Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen has ticked off another box, acquiring backup goalkeeper Chris Konopka from the Philadelphia Union on Friday in advance of the MLS roster freeze.
Friday's deal comes four days after Toronto acquired forward Bright Dike from Portland for Argentine striker Maximiliano Urruti, allocation money and a 2015 first-round draft pick. Toronto gave up a third-round pick in 2014 for the 28-year-old Konopka.
While it was a small piece of the puzzle, the Konopka trade all but signals the end for goalkeeper Stefan Frei, Toronto's longest-serving player and one-time vice-captain.
Frei, relegated to the bench after an injury in the first pre-season game allowed Joe Bendik to claim his job, had a one-on-one talk with goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr after practice Friday. He declined to speak to the media afterwards.
Frei, 27, was destined to leave at the end of the year any way upon the expiration of his contract, rendered surplus to requirements by his US$200,000 salary and the fine play of Bendik.
Nelsen essentially said Frei deserves better than Toronto can give him.
"He's such a great guy and such a great goalkeeper and he wants to be a No. 1. And he deserves, he should be a No. 1. And he is a No. 1 in this league — on probably 75 per cent of most teams."
New duo in net
With Frei's money off the books next season, the 24-year-old Bendik will likely be rewarded with an improved contract. Bendik and Konopka are both making $46,500 this season, essentially backup goalie money.
"We've had our eye on Chris for a while," said Nelsen. "He's at a good price, [has] good experience."
Konopka was playing behind Zac McMath, who has started all 28 games this season for Philadelphia. McMath is making US$155,000 this season.
Frei has started 81 regular season games for Toronto, but none this season or last. A broken nose and Bendik have kept him on the bench this year. In 2012 he was sidelined by a broken leg and ankle injury.
A model citizen, with a flair for art off the field, Frei has never complained about his poor fortune. He has been one of the club's stalwarts.
Nelsen said Frei will continue to back up Bendik the remaining games of the season. Toronto is also high on 19-year-old Quillan Roberts and will likely look to loan out the young 'keeper next year to help him gain experience.
"That's a position where you probably mature a little later than most other positions," said Nelsen.
Toronto (4-13-11) still has big holes to fill in its roster. Two marquee strikers, both falling under the designated player label, are on the to do list during the January transfer window, with Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment having earmarked US$26 million for such acquisitions in the last window.
Coach wants more
Nelsen says he is also looking for two or three "hardened" MLS players — "at the right age to complement the younger players we have."
He maintains he now has the assets to acquire such talent. The club has eased its salary cap concerns, has allocation money to spare and is likely trying to move on players like striker Robert Earnshaw and fullback Richard Eckersley.
"We're in a nice situation now," said Nelsen. "We've got room to move."
Nelsen said he did get offers from clubs prior to the salary freeze. But he says he has "probably 12 or 13 or 14" players whom he won't trade unless an amazing deal presents itself.
He is well aware of Toronto's less-than-stellar past reputation as traders.
"Toronto has let go a lot of players who have become dominant players in the league," he said. "We can't do that for short-term gain. We know they're going to progress. I know they're going to become dominant players soon. Maybe not next year but in 2015 or '16."
The Toronto FC manager looks to use his connections during the off-season to send some of his young talent to train with other clubs. Defender Doneil Henry and midfielders Kyle Bekker and Jonathan Osorio all seem destined to spend time with teams in Europe for seasoning.
Nelsen has plenty of youth on his roster, with 13 players aged 24 or younger.
Toronto looks to snap a six-game winless streak (0-3-3) as it visits the New York Red Bulls (13-9-6) on Saturday. The wrong combination of results and Toronto could be eliminated from playoff contention for the seventh straight year.
The post-season may be off the table but Nelsen says his squad is gaining valuable experience while playing for jobs next season.
Toronto is down to three strikers with Robert Earnshaw tweaking his hamstring while scoring in Wednesday's 1-1 tie with the visiting Chicago Fire. That leaves Nelsen with Andrew Wiedeman, Justin Braun and Dike, whose 15 minutes off the bench Wednesday represented his Toronto debut and his first first-team action since undergoing knee surgery in February.
Dutch striker Danny Koevermans, who has been frustrated by a string of injuries since returning from his own knee surgery, will travel with the team but is only expected to see action in an accompanying reserve match.
Eckersley is a question-mark after suffering a leg knock during collision in training Friday.
The Red Bulls have won their last two, winning 4-1 in Houston last time out. New York is unbeaten in its last nine games against Toronto.
Star Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill will miss Saturday's game through injury.
NOTES — In the wake of David Miller's open letter to Toronto FC, in which he criticized the club's management and returned his remaining season tickets, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment offered to set up a meeting with the former Toronto mayor and MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke. Miller declined via Twitter, saying: "Thanks, but quite seriously, there are lots of supporters who deserve that, not just me. You know where I stand."