For once, expectations are sky high at the start of Toronto FC training camp.
A team that has long been the MLS doormat —Toronto has won six, nine, 10, nine, six, five, and six games since coming into the league in 2007 — enters the 2014 season as a shooting star thanks to the hoopla over high-priced signings Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Giberto.
“It’s a bloody big deal” is the already tired slogan around the acquisition of England striker Defoe. But the atmosphere is unmistakable.
“There’s a buzz,” said general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.
The players started arriving late this week and most trained indoors Friday, although manager Ryan Nelsen did not involve those who were are the recent Canadian national team camp in Florida. He also gave Bradley a pass, given his recent involvement in Serie A.
“Michael’s had a lot of football,” Nelsen said. “He doesn’t need it now. He just probably needs a little rest.”
Captain Steven Caldwell sat out with a minor calf knock while the club waited on visa paperwork for Brazil’s Gilberto and Jackson.
Toronto leaves Sunday for Florida.
The 31-year-old Defoe will remain with England’s Tottenham until the end of February. Toronto opens the season March 15 in Seattle.
Nelsen says the team will give Defoe time to bed in when he gets here.
“We have to be very careful and we have to judge it. He’s here for four years, it’s not like we’re going to rush him back, patch him up if we have to and throw him out on the field. We have to think long-term.
“So when he’s ready to play, he’ll be ready to play. If that’s Game 1, then brilliant. If it’s Game 4, so be it.”
In his second year on the job, the 36-year-old Nelsen finds himself in a totally different situation.
He arrived last year with minimal knowledge of the talent that awaited him. He has the squad of his choice largely in place this time.
“In all honesty I thought it might take a couple of years to get to the situation where we are right now,” said Nelsen.
There was short-term pain for long-term gain last season. Some 27 players came in — if you count Israeli defender Tal Ben Haim whose loan deal from QPR never quite happened — and 26 exited.
The revolving door has slowed ahead of 2014 but those coming in have been quality additions.
The three DPs are joined by American Justin Morrow and England’s Bradley Orr on defence, Jackson and Canadian star Dwayne De Rosario in midfield and teenage Canadian forward Jordan Hamilton.
The team still has some roster work to do on the status of Argentine midfielder Matias Laba and English fullback Richard Eckersley.
Laba is in camp while Eckersley, with the team’s blessing, is not.
Laba also has a designated player deal, meaning Toronto is one over the three DP limit. So the club has to find a way to restructure his contract or move him on. The club likes the Argentine, who at 22 has many years ahead on him. Here’s guessing the team finds a way to farm him out without losing track of him.
Eckersley is a victim — sort of — of a rich contract that grew fatter this year when the team was forced to restructure his deal to help ease its salary cap burden last season.
Toronto could take a one-time contract buyout to get out from under the Eckersley contract burden without taking a salary cap hit. Toronto can also reach a settlement with Eckersley or deal him while eating some of the contract, which would impact the cap. Other MLS teams are unlikely to take Eckersley at his current number.
Still, Bezbatchenko is confident he can find a way. Given his background as a former MLS insider and the league’s seemingly fluid rules, he is likely to succeed.
When it comes to his starting lineup, Nelsen often says his players — not him — pick the team with their performance on the pitch.
When all his pieces are in place, one would expect a likely starting 11 of Joe Bendik in goal behind a backline of Morrow, Caldwell, Canadian Doneil Henry and Orr, a midfield of Jackson, Bradley, De Rosario (or fellow Canadian Jonathan Osorio) and Alvaro Rey with Gilberto and Defoe up front.
It’s a good-looking team sheet, although the rest of the roster is young.
Nelsen likes what he sees but is realistic. He knows it takes time to turn around a franchise and establish a winning culture.
“It doesn’t matter who you put out on the field, the club’s got to learn how to win ... we know we’ve got a long way to go.”
Nelsen adds: “I say that with one side of my face. The other side says if there’s a group of guys that can live up to any expectations, I feel like these guys will really enjoy it and will enjoy the pressure.
“It will be different for them because we will have a target on our back. Everybody will want to beat us. Everybody wanted to play us because they knew they could beat us in the past. Now they’ll want to play us because they will want to try to prove a point to beat us.
“It’s a different mentality and it’s going to be difficult. But it’s a lovely challenge to be in.”
A one-year partnership with the North Carolina-based Wilmington Hammerheads of the USL Pro League gives TFC a place to give some of its younger talent a chance to play.
Toronto may also look to loan a player within MLS. Bezbatchenko was part of the process in getting the newly installed loan format approved while he was working in the league office.
Canadian international Issey Nakajima-Farran is in the Toronto camp on trial.