Toronto FC have many problems. But what is the biggest one? There are too many players on guaranteed contracts.

When Jason Hernandez faced the media for the club’s post-season availability on November 10, he made it clear that Toronto FC’s biggest priority is to move players off the books to clear cap space.

Speaking with a candour not often heard from TFC management of late, Hernandez bluntly laid out that “we don’t have enough players at the level needed to have the success we want in MLS in enough areas of the field.”

The existing roster is ill-suited for John Herdman’s preferred 3-5-2, with insufficient numbers of centre-backs, midfielders, and wing-backs. Herdman’s shopping list for Hernandez is long, but the available budget space is prohibitive, making the necessary wholesale changes very difficult.

The 2024 salary cap increase alone will not provide TFC with the wiggle room needed to revamp the roster. MLS is also exploring the potential of increasing the number of permitted designated players from three to four with league owners set to vote on a proposal on December 14.

TFC do not need another DP. Freeing up cap space is the top priority.

By Hernandez’s own admission, the squad has been poorly constructed and there are too many undesirable deals that the team would like to rid itself of, by all means necessary. Not and easy task with 20 players currently under contract and four returning from loan.

Hernandez will pursue the usual mechanisms for restructuring the roster, such as trades and transfers. In Hernandez’s words, the club will also engage in “departures from the club that don’t necessarily require a transfer,” and some players have been quietly told by management that they are now surplus to requirements and that the club would assist in facilitating any moves away that they or their agents might seek. It is unlikely many higher-priced players would fit this description.

There is another tool available to MLS teams: each club is permitted to buy out one contract, once a year. The club is still liable to pay out the original terms of the contract, but the team can offload the player and open up valuable cap space.

Hernandez admitted that the club is “open to using the buyout” but that it was dependent upon how many contracts they can offload by other means. The buyout is most beneficial when used to clear large contracts because using it on lesser-paid players brings minimal cap relief.

In prior years, the buyout was primarily exercised, if at all, during the winter off-season to remove 100 percent of the contract from the cap hit. The only other time this mechanism could be used was during the secondary transfer window in the summer, but there was a catch; only half the contract’s value would be shed from the cap.

Hernandez is in no rush to use his one buyout as it can be used anytime in the year. TFC last bought out Jozy Altidore ahead of the 2022 season.

TFC’s 2024 buyout becomes available in January and the question is, who will management use it on?

Both of Toronto FC’s large DP contracts have become albatrosses around the club’s neck. But, it is highly unlikely that TFC will use their one and only buyout on Federico Bernardeschi or Lorenzo Insigne. Doing so would free up just $651,250, the maximum DP salary cap hit in 2023.

Those contracts are just too big a price to pay for the salary cap relief gained. For better or worse, the two under-performing Italians will return for 2024, barring a surprise move materializing.

TFC are currently top-heavy in attack with five players under contract for next year: Prince Owusu, Hugo Mbongue, Jordan Perruzza, Ayo Akinola, and Adama Diomande, a quintet who collectively failed to score a goal all season. It is inconceivable that TFC will return with all of these players next year.

Perruzza could be among the players who TFC look to shift, or else he may face a long year spent training with little hope of even making Herdman’s game-day roster. Although he’s just 22 years old, Peruzza spent part of 2023 out on loan with Halifax Wanderers of the CPL where he failed to impress. Furthermore, Perruzza is three years older than Mbongue, a fellow homegrown talent who is more likely to be kept around as a depth piece and be given opportunities to further develop.

Akinola is certain to return to TFC following his unsuccessful loan stint with San Jose. His minutes dropped even further with his production equally poor. However, as a U22 initiative player, only $200,000 of his $772,000 salary is counted against the cap. Furthermore, Akinola appears to have developed a unique relationship with Herdman, who convinced the Detroit-born Akinola to commit to Canada over the USMNT. Out of desire or necessity, Akinola could be viewed by Herdman as a reclamation project for next season.

This leaves Owusu and Diomande, the two highest-priced strikers on TFC’s books. Hernandez signed Owusu in the summer transfer window so one can expect he will be given the opportunity to prove himself with a new coach in 2024. His late-season arrival coincided with the worst stretch of football produced by TFC over the past few years but was also hampered by injuries.

Where does this leave Diomande?

A last-minute signing by Bob Bradley just before the start of the 2023 season, Diomande had a year to forget. He only got into five matches where his play did nothing to suggest he was the same player that suited up for Bradley’s LAFC in 2018 and 2019 and scored 24 goals in all competitions.

While TFC has high-priced under-performers, notably Sigurd Rosted and Raoul Petretta, TFC is numerically thin already in defence. With a surplus at striker, Diomande is the most likely player to have his contract bought out in the new year.

Diomande will be 34 by the time next season kicks off, seven years older than Owusu. With a salary of $585,000, he is an ideal candidate for Hernandez to utilize the club’s 2024 contract buyout.

Buying out Diomande’s contract would also open up a valuable international roster spot, something the club currently does not have many of. There are several roster questions Hernandez needs to address, but until the club resolves a few of their unwanted contracts, he will have minimal room to manoeuvre.