Toronto FC has long been on the forefront of MLS trends.
They were among the first to fully run with the Designated Player model, bringing in in-their prime stars over aging European veterans. They ran with the league’s recently-implemented free agency, signing MLS veterans to anchor a top defensive unit. They even made arguably the best use of TAM last season, inking Victor Vazquez in an MLS Cup-winning campaign.
Now, TFC found yet another way to get better by signing a player whose resume is unmatched by any MLS player not named Bastian Schweinsteiger. Somehow, some way TFC has seemingly improved by making a move at a position that has always been far from sexy in MLS.
TFC announced the signing of Gregory van der Wiel on Thursday as the Dutch international fullback joins the reigning MLS Cup champions via TAM. In van der Wiel, TFC brings in an actual upgrade over their lone departing starter: right wingback Steven Beitashour. Following Beitashour’s departure, the position remained a big question mark heading into 2018. TFC answered that question mark with an exclamation point.
Van der Wiel’s resume speaks for itself. Two Eredivisie titles, four Ligue 1 crowns and an appearance in the 2010 World Cup final. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
The last two years have been rough at Fenerbahce and Cagliari, though. Obviously there are concerns given his recent form, which has seen him make only 16 appearances since the 2015/2016 season. He struggled at Fenerbahce and failed to really get going at Cagliari but less than two short years ago, van der Wiel was a key part of the Paris Saint-Germain defense. At 29 years old, he isn’t over the hill or past his prime. Van der Wiel is good. It’s just a matter of putting it back together. Even if he doesn’t, it’s a low-risk, high-reward move as van der Wiel doesn’t carry the Designated Player tag and TFC has a ready-made replacement in Nicholas Hasler.
Still, van der Wiel is seemingly a perfect fit for TFC. The Dutch fullback doesn’t have blazing pace, but he does have defensive IQ and ability on the ball. While at PSG, he was asked to be an attacker just as much as a defender, and that should fit in nicely in TFC’s three-at-the-back set.He’s a defender that has truly played at the highest level and, as a wing back in TFC’s system, he should be able to push forward a bit more and flourish. It’s taking a very good TFC defense and adding an international-level fullback. Opposite Justin Morrow, van der Wiel now ensures that TFC has a pair of wingbacks that are almost certainly tops in MLS.
For years, though, wingbacks has been a position that has been a bit neglected in MLS. It’s generally been a spot that’s been addressed with North American veterans and low-cost youngsters, saving money for players atop the field. In MLS, fullback play has never been as important as, say, a star striker or a creative No. 10. MLS teams have to balance a budget and, for years, it’s been at fullbacks’ expense.
TFC is one of several teams to go after bigger-money fullbacks this season. The Columbus Crew led the way with the signing of Designated Player Milton Valenzuela. NYCFC added highly-regarded Swedish defender Anton Tinnerholm. With the influx of TAM, MLS teams can now afford to address the fullback position, adding quality and a bit of tactical nuance to a position that has always been neglected.
Once again, TFC stole the show with a signing that is the highest-profile of a recent influx of talented outside backs. The van der Wiel signing is a big one, especially on a TAM deal. It remains to be seen how the Dutch defender fits in with the club heading into his first MLS season, but the move showed off two truths.
The first is that the fullback position is one that is becoming in-demand in MLS. The second? That TFC isn’t willing to rest on its laurels as the club continues to find ways to stay ahead of the game.