The missing link: Lessons of MLS Cup 2016 guided Toronto to Victor Vazquez

Victor Vazquez - Toronto FC - controls the ball - close-up

TORONTO – Diego Valeri was deservedly named the 2017 Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player on Monday afternoon.

But everyone who watched Toronto FC put together a record-breaking campaign this season knows that Victor Vazquez is right up there with the Portland Timbers’ Argentine among the best in the league at the attacking midfield position.

The process that brought the Catalan to TFC was a long and winding road, and it’s helped lead the Reds back to the MLS Cup final for a second straight year (Saturday, 4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás, TSN, TVAS).

“We knew through the 2014 season that we needed an attacking midfielder who could unlock defenses,” TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko told by phone on Monday morning. “At that time, Michael Bradley was playing more advanced and we knew that his best position, where he could help the team most, was deeper in the midfield.

“We looked at Victor. He was interested, but we weren't able to reach terms,” he continued. “Within a month we had found Sebastian [Giovinco]. A different profile, more a striker and a forward, but he also had the ability to playmake. So rather than get an attacking mid, we got someone who could score and playmake.”

Toronto were also in the process of acquiring Jozy Altidore from Sunderland at the time. With three Designated Players on the roster, they looked to the rest of the squad to step up and fulfill that role.

After last season's MLS Cup defeat to the Seattle Sounders on a penalty-kick shootout, it became apparent to Bezbatchenko that TFC “needed to take that position to a new level.”

“Teams were starting to collapse and cover Jozy and Seba to a degree that not only would it be more difficult to score, but they couldn't do the playmaking they needed to do,” explained TFC's GM ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup rematch with Seattle.

“We went all out to find one going into this season.”

Toronto perused a list of about 10 players last winter, via the “kind of complicated” various MLS budget and roster categories. Vazquez was in a separate category, as “somebody we'd already done all the homework and research, tried to acquire in the past,” said Bezbatchenko. “He was someone we were constantly monitoring, who could come back into the mix should things change.”

Along with monitoring the player, Bezbatchenko and TFC seek to maintain good relations with the player and agent. And those efforts paid off in the end, as the Spaniard was signed on Feb. 20 using Targeted Allocation Money.

“Around this time last year, it became apparent his situation in Mexico [with Cruz Azul] wasn't turning out to be what he had hoped,” said Bezbatchenko. “It presented a new opportunity for him to come back into the mix.”

The missing link: Lessons of MLS Cup 2016 guided Toronto to Victor Vazquez -

Asked to reveal who else was on that list of 10 players, Bezbatchenko laughed.

“No, because we might acquire them later on should they need to be,” he said. “A lot of the 10 would do a good job. I trust our scouting and processes, but Victor was right up at the top of the list. No player is the same. We looked at attacking [No.] 8s, No. 10s; a variety of players with different skillsets. Victor was the one we felt we needed for this season.”

Missing piece in place, TFC reeled off a historic season featuring a Supporters' Shield, Canadian Championship triumph and now a second straight MLS Cup final appearance. Vazquez added a new dimension to the side, scoring eight goals and registering 16 assists through 31 regular-season appearances, then adding a goal and an assist in the Reds’ four Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs games to date.

Those traditional statistics are of interest, but TFC have their own internal numbers and key performance indicators (KPI).

“We run our own model with our own KPI of chance creation,” said Bezbatchnko. “He scores very highly in that.

“That said, you can't just rely on the stats and the analytics,” he added. “His ability to think quickly, make decisions, and see plays develop before they happen is something that the metrics don't always pick up. You have to watch. He can do that with the best, not just in the league, but around the world.”