In retrospect, the days at the end of last week blur together a bit for Toronto FC general manager Ali Curtis.
Perhaps a part of it is due to the global pandemic, which continues to alter daily life for the last 14 months where time and days and weeks and months can seem similar to millions of people. But most of it comes from Curtis leading the search for Toronto FC's third Designated Player, which accelerated in recent weeks. They had Venezuelan international Yeferson Soteldo in their crosshairs and the club were exhausting every last bit of focus to land this acquisition. There were meetings, and more meetings, then some more. All day and most of the night, seemingly, heading into last weekend.
It certainly wasn't easy. Toronto were negotiating with not just Brazilian club Santos, the team they would be acquiring Soteldo from, but his previous club Huachipato as well. It was complex but on Monday evening, all that work, focus, virtual meetings and nights with less than the CDC-recommended eight hours of sleep paid off. Toronto FC announced the acquisition of Soteldo from Santos, a player viewed with the potential to be among the most talented in the league, signed entering the beginning of his prime at 23-years-old.
“We were the right club, playing in the right league. It was the right player, the right time and the right price," Curtis told MLSsoccer.com. "It was good to push the deal over the line, I think he’s going to be an incredible player for our team and this league."
That confluence of timing helped immensely, making the move a wonderful fit for Toronto and Soteldo, while, financially, it was adequate for Santos (and Huachipato).
Soteldo joined Santos in 2019 and had been among their better players, with 18 goals and 16 assists in 85 matches while being named to the 2020 Copa Libertadores Best XI as well as the 2020 Team of the Year in the Campeonato Paulista (São Paulo’s premier state championship). The problem, though, is that Santos had yet to pay the funds owed to Huachipato from the original acquisition and were facing a transfer sanction until they did. They needed to pay Huachipato before being allowed to sign any players.
That gave Toronto an opportunity that they otherwise probably wouldn't have, given Soteldo's importance to Santos and pre-pandemic value. There were reports suggesting interest to the tune of $18 million -- from fellow MLS club Atlanta United -- as well as the usual transfer gossip to Europe for a young player excelling at Santos. TFC's Brazilian scout elevated Soteldo's name in various reports and the player kept climbing their lists before he became a top target to fill their final DP spot.
In discussions with Santos (and Huachipato), all parties reached an amiable solution as Soteldo reportedly cost Toronto north of $6 million, just a fraction of what would have been expected in the winter of 2020.
“The player was really excited about the opportunity to come to Toronto and MLS," Curtis said. "He’s heard a lot about our club and our city, the player really wanted to come. It was a complex situation in terms of his club situation. We were ready to add a third Designated Player and we were ready to do that now. Our transfer window was open. A lot of those things were trending in our favor and we were able to get the deal over the line.”
With the legwork and administrative work in the rearview mirror, now comes the fun part: Head coach Chris Armas and his staff are now tasked with figuring out how Soteldo best fits in Toronto's star-laden attack.
“Adding Soteldo gives us a front six that is very, very strong," Curtis said. "It gives Chris a lot of tools and a lot of ideas to think about. It’s exciting."
Soteldo has predominantly played on the left wing, where he has taken full advantage of being extremely capable with both his right or left (a la Alejandro Pozuelo), though he has spent time on the right flank or even as a No. 10 during his career.
Armas has been playing a fluid 4-2-2-2 to start the season, though an obvious caveat would be to note they have been without a handful of presumed starters in every game they've played so far. Pozuelo, the reigning MLS MVP, has yet to make his season debut, neither has key center back Chris Mavinga. Jozy Altidore has started two of the club's five competitive matches. Ayo Akinola hasn't started any. Jonathan Osorio only just returned, Gallardo has been out a few games.
Whenever (if ever?) Toronto get to full strength -- which is likely to include another acquisition before the Primary Transfer Window closes, per source -- TFC's familiar 4-2-3-1 could be a solution to maximize their attacking talent. Soteldo could jump into the XI at either wing, with Osorio on the opposite side and Pozuelo through the middle underneath one striker. To get both Altidore and Akinola in a two striker formation, it would likely mean Soteldo and Pozuelo playing as inverted wingers in the current 4-2-2-2. There are, I'm sure, plenty of other machinations Armas and his staff are scheming outside of those two.
It's a good problem to have, with more talent than can fit into the starting XI. Homegrown midfielders Ralph Priso and Noble Okello have impressed with unexpected opportunities early in the season, as has attacker Jacob Shaffelburg.
Irrespective of the formation, Armas favors a more up-tempo and pressing ethos that Soteldo would fit into.
"He’s a really good age and he still has a lot to prove," Curtis said. "He’s hungry. He’s excited about coming to our team and this league, he thinks there’s an opportunity to help take our team to another level. He’s going to make our team more dimensional, especially in the attacking third. He’s dynamic, he can create goals for himself and for others. We like the way he moves with the ball and without it."
All of those words boil down to three very simple ones that can be echoed across the TFC fanbase.
"I’m very excited," said Curtis.