MLS 101: Why is Matias Laba expected to leave Toronto FC?
Matías Laba signed for Toronto FC last April without any inkling of the upheaval to come. He certainly did not expect the tumult to involve him after his lucrative move from Argentina. The circumstances changed quickly once new MLSE boss Tim Leiweke arrived in town, though. The corresponding and drastic organizational shift – this one admittedly far more promising than any of the numerous course corrections preceding it – left Laba in purgatory for reasons essentially outside of his control.
Laba's uncertain professional fortunes stem from his level of compensation and its place within TFC's revamped salary structure and the MLS system. TFC splashed out a reported seven-figure transfer fee to sign the former Argentina under-20 international from Argentinos Juniors. The size of the outlay forced the Reds to classify him as a young Designated Player under league rules and regulations. The then-21-year-old's modest salary of $200,000 matched the assigned budget charge for a young DP between the ages of 21 and 23, according to those same directives.
Toronto FC's decision to splash the cash during the offseason reaped three new Designated Players in Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto and shunted Laba into a rather untenable position. TFC cannot keep Laba – he still counts as a DP due to the size of his transfer fee, a status generally difficult to change within the salary budget system without considerable reserves of allocation money on hand – on his present deal, though general manager Tim Bezbatchenko tried to keep all options open for leverage purposes when Bradley and Defoe moved to TFC in January.
Instead of waiting to start another season in Toronto under a coach who said he would “try and move hell or high water to keep him,” Laba now faces a future elsewhere. He filters through rumors about his next destination on a daily basis – Columbus boss Gregg Berhalter took his turn on Monday when he admitted fielding and subsequently rejecting overtures from the Reds – without actually learning where it might be. He even retweets fan petitions trying to somehow keep him with the club, but those hopes may not come true. Bezbatchenko told Sportsnet.ca he spoke with Laba on Monday to discuss the midfielder's future with the club.
TFC will try its best to extract some value out of the deal and perhaps retain Laba's rights somehow, but every team in the league understands the predicament. The offers on the table will not prove particularly attractive, if they even come at all. The mountains of cash TFC recently pushed into the middle of the table will not allow the club to keep a fourth Designated Player when the roster compliance date arrives on March 1. There are ways to finesse around the margins – keep a careful eye on the widely reported Júlio César loan deal for a lesson or two in that department – for the greater good in this league, but this situation represents a problem with no readily apparent solution.
MLS isn't in the business of cutting ties with promising young players for procedural reasons, though. If another club is willing to assume Laba's contract and its corresponding burdens at some point before March 1 (and there really isn't any pressing reason to do so before that juncture given the roster flexibility enjoyed until that date), then the league will encourage or facilitate a switch accordingly. Laba – a tidy holding player more than capable of making a consistent impact in the league – is worth keeping in MLS if at all possible. TFC is interested in loaning Laba out instead of selling or trading him, according to a report in the Toronto Sun over the weekend.
It will take a couple of weeks to determine whether those measures are feasible or whether Laba will ultimately move outside the league. In the meantime, Laba muddles through his peculiar set of circumstances as best he can with his current teammates. He didn't expect or want to find himself in this scenario, but he must come to terms with his looming exit nonetheless before a final verdict is rendered by the end of the month.