TORONTO - Ryan Nelsen isn't only excited to add Argentine midfielder Matias Laba to his squad, but thrilled at the fierce competition his arrival creates.
The 21-year-old Laba arrived in Toronto to lofty expectations Friday after signing as a Young Designated Player, and as good as the young player may be, his presence will only make his teammates better.
"The great thing about it is now we're starting to get some real competition with the first team . . . and Matias will have to get in line with the competition, so it's good," Nelsen said.
Laba, who played three seasons with Argentinos Juniors of the Argentine Primera Division, won't be available for Saturday's Major League Soccer game against the visiting New York Red Bulls, but should be good to go Wednesday when Toronto plays the Impact in Montreal in a Canadian championship match.
It remains to be seen who will lose their spot in the starting 11 in a central midfield currently occupied by Jeremy Hall and Luis Silva. Nelsen has made it clear this season that performance determines playing time, and not age or paycheque or past history.
"It's not about anybody losing their place, it's about what gets Toronto wins," said Nelsen. "There's a lot of people that could be unlucky. Doneil Henry, Danny Califf, all these guys. . . when X comes back, it's: gee whiz there's some competition. It's not about losing your place, I have to pick a team that can try and win a game. Unfortunately there's only 11 that can be on the field."
The 21-year-old Laba, who also represented Argentina at the 2011 FIFA under-20 World Cup in Colombia, has been described as a box-to-box midfielder who distributes the ball well.
"He's an all-around midfielder. He's very tenacious defensively and covers a tremendous amount of ground. He's terrific closing on the ball but then when he gets the ball he's an outstanding passer," said Toronto FC's GM and president Kevin Payne.
"He's not a guy who will pass the ball over distances. He's not going to spray 40- or 50-yard balls. But he can bypass the initial midfield pressure and find our attacking and wide midfielders in a way that, frankly, we've struggled a little bit this year."
Payne, who said he first eyed Laba when he was D.C. United's president and CEO, declined to comment on the financial details of the multi-year deal, except to say "It's significant. I'm sure it's the biggest transfer fee this club has ever paid. It's one of the larger transfer fees in the history of the league."
As a so-called Young Designated Player between the age of 21 and 23, only $200,000 of Labba's salary counts against the team's salary cap. There is a reduced salary cost for DPs signed in mid-season.
Laba arrived in Toronto on Friday afternoon and will be formally introduced at a news conference Saturday prior to kickoff at BMO Field. The news comes days after Toronto's attempts to sign young Argentine forward Maximilliano Urruti fell through. Payne said Urruti's Argentine club Newell's Old Boys decided not to let the player go after teammate Ignacio Scocco broke his foot.
But Payne said fans will like Laba "a lot."
"He plays with real intensity and conviction, and he suits perfectly the way Ryan wants the team to play in the midfield," he said. "We think he's going to be a really good fit and a guy who's going to be impactful pretty quickly."
Robert Earnshaw, the team's leading scorer, is looking forward to being on the receiving end of some of Laba's passes.
"It's a good signing for us,"Earnshaw said. "Hopefully he can fit in straight away and just get used to what we're trying to do, what we're trying to build. Can't wait to get him here."
Toronto FC (1-2-4) hopes to finally earn a win after four consecutive draws when they host the Red Bulls (3-4-2) and star striker Thierry Henry.
Toronto has coughed up three goals in the dying minutes of games, including one in the 94th minute in last weekend's 1-1 draw with Houston Dynamo.
"Of course, it's three wins that we could have had," Nelsen said. "It really shows the level we're at. . . that we've missed out on three wins that would have put us second or third in the league. We've come a long way, it's baby steps.
"I'd rather be having these conversations than maybe throwing away ties or losing games," he added.
The Red Bulls are coming off a 4-1 victory at home to the New York Revolution.
Henry has three goals in eight games for New York this season. Earnshaw remembers first playing against Henry in 2004 when he was with West Bromwich Albion and the Frenchman was with Arsenal.
"I was in holiday in Miami last year and we ended up speaking to (Henry) for quite a while, about the MLS and New York and everything, and how he enjoys it here. So it's funny we're playing this weekend," Earnshaw said. "He gave me a slight insight of the league and what it's about. I love playing against top players and he's been a great player for a long long time. He's been one of the best. It's going to be great for us as a team as well to come up against these guys"
Nelsen has ties with New York coach Mike Petke — the two played together for two seasons at D.C. United.
Asked if he's looking forward to coaching his old teammate, Nelsen laughed and said "I'm really looking forward to having a beer with him after the game.
"Mike's a great guy, I think he's done fantastically well with New York," Nelsen added. "A really good coach and a really good guy, I know he'll have that team well-organized. We've come a long way since we played alongside each other. I think I'll enjoy his company after the 90 minutes more though."
While Richard Eckersley, Logan Emory and Darel Russell will all miss another game for Toronto on Saturday, striker Danny Koevermans was running hard at practice Friday and Nelsen said he could be about a month away from making his return.
Nelsen, former Toronto FC midfielder Jim Brennan, and others played with Koevermans in a small-field game after the regular team practice ended — an attempt, Nelsen explained, to replicate a sort of pre-season for the striker who's been out since suffering a torn ACL last season.