Toronto FC has acquired the last major piece in its off-season puzzle, signing Spanish veteran Victor Vazquez to add creativity and offence to its midfield.
The 30-year-old Vazquez, named Belgium footballer of the year in 2014-15 with Club Brugge, joined the Barcelona academy at age 10 and worked his way up its youth ranks alongside Lionel Messi. But two knee surgeries and a midfield crammed with stars prevented Vazquez from making his mark in the first team.
He made his senior debut for Barcelona on April 12, 2008, and scored off the bench in a Champions League win over Rubin Kazan in his final Barca appearance on Dec. 7, 2010. There were few chances in between. In all, Vazquez spent five seasons in the reserves with just four senior team appearances — two in La Liga and two in the Champions League.
An attacking midfielder was Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko's major goal since losing in the MLS Cup final to Seattle last December. Fullback/wingback Justin Morrow, with five goals, was the team's leading scorer last season after forward Sebastian Giovinco (17) and Jozy Altidore (10).
Defender Drew Moor, with three goals, was more prolific than TFC's leading midfield scorers — Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, Tsubasa Endoh and Will Johnson (now with Orlando), who had two goals apiece.
Toronto has been playing a 3-5-2 formation with captain Michael Bradley as a deep-lying midfielder and Morrow and Steven Beitashour bombing up the flanks. That leaves two spots in the midfield to help generate offence.
Panamanian Armando Cooper and Osorio have occupied those roles for the most part. Barring a change in formation or tactics, Vazquez will eat into their minutes. Toronto will look to the Spaniard to help connect its star forwards and to add some offence of his own.
Toronto used targeted allocation money to help fit Vazquez, who spent last season in Mexico with Cruz Azul, under its salary cap. To qualify for TAM, the player has to make more than the maximum salary — just under US$500,000 — that can count against the MLS cap.
"In the old world this would have been a designated player," said Bezbatchenko. "Now with targeted allocation money, you can buy him down to below the player maximum salary."
Bezbatchenko got Vazquez on a free transfer given the Spaniard had negotiated a release with the Mexican club. It appears Mexico City was not a good fit for his family.
Toronto, which first went after Vazquez in 2014, had three midfielders on its shopping list this time out. That was reduced to two after one dropped out and Vazquez is the one that stuck.
Bezbatchenko said Vazquez should be able to play by the March 4 season opener, given the red tape is almost done. His last competitive game would have been in the late fall.
"Really it's just a matter of his fitness level and does he have enough time for (coach) Greg (Vanney) to work him in so that we give him the best chance to be successful right from the beginning and for the team to be successful."
According to an ESPN profile, Vazquez had the words "solo el mas fuerte sobrevive" — only the strongest survive — tattooed on his arm as he recovered from his second knee surgery. Vazquez also named his son, born in 2013, Leo, in honour of his friend Messi, according to the same story.
Vazquez eventually found a home in Belgium with Club Brugge, where his resume includes elegant free kick goals and an exquisite chip in a 2014 game against Grasshoppers Zurich. He had 25 goals and 50 assists in five years (173 appearances) with the Belgian club.
After a gala 2014-15 season, he told Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo he was ready for a new challenge.
"I would not mind going out to another continent, though, and to try a more risky venture," he said.
Mexico may or may not have fit that bill. He had one goal and one assist in 23 appearances for Cruz Azul last year.
Vazquez's signing brings Toronto's senior roster up to 24. The club will likely carry 27, with defensive cover likely to account for two of the remaining spots.
French-born Congolese defender Chris Mavinga was another off-season acquisition with Notre Dame defender Brandon Aubrey taken in the first round of the January draft.