last year. That core, along with the addition of former MLS defender of the year Laurent Ciman, should be sufficient to get past the quarterfinal round. But clearly, Toronto isn't as well positioned to make a deep run as it was previously.
That is, unless reinforcements arrive. Toronto needs to reload and do it quickly if it wants to recapture the magic of 2017.