How MLS Cup quest has become Toronto's now-or-never moment

Win or lose, Toronto will have trouble keeping this team together. As Paul Tenorio notes, that makes the 2016 playoffs this team's defining moment.

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Ambition has long driven Toronto FC.

It drove it to the bottom of MLS and to eight seasons without a playoff appearance. It’s also been the catalyst for a team that now stands on the brink of an MLS Cup appearance.

We’re expecting more of our players; we’re expecting more of ourselves and the organization as a whole

- Toronto president Bill Manning

Toronto has never been shy about spending money. On Wednesday evening, TFC will trot out three of the league’s highest-paid players: Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. It will do so in a recently-renovated and expanded stadium in front of 37,000-plus fans. And it will do so with a mound of expectations.

“You play all year to get this point,” Michael Bradley said Monday. “At this point, both teams are 90 minutes away from playing in a final. And I think that in and of itself is incredible motivation.”

For all the money that has been spent and for all the debate about how much was too much for Bradley and Altidore, Toronto FC is two wins short of a league title. The ambition can finally pay off with silverware.

Will anything short of an MLS Cup, though, make this season a failure? This feels like a do-or-die for Toronto.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto built everything towards this year’s team. The contracts of Giovinco and Bradley and Altidore left just enough wiggle room to make tweaks and moves that set them up for a championship run. It’s possible, though, that the roster will have to be blown up, to some extent, after this season.

Rumors are floating around about interest in Bradley from multiple teams in Europe. Bradley said this fall he would address his future after the season, but losing him in the midfield would be a massive blow. Others, like Will Johnson, will test the free agency waters, and some players will want contract increases, which will make for some difficult roster decisions.

In other words, there are no guarantees Toronto will get here again.

To fall short of a title would be especially painful because the roster was so perfectly crafted, even in just the short term. Toronto has the right attacking balance, as it showed in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final when Tosaint Ricketts entered the game and changed the entire pace of the match. It has the defensive players that can keep the team in almost any game. It has the requisite midfield depth; Johnson, for example, came off the bench to solidify things in the first leg against Montreal. Most importantly, the roster also has the MLS experience to navigate the playoffs.

“From day one this year of preseason, it was about understanding that we had the foundation for a good team,” Bradley said.

After being eliminated in the first round last year, Toronto went into this postseason knowing it needed to do more this time around. It was made clear a championship was the ultimate goal. 

“It shows a bit how we have changed the culture here at TFC and we’re expecting more,” Toronto FC president Bill Manning told media at the start of the postseason. “We’re expecting more of our players; we’re expecting more of ourselves and the organization as a whole. We’re really looking forward to treading new ground.”

Anything short of an MLS Cup final appearance would likely fail to meet those expectations.

Defining the value of Ramirez

Of the many decisions Minnesota United will have to make in the few months left before its MLS debut, one of the biggest is how much to spend on Christian Ramirez. The striker has been the star player for Minnesota since the departure of Miguel Ibarra. Ramirez won the NASL’s Golden Boot this season, scoring 18 goals to up his total to 51 over the past three seasons with Minnesota. Does that production in the NASL mean Ramirez should see significant money, though?

Reports that Minnesota turned down a transfer fee from a Liga MX team makes the negotiation even tougher, because that likely ups his value in the eyes of the player’s agent.

It is easy to compare Ramirez to other strikers in MLS and try to figure the right salary numbers. But some around the league say the value changes because Ramirez has yet to prove he can score goals on a consistent basis in a first-division league. According to this line of thinking, Ramirez shouldn’t expect to make money similar to Ola Kamara ($457,500) or even Juan Agudelo ($425,000). He hasn’t proved it yet at the top level. Some sources around the league question whether Ramirez will be a consistent starter in MLS.

A better comparison might be Orlando City’s Kevin Molino. The Trinidad and Tobago star was a two-time USL MVP, yet his first contract in MLS has paid him $121,400. Molino is definitely underpaid, but his contract shows that value for star lower-division players isn’t set as though their numbers will directly translate to MLS. Now that Molino has proved it in MLS, he’s due a new deal.

If Minnesota can pay Ramirez somewhere around $200,000 per year, it’s an easy deal to make. If Ramirez is looking for more than $300,000 per year – a salary that would put him in the same neighborhood as players like Chris Pontius, and ahead of Andreas Ivanschitz, Yura Movsisyan, Maxi Urruti and Diego Fagundez – it becomes a question of whether an expansion team is paying a premium for a home market’s emotional connection.

It won’t be an easy call for Manny Lagos, and it will be one of his biggest decisions yet.

The Final Third

Celtic interest – Darlington Nagbe isn’t the only MLS player Celtic is watching in the January window.

With some of Europe’s biggest clubs tracking Moussa Dembélé, Brendan Rodgers is starting to scan the world market for a potential replacement. Orlando City forward Cyle Larin is among the strikers Celtic is tracking, according to a source.

Larin is entering the third year of his deal in MLS, which means Orlando City would still only see 50 percent of a transfer fee if Larin is moved before the end of the season. That puts the Lions in a tough spot. Holding on to him for another year maximizes the profit. But if Larin can fetch a high transfer fee, it would be an important infusion of cash for a team that doesn’t have much on hand. Orlando City would be losing its top goal-scorer, but it would start to have some flexibility for Jason Kreis to make more moves.

The question is what price MLS would set for the 21-year-old Canadian, who has scored 31 goals in 59 MLS league games. 

Cosmos in trouble – News of more financial trouble for yet another NASL club had Soccer Twitter buzzing in the U.S. this week. My thoughts on the situation are brief: It’s a bad thing for American soccer if franchises are folding. The more teams looking for pro players, the better. Period. This does, however, highlight the difficulties in running financially-feasible teams in the lower leagues – especially if player spending increases.

If the Cosmos truly are in trouble, the future of the NASL obviously would be in doubt. The league is already losing three franchises, with more potential departures on the horizon with Rayo OKC and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.

It will be best for the U.S. soccer scene if the league finds a way to survive and rebound.

Quote of the Week: “I am surprised by the question as there is no coaching job in MLS bigger than the Timbers. Caleb is happy here and we are happy with him. He isn't going anywhere.” – Timbers owner Merritt Paulson to The Oregonian, when asked about the possibility of Porter going to the LA Galaxy.

Soccer read of the week: A fantastic read by James Montague in the New York Times about one city split by war, and the two soccer clubs that claim a history: 

Non-soccer read of the week: Eli Saslow is always a must-read. This story on the orphan of the two San Bernardino terrorists is yet another example of why. 

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Paul Tenorio's column, Sideline View, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.