TORONTO – Timing can be everything.
Such was the case for Toronto FC in the acquisition of Gregory van der Wiel, whose signing was announced on Feb. 1.
“We're really excited to add Gregory to our roster,” said TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko on Monday afternoon from the BMO Training Ground. “He's a winner.”
“Even though we had success last year, we're always looking to improve, find profiles to take us to the next level,” continued Bezbatchenko. “He fits the pedigree of what this club is about and will be a welcome addition as we look to defend our titles this year.”
Trophies, at the end of the day, are what it is all about.
“I'm very happy to be part of this club, a winning club. That's what I grew up doing,” said van der Wiel. “I've been winning since I was seven. Since I joined Ajax, [I've] played at teams where I had to win. That's where I want to be, who I am.”
Defending MLS Cup champions, having won a treble of honors last season, TFC had few holes to plug. The departure of Steven Beitashour for LAFC, however, left a gap on the right side that needed attention. The added Targeted Allocation Money at play in 2018 only expanded the possibilities.
“We identified this position where potentially we were going to need to find a replacement,” said Bezbatchenko of the process of adding van der Wiel. “If we were going to do that – given the spine of our team, the talent and what we were able to accomplish last year – this was one position that could really elevate us. We had a number of players we were watching throughout the year; [van der Wiel's availability] came about later, Christmas/New Year.”
While the timing was "fortunate" according to TFC head coach Greg Vanney, what intrigued him most was “the person I met and the mentality he has to work hard, compete, and to achieve things.”
“That's imperative when you find players that want to come to this league,” said Vanney. “That they are coming here to win. We get better as a team today. [Van der Wiel] adds another level of sophistication on our right side. Between his quality, flexibility, and soccer intelligence, it gives us a lot of opportunity.”
Raised in the famed Ajax youth system before going on to represent his country in the 2010 World Cup – where he started in the final – the Dutchman has not enjoyed his last two seasons, spent in Turkey and Italy.
Van der Wiel described his time at Fenerbahce as “not the most successful,” adding that, “I lost my pleasure for the game. I needed to leave Turkey to play football again.”
The high-profile 2016 move from Paris Saint-Germain to Fenerbahce soured quickly, leading to another move the following season, this one to Italian side Cagliari. He arrived with an injury; once fit, a coaching change had him again outside looking in.
“Ten games in a row on the bench,” explained van der Wiel. “I don't know why. That was not up for discussion.”
Though the 30-year-old had other options, it was time for something different.
“I always wanted to play in MLS,” said van der Wiel. “I've been many times to this side of the ocean and what I've picked up is that the mentality, how the people live with their sport, the professionalism, here is way different from Europe. I think on this side it's ten years ahead.”
“I'm tired [of being] judged by the way I look, the way I live my private life, the pictures I post on Instagram,” confided van der Wiel. “I've always been a person who works hard, always had the mentality to be a top player. The last two years I got judged and sidelined by things other than my football qualities. I wanted to be in environment where it was different.”
Continued van der Wiel: “I'm already feeling, my first week, that it is a totally different world: you get treated well, everything is well arranged… this is everything I hoped for. I need to get my pleasure back. That will come; I have no doubt.”
The acquisition of a player of van der Wiel's pedigree matches a pattern in recent TFC arrivals: Victor Vazquez and Chris Mavinga, both of whom similarly found themselves not enjoying their soccer in Europe before coming to Toronto ahead of the 2017 season.
“Guys who have high profiles, played at a high level,” compared Vanney. “When you make choices, not always do they turn out as hoped or expected. [Now], Victor and Chris love playing again, found that passion.”
“It comes down to us being human; understanding Gregory as a person, providing the things that people expect, allow him to be himself, enjoy and play the game,” explained Vanney. “This is a club full of good people, eager to help and support each other. From that you find joy in life and on the field. And when you win, that helps.”