Toronto FC’s end-of-year wrap session Monday was much like the 6-17-11 season that preceded it, in many ways.
It managed to highlight the good and bad of a complicated MLS club which always has a lot more than meets the eye going on under the surface. Over the years, Toronto FC has made progress like a drunken duck — heading on a peculiar path, its webbed feet flapping unseen below the water.
The current braintrust insists that the team is now headed in the right direction. And that it has the majority of its players in place.
Listening to Monday’s parade of 16 players, followed by manager Ryan Nelsen and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, was like watching a large family get-together.
Some can’t wait to leave. Most are happy to stay a little longer. And the hosts believe the party is only going to get better.
“I learned more probably in this year than I have in many years, to tell you the truth,” Nelsen said of his first year as a manager.
“Its been a roller-coaster as well, we have some real ups and some real downs ... but I can tell you what, gee whiz, I can sleep good at night knowing we’re in the situation we’re in now.”
Nelsen had to fight fires — “bush fires” in his words — after taking over a team hamstrung by “salary cap, contracts, debt — lots of it — (and) at the time, no real foundation of core MLS players.
“Put all that together and that’s toxic,” he added.
A no-nonsense defender who made the most of his talents in pro soccer — he still has two homes in England and three in New Zealand — Nelsen proved to be a survivor in his first year at the helm. Former team president and GM Kevin Payne could not say the same, axed by new Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke.
Nelsen and Bezbatchenko were both upbeat Monday as they looked ahead rather than behind.
“We’ll have the majority of the guys back,” said Nelsen, the club’s eighth manager in seven seasons. “They know everything, they know the system.”
“We don’t have to make major changes,” he added. “The only changes we’re actually making are only going to be complementing the team.”
Leiweke has already said Nelsen is his manager for 2014 and Bezbatchenko added his endorsement Monday, saying a turnaround simply wasn’t possible in one year. Both manager and GM say the team is close to that turnaround.
The search for two designated player strikers continues, in tandem with a search for a handful of battle-hardened MLS veterans.
Bezbatchenko says the team has a “broad target list” for the DP forwards.
“From there you whittle it down by figuring out who might be interested and you figure out their contract situation, and then you look at your budget. And then you speak to their agent or the club and see if they’re interested in doing a deal. So there was a wide net and it’s been narrowed down. But it’s still pretty broad.”
Goals are desperately needed. Toronto scored just 30 in 34 games this season to rank 18th in the league. Nelsen’s squad did manage to improve on defence with 45 goals conceded, compared to 62 in 2012.
The off-season talent hunt includes speed on the midfield flank and depth in central midfield and the backline.
“We’re on the right path,” said captain Steven Caldwell, a hard-nosed Scottish defender who proved to be an inspired pickup. “But we know we need a few more players, a bit of quality in different areas.”
One player after another said there should be no excuses for failure, given the team’s ownership and resources. And most praised Nelsen as a player’s coach who knows what they go through because he has experienced it himself.
Fullback Richard Eckersley, goalkeeper Stefan Frei and designated player/striker Danny Koevermans all managed to stay classy as they headed out the door Monday. One sensed they had far more to say, but Monday was not the time.
Eckersley, with a US$500,000-plus contract in 2014 back-end loaded due to a renegotiation this season, is simply too expensive to keep for his last year. Look for the team to buy him out.
Frei lost his stating job to injury and the fine play of Joe Bendik. His $200,000 contact is expiring and he will be allowed to go to greener pastures.
Koevermans, whose expiring $1.663 million contract netted 78 minutes on the pitch this season, couldn’t come back from knee surgery as the calf of the same left leg repeatedly broke down on him.
“I feel for Danny,” said Nelsen, adding nobody wanted his designated player/striker on the field more than he did. “But this is professional football, guys. This is not a charity. Decisions have to be made.”
Koevermans and Eckersley both said they had to go to the front office to get clarification on their future with the club.
The club can comes across as cold, sometimes. Players learn who’s in the matchday 18 by email, for example.
Eckersley was kept out of the last five games as the team auditioned Mark Bloom — a move Eckersley said he could understand given his situation — while Frei was not given a chance to win his job back and only got a start against Chicago when Bendik was suspended.
Football is a business, Frei said. It’s also very much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.
Koevermans said he experienced something “close to a mental breakdown” when his calf failed yet again.
Nelsen said he’s always willing to listen to a player with a problem.
“I try and talk to all the players if I can. My door’s always open. And if anybody’s got any problem, they always come in and talk. I can’t get some of them out of the room, to tell you the truth.”
Nelsen said perhaps he could do a better job of searching out troubled players, but it sounded half-hearted.
And he appeared to have Koevermans in mind when he made a point of noting how some players making a mere $35,000 a year turn up every single day for training and don’t need “any arms around his shoulders.”
To his credit, Koevermans did independently say the league needed to immediately increase its minimum wage.
Nelsen, who has experienced the highs and lows of pro soccer himself, does not do warm and fuzzy very well. But he has had to deal with some unique situations at the club this season, electing to take criticism himself rather than share the real story.
“In terms of fires, hopefully we’ve put a lot of them out and hopefully we’ll never see them again,” he said
Nelsen is looking out for his youngsters, however, and will likely make use of his contacts overseas to send the likes of Canadians Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan and Jonathan Osiorio to European clubs for some off-season training.
Their departures will leave the 22-year-old Morgan (66 games) atop the list for league appearances in a Toronto FC shirt.
“It’s not good is it?” said Nelsen. “It’s not right, of course, and that’s absolutely what we want to change.”
Nelsen has assembled a good core of youth, with seven of his starters in Saturday’s win over Montreal aged 25 or younger. Getting the right strikers will augment the spine of the team (Bendik, Caldwell, Henry, Laba, Osorio).
The turnover at the club drew fire from Koevermans, who said he had seen 54 players come and go during his two and a half seasons in Toronto.
“That says it all .... I just hope the next people in charge, they do it right. Because I think especially the city of Toronto deserves a winning team and also the fans because they keep on coming. Which is unbelievable.”
Toronto dressed some 37 players this season.
“There’s been way too much turnover here,” said veteran midfielder Bobby Convey. “It’s very difficult as a player to get a rhythm with different guys on the field. My first, I think, seven or eight weeks I played with three different left backs. That’s a bit tough.”
One plus of a poor season is youth gets a chance to shine and the 30-year-old Convey says TFC will benefit from that next year.
Koevermans, who called this season a personal disaster, says he plans one more attempt at soccer in his native Netherlands. He turns 35 Friday, so he knows time is against him.
Eckersley says he would like to stay in the MLS, with a winning team. Frei kept his plans to himself.