Stejskal: Big questions loom as new GM Ali Curtis settles in at Toronto FC

Bill Manning, Ali Curtis, Greg Vanney - Toronto FC - at Curtis press conference

CHICAGO – Ali Curtis doesn’t want to say too much.

The new Toronto FC general manager has ideas about his new club, but he doesn’t yet have all the information. Hired less than two weeks ago after former GM Tim Bezbatchenko left to become president of the Columbus Crew, Curtis doesn’t know most of Toronto’s players, doesn’t have a deep working relationship with the team’s technical staff and doesn’t yet fully understand the club’s culture.

Until he does, the famously meticulous 40-year-old – he brought a 300-page plan to a job interview with the New York Red Bulls before he became their sporting director in December 2014 – isn’t going to be very publicly forthcoming.

“I’ve only been in Toronto two or three days,” Curtis told in Chicago last Thursday ahead of the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft. “I think to really, really evaluate things would be unfair for me to do from a public perspective.”  

Thankfully for him, he’s got a little bit of time. Though they’re coming off a miserable 2018 in which they finished ninth in the East, Toronto’s roster is mostly set for the 2019 season. TFC currently have 26 players under contract. That number doesn’t include SuperDraft picks Griffin Dorsey and Adam Wilson, or striker Lucas Janson, whom the club are still exploring bringing back on loan from Argentine club Tigre, according to what a source told last week.

They’ve got plenty of talent and addressed their biggest need of the winter by acquiring Laurent Ciman at center back, a problem spot last season due to persistent injuries to Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor. Things could change in the summer, but Curtis, who ran the Red Bulls in 2015 and 2016 before surprisingly leaving the club following a reported power struggle with then-head coach Jesse Marsch just ahead of the 2017 season, shouldn’t have many first-team signings to make before TFC kickoff their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 series against Panamanian club Independiente on Feb. 19.

He’ll be busy in the interim, it’s just that most of his work will be done in the shadows. Curtis will listen, learn and analyze, get to know manager Greg Vanney and his technical staff, examine TFC’s sports science and data analytics programs, dive into the club’s academy and build a working relationship with his new boss, TFC president Bill Manning. Other main priorities include learning the ins and outs of TFC’s cap situation and creating a strategic plan for the club within his first 90 days.

“I think it’s important as quickly as possible that I catch up and get up to speed so I don’t slowdown the momentum of what’s already in place,” he said. “In order to do that, I want to get to know the staff on and off the field, understand who they are, what they do and how they do it. I think it’s important that I get to know the players, as well. Not just how they play, but different kind of background information about their medical history, about all the things that influence their personalities, all the situations that they’re dealing with off the field. Those are probably two areas that I’d like to very quickly gain a comprehensive understanding of, because that influences how we’re going to move forward.”

Next winter is when Curtis will have to move to the forefront. That’s when Designated Players Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco all finish their contracts. All three played huge roles in Toronto’s magical 2017 season, and all three are legends at the club. They’re also getting older and command expensive salaries. Altidore will be 30 at the end of the 2019 season, while Bradley and Giovinco will both be 32. According to the MLS Players Association, the trio combined to make $18.6 million in 2018, with Giovinco and Bradley receiving the two largest salaries in MLS and Altidore making the seventh-most in the league last year.

Figuring out how to handle each DP will be perhaps the most important task of Curtis’ first year in Canada. Will he let all three walk and follow the Atlanta-led trend of targeting younger DPs from South America? Will he bring all three back if TFC make another run at MLS Cup and the Champions League? Could he convince any or all to return on a lower, non-DP salary? For now, of course, all that is uncertain. The only sure things are that Curtis will have a plan in place for every contingency and that he’ll jump headlong into his new role. He’ll expect the same from everyone else around him, too.

“I haven’t sat down with any of the [DPs] yet. I have, we have, communicated, but I think that those questions will be answered later down the line and not right now,” he said. “Just in terms of what’s happening, I think what’s most important is that those guys and all of our other players get into preseason and we go to work. What’s most important is that, not just with those DPs, but with all the guys, with our USL team, all of our Homegrowns, all the guys that we drafted, is that we come in we take our medicals and then we get to work, roll up our sleeves and start moving towards what needs to be achieved this year. That’s what I’m focused on, and that’s what my sense is what the group is focused on, as well.”