As other MLS teams race into action this weekend, Toronto FC remains in the garage with Ryan Nelsen peering under the hood of his newly retooled team.
The longtime league doormat has a bye, which comes as somewhat of a blessing in disguise after an injury-filled pre-season.
And with England star striker Jermain Defoe yet to join the team, it may take a while for Toronto to fire on all cylinders.
Toronto’s walking wounded are beginning to return to practice, although Nelsen isn’t sure whether they will be game-ready for the March 15 opener before a raucous crowd in Seattle. The Sounders open at home Saturday against defending champion Sporting Kansas City.
“I think there’s a difference between healthy and fit,” Nelsen said Friday after practice. “Hopefully they’ll all be healthy.”
Defoe is expected to arrive this weekend. Brazilian striker Gilberto and Spanish midfielder Alvaro Rey were among those who were dressed Friday but saw limited action in training.
“They’re healthy now. Now we just got to get them up to fitness as quickly as possible,” Nelsen said.
With Defoe’s late arrival, Gilberto’s quadricep issue and Bright Dike likely gone for the season due to tendon surgery, Toronto is light up front. With teenager Jordan Hamilton also nursing a knock, Andrew Wiedeman and Dwayne De Rosario represent current attacking options.
“You go from feast to famine,” Nelsen said wistfully. “But that happens in the game. I think once Gilberto comes back and Jermain walks through the door, hopefully the table will look a little fuller.”
The midfield also lacks cover with Bermuda international Reggie Lambe becoming a victim of the salary cap this week.
“We’re still all right,” Nelsen said of his midfield resources. “We’re always trying to look to improve and we will probably in the next few days improve it, hopefully. But we’re really happy with our core group, we just need to probably get a bit stronger in certain areas.”
Expectations are immense for Toronto given the off-season investment in Defoe, Gilberto, American international Michael Bradley and De Rosario. But Nelsen is not likely to rush his stars into action until they are ready.
A veteran of club and country, the former New Zealand international knows the toll that soccer at the highest level can take on its star performers. Nelsen also knows that the Toronto rebuild is a marathon not a sprint.
Asked if he can envision Defoe and Gilberto starting in Seattle, the manager was non-committal.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “Thankfully ... we still have a bit more time. We’re going to see where they’re at.”
Gilberto may take longer than Defoe, he added. Unlike Defoe who is still in season, the Brazilian was out of season in South America and then got hurt.
The two strikers will need time to develop some chemistry. It’s a common theme for a team that could feature eight new starters this season in goalie Julio Cesar, fullbacks Justin Morrow and Bradley Orr, midfielders Bradley, De Rosario and Brazil’s Jackson and strikers Defoe and Gilberto.
“Everybody’s still learning about each other,” Nelsen said.
Bradley, who skipped U.S. international duty this week because of a foot issue, was at practice Friday — wrapped in “cotton wool,” according to Nelsen as team officials checked him out.
“He felt fine, he felt good,” said Nelsen.
A 1-2-2 record in pre-season showed the Kiwi boss that his new-look team can look pretty good when healthy. But injuries have exposed a lack of depth.
Those injuries may delay Nelsen’s choice of who to send down to their minor league affiliate in Wilmington, N.C.
“It depends on how many healthy bodies we have. At the moment we can’t really afford to move anybody,” he said.