TORONTO — After seeing his team concede a franchise-worst 64 goals last season, Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney is looking forward to integrating veteran defender Laurent Ciman into his backline.
A back three of Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor and Ciman has a lot to offer.
"A lot of experience, a lot of leadership, a lot of quality ... We're excited about that," Vanney said Wednesday. "They're all slightly different players but they're all very good at what they do and the way they do it."
Mavinga, 27, is an athletic Frenchman who uses his speed to solve problems. Moore, who turned 35 Tuesday, has the experience to be in the right place at the right time and organize the defenders around him. Ciman, a 33-year-old Belgian international, distributes the ball well and — like Moor — is good at reading the game.
Moor and Ciman have both captained MLS teams in the past.
Behind the three veterans are Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund, both 26.
Vanney can use Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel or Brazil's Auro at right wingback or fullback with U.S. international Justin Morrow and Canadian international Ashtone Morgan options on the left.
Last season, injuries and a crowded schedule ravaged the Toronto backline with Mavinga and Moor playing just 20 regular-season games between them.
Vanney hinted Wednesday that there will be fewer changes in formation, saying the team will have a "preferred shape" on both attack and defence.
He says the team will use a 4-4-2 (without the midfield diamond) and "some version of" 3-5-2. While the 3-5-2 allows the side to deploy its centre back strength, the 4-4-2 offers more cover in midfield (given the 3-5-2 can flow into a 5-3-2).
A former Impact fan favourite, Ciman finds himself on the other side of the Montreal-Toronto rivalry. He says while he has nothing but respect for his former team in Montreal as well as its fans, he wears red now.
"Now my club is Toronto," he said in French. "Everybody knows very well I give everything for the club."
Ciman says while he understands the rivalry between the two Canadian clubs, playing Montreal will be a match like every other for him.
Ciman joined the Impact from Belgian club Standard Liege in 2015 because Montreal offered better treatment than he could get at home for his daughter Nina, who has autism spectrum disorder.
He played three seasons for the Impact, winning MLS Defender of the Year honours in 2015. The Saputo Stadium crowd dubbed him 'The General.'
Ciman bought a house in the city and was disappointed when he was traded to expansion Los Angeles FC in December 2017 after 85 regular-season games with the Impact.
"I discovered Montreal, a magnificent city," Ciman wrote in a farewell posting in French to Impact fans. "I fell in love with its streets, its smell, its people, its history. For my family, Montreal was a complete stranger. Today, Montreal is part of my family.''
He left LAFC — and coach Bob Bradley, father of Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley — last August to join French side Dijon.
Ciman said he decided to return to MLS and Canada after things did not work out in France. He declined to say what happened, other than it was a private family matter.
He points to injuries as TFC's main problem in defence last season.
"It's difficult for the team," he said in English. "This year is a new year and the team is ready."
Moor says the addition of Ciman is "huge."
"Obviously he's represented the Belgian national team at some pretty big international tournaments," said Moor. "He knows the league well, he's played some big matches in this league. He knows this group pretty well, just from playing against us a number of times.
"And for me he's a guy that you can rely on day-in and day-out. He brings a little something different than what I think most centre backs have to offer. He's fantastic on the ball, he's a natural leader. I think a lot of guys look up to him."
Toronto striker Jozy Altidore also welcomes Ciman's arrival.
"Quality player, difficult to play against, very good on the ball," Altidore said by way of summary.
Toronto leaves Friday for the warm weather of California to begin its training camp in earnest.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press