Torsten Frings stands with his foot on the ball in the corner of the pitch, imperious as ever while Toronto FC assistant coach Fran O’Leary makes a point during practice under the Florida sun.
Tattoos peek out from under his jersey sleeves and his long shaggy hair would still make a stylist shudder.
But after an injury-plagued season cut short by September surgery on his left hip, the former German international is a welcome sight.
While president and GM Kevin Payne has floated the idea of buying a player out to get some more salary cap flexibility, the 36-year-old Frings is looking to play out the final year of his Toronto FC contract — and retire on a high note.
“I feel much better than last year, but it needs time,” Frings told The Canadian Press after practice Friday. “Especially after this surgery. It was not an easy surgery but I feel good. I’m in good shape but I have to keep going and work hard to get my fitness back.”
Frings, who had the surgery in Germany, was on crutches for two to three weeks and couldn’t walk “for a long time.”
“But it was not my first surgery,” he said. “I know what I have to do after surgery, the rehab. I think I did it really well.”
Under new coach Ryan Nelsen, Toronto plans to be careful with how it uses Frings.
“We’ve got to look after Torsten,” said Nelsen, who at 35 is 11 months younger than Frings. “He’s at the age where the body breaks down a bit quicker and he’s also coming back from a major operation. So we’ve just got to be careful with certain guys and he falls in that bracket.”
Asked who would captain the team Saturday in the preseason opener against the Columbus Crew at the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, Nelsen did not provide a definitive answer.
“We haven’t kind of really addressed it yet,” Nelsen said after practice Friday. “There’s four or five really good leaders here. Torsten’s definitely been captain in the past. There’s Darren O’Dea, Danny Califf, Julio (Cesar) — some really good leaders out there.
“It’s fantastic that we have so many opportunities for people to lead this team.”
Frings is no stranger to leading sides. While not a screamer on the pitch, the veteran midfielder gets his point across and there is rarely any doubt in the eyes of teammates or game officials who is directing TFC.
“I spoke with the coach about this. He told me it’s up to me — if I want to be the captain, I’m the captain,” the German said. “But we will see what happens this season. It’s not very important for me. For me it’s just important that we have a good season.”
Asked if he enjoys being captain, Frings replied: “I was always a captain, at almost every team. Of course, I like it. But it’s not the most important thing for me.”
Frings never had hip problems before. But he felt pain “almost every day, every training” last year.
“I was handicapped, I couldn’t move on my best level. I think it was the right decision to do it (the surgery) at the end of last season so I can start hopefully healthy (this season) and without injuries.”
Frings — who answered questions in English, albeit after three days of requests for the interview — has no plans to play after 2013. His future will probably lie in some kind of coaching role back in Germany, where his ties to former club Werder Bremen remain strong.
“I have one just year (left on my contract) and that’s it. I don’t want to play after. I want to have a good season with TFC. We want to reach our goals and that’s the most important thing for me now.”
He clearly has unfinished business after a dismal 2012.
“I’m looking forward to this season. We’re working very hard here (in pre-season) and it looks pretty good,” Frings said.
“We have no excuses for this year,” he added. “We have a new coach, a new president, we have a plan and we have a great facility. Everything is great. Now we have to play as well as possible.”
The World Cup veteran is already impressed by Nelsen’s coaching structure.
“It’s very good training. It’s what we need. We didn’t have it last season,” he said. “Last season was not easy with two coaches (Aron Winter and Paul Mariner). Every coach has their own plan.
“We started very badly, at 0-9, it’s not good for the confidence. Now we have to work hard here, get in good shape and good fitness. Then I’m sure we can play a better season.”
Frings made US$2.4 million last season, although only some $350,000 counted against the team’s salary cap.
Despite injuries and a poor showing by the team, the German has no second thoughts about his decision to play in Toronto. He is a fan of both Toronto FC’s organization and the city itself.
“I love Toronto,” he said.
His girlfriend is in Toronto with him and his two daughters will join them over the school holidays.
While back in practice, Frings admits he has a way to go.
“I didn’t play soccer for five months. I’m in training now for just two weeks. We have still a couple of weeks before we start (the season March 2) in Vancouver,” he said. “I have to work hard, but I also know it needs time.”
He did his rehab at Werder Bremen, with Toronto’s medical staff checking up on his progress.
“I got a plan and I did everything on the plan,” he said.
His rehab kept him off his beloved Harley-Davidson, a customized model from West Coast Choppers complete with his No. 22.
“At first it was too cold and, second, after my surgery, my focus was just on coming back as fit as possible,” he said.
“I enjoy it. But have enough time to drive the motorcycle after my soccer career,” he added.
With help on defence in the form of Califf and Gale Agbossoumonde, Frings should be able to return to his favoured role as holding midfielder when his health permits. Cesar, whose resume stretches from Real Madrid to Sporting Kansas City, will also stiffen the team’s midfield spine.
Notes — The Montreal Impact play Sporting Kansas City in the second game at the Orlando tournament Saturday ... While Toronto was dealing with a snowstorm back home, Toronto FC players were lathering on sunscreen at practice under searing sun Friday.