Diego Forlan’s double facepalm (after a Confederations Cup loss) may come in handy with TFC.Ever since former Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke became the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in April, there’s been speculation that Toronto FC would make a big-name signing, and it’s looking like that signing will be Diego Forlan, the Uruguayan striker/midfielder who won the Golden Ball in 2010 as the top player at the World Cup that year. This fits a pattern: after Leiweke played a crucial role in bringing David Beckham to the AEG-owned L.A. Galaxy, and Beckham had an important part to play in the success of both that team and MLS as a whole. Leiweke’s focus obviously isn’t all on TFC given MLSE’s massive sports portfolio (also including the Leafs, the Raptors and the Marlies) but bringing in a big soccer name paid off for him in the past, and now it’s looking like he’s planning to follow that same blueprint again. The question is if that’s a blueprint that will help turn TFC’s fortunes around, or if it’s just one more failed strategy for a franchise that’s had plenty of those since its 2007 inception. Unfortunately for TFC fans, there’s plenty to suggest it might be the latter.
The rumours that TFC will bring in Forlan have been growing over the last few days, and The Globe and Mail‘s Paul Attfield reported Sunday night that a deal with Forlan will come to pass this week. The fit here is more than about just Leiweke, too: Toronto FC general manager Kevin Payne, who took that job last November, is no stranger to high-profile moves from his time running D.C. United. Payne and Leiweke are likely both looking to make some splashes, and the signing of a globally-recognized player like Forlan would certainly do that. TFC’s decision Tuesday to trade 24-year-old midfielder Luis Silva to D.C. United for allocation money may be part of the process of clearing salary for a Forlan acquisition, too; if Forlan comes, he’s going to be making a massive amount of cash as a designated player, and while only part of that counts against the salary cap ($368,750 over a full season, $175,000 for half a year), it still usually takes some tweaking to fit a hit like that in under the $2.95 million salary cap. The Silva move likely is part of clearing salary, and this team’s likely clearing salary to sign someone big; every indication is that it will be Forlan, if he’s willing to come.
The question is if signing Forlan is a smart move for Toronto FC, though. From a marketing standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. Forlan is one of the world’s most recognizable players thanks to his success with high-profile clubs such as Manchester United, Villareal and Athletico Madrid, his dominant play for Uruguay during their 2010 World Cup run (where he scored a tournament-high five goals in addition to winning the Golden Ball) and his renowned hair. Bringing in a player like Forlan might be one of the best arguments to get fans to go watch a TFC team that’s currently a disastrous 2-8-7, second-worst in MLS. Signing Forlan also would likely improve the team this year: as David Rowaan writes at Waking The Red, Forlan could be an excellent addition to the TFC offence, particularly if used in a playmaking role behind traditional strikers. However, he might not be the greatest fit for the club over the long-term.
Forlan is already 34, and while he’s in good condition and has impressed with his latest club (Brazil’s Internacional, where he notched five goals last year and has four so far this season) and starred for Uruguay during this year’s World Cup qualifying campaign and the Confederations Cup, there are legitimate questions about how much he has left in the tank. Beyond that, he hasn’t proven a good fit everywhere he’s gone: his disastrous Inter Milan stint in 2011-2012 saw him collect just two goals in 16 appearances. Toronto FC’s history with big-name players doesn’t exactly bode well, either: Eric Hassli was traded for a conditional draft pick this year, Torsten Frings impressed when healthy but had injuries limit how much he played, Danny Koevermans hasn’t lived up to expectations so far and high-profile Canadians Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman eventually had ugly exits from town. Maybe Forlan can be the rare big name who finds success with TFC, but history isn’t o n that side.
What’s perhaps most concerning about a move to acquire Forlan is how it speaks to the team’s lack of a coherent long-term direction. Forlan’s likely going to be a top-tier player for just another year or two at best, and this current Toronto FC team is a long ways from being a contender during that stretch. TFC had appeared to be going with a youth and development focus under new head coach Ryan Nelsen, but ditching a promising young player like Silva to bring in a veteran like Forlan is the exact opposite of that, and it’s a move that suggests that they’re changing horses in midstream again. This team’s had eight coaches over seven years, and each of them has brought in different strategies, often leading to radical alterations of the roster and a struggle to establish a coherent identity. Acquiring Forlan seems like another move out of that mould: it’s bringing in a player who will be good for a few more years at best to a team that’s highly unlikely to get anywhere near a championship in that timeframe. Perhaps there are more moves to come, and perhaps Nelsen, Payne and Leiweke can build a contending roster in less time than it typically takes, but as currently constructed, TFC isn’t a team that’s even close to a good MLS side. Forlan should help them get somewhat better, but that might only take them to mediocre. At least he might sell a few tickets…