Roster building continues for Toronto FC coach Bob Bradley as players return

TORONTO — The process of roster building continues for head coach/sporting director Bob Bradley as Toronto FC players report for medicals Friday ahead of Sunday’s departure for training camp in California.

TFC is in need of a starting goalkeeper and left back. A centre back is also required after the departure of Chris Mavinga and Bradley has said he wants more options at forward. Depth in midfield is likely also an issue.

"We're in the midst of important conversations, negotiations," Bradley said in an interview Thursday. "We knew at the end of the year that we needed to improve in positions, we needed to have more of the right kind of guys. "

While Italians Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are returning for their first full MLS seasons, Toronto still has an open designated player spot.

Bradley says TFC could opt for a young designated player, whose salary cap cost is less (US$150,000 in 2022 for ages 20 and younger and $200,000 for ages 21-23 as opposed to $612,500 for a DP 24 or older).

"We are looking at different ways to do this," Bradley said. "So the potential for a bigger DP, I wouldn't say that's the focus. Could a player come up on the radar and change the way we're looking at it? Maybe. But I think we are looking in a broader way.

"We've got two big DPs and now I think we're looking to find the right way to build the rest of the team."

Going into his second year at the TFC helm, Bradley is looking to right a franchise that has missed the playoffs the last two seasons while compiling a combined 15-36-17 record. TFC, which compiled a 9-18-7 record last year, has finished second-from-last in the overall standings the last two seasons.

Toronto has made the post-season just once — losing to Nashville at the first hurdle in 2020 — since losing the MLS Cup final 3-1 to Seattle in 2019.

It's been a remarkable fall from grace considering Toronto won the Cup in 2017 and made the final in 2016. And while TFC went on a 4-1-3 run after the July arrival of Insigne and Bernardeschi, the club lost its final five outings — outscored 17-5 in the process.

There has been considerable turnover as Bradley continues to gather assets.

Some 10 players under contract last season have left the club, including goalkeepers Alex Bono (now with D.C. United) and Quentin Westberg (Atlanta), defender Doneil Henry (Minnesota), defender/midfielder Luca Petrasso (Orlando), midfielder Noble Okello (unattached) and forward Ifunanyachi Achara (Houston).

Midfielder Jacob Shaffelburg's loan to Nashville is now a permanent move and TFC declined the 2023 contract option on fullback Auro, who spent last season on loan in his native Brazil.

Veteran fullback Domenico Criscito has returned to Italy's Genoa while Mavinga, a free agent, has joined the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Newcomers include Matt Hedges. a former MLS Defender of the Year, and young goalkeeper Tomas Romero.

And Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez is back in the TFC fold after spending the last two seasons with the Galaxy. The 35-year-old starred for TFC in 2017 and 2018 before leaving for a club in Qatar.

While Vazquez has plenty of mileage under his hood, Bradley is confident he can contribute.

"Will he starts some games? For sure," said the coach. "Let's see when we get going how it looks.

"Everybody knows Victor's a smart player. When you put skilful smart players on the field with other skilful smart players, you like to think that makes good things happen. The last two years he still played a lot of games with the Galaxy. Not always starting, not usually 90 minutes but still a lot of games. And he still loves to play."

Vazquez appeared in 54 regular-season games for the Galaxy over the last two seasons, including 36 starts. He played in 52 regular-season games for TFC in 2017 and '18 with 47 starts.

Veteran Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, the club's all-time appearances leader, signed a new three-year contract with a 2026 option in December, using targeted allocation money. Osorio, 30, made US$1.026 million last season.

Hedges, a 32-year-old free agent who has spent his entire 11-season MLS career with FC Dallas, signed a two-year deal with Toronto last month.

Bradley points to Hedges' experience, leadership and character.

"He's a good guy. So he'll be an important part," he added.

Bradley is looking to bring in another defender to partner with Hedges, with Shane O'Neill and Lukas MacNaughton the holdovers at centre back after Carlos Salcedo returned to his native Mexico in July.

Toronto could dip into the free agent ranks to fill the void in goal with veteran U.S. international Sean Johnson a free agent after spending the last six seasons with New York City FC.

Romero and holdover Greg Ranjitsingh, the third-string 'keeper, are the lone goalies on the roster going into camp.

The 21-year-old Romero, who has won one cap for El Salvador, was with Los Angeles FC most recently. He signed his first pro deal with LAFC in February 2021 and made 18 MLS appearances that season. He did not see league action last year.

Bradley calls Romero a "good young goalkeeper who was not brought here with the idea that he was going to be the No. 1 'keeper."

Toronto took two players in the recent MLS SuperDraft — Penn State defender Jalen Watson in the second round (32nd overall) and Western Michigan forward Charlie Sharp in the third round (61st overall).

Bradley says Watson, a 22-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., who made 59 appearances for the Nittany Lions, will take part in the first part of the pre-season. Sharp is expected to return to school.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press