When German football star Torsten Frings was recruited to help save Toronto’s floundering professional soccer team, he faced local reporters with an interpreter by his side, feeling shy and worried about saying the wrong thing.
Less than two years later, Frings announced his retirement on Tuesday in plain English. Speaking quietly, his signature long curly hair tucked behind his ears, the 36-year-old Toronto FC captain said it was an emotional day, but the hip injury that cut short his season last September was taking too long to heal, forcing him to end a glittering 18-year professional career.
“I want to be fit, not limping … my whole life. And it’s not fair for TFC. I just want to help the club, and if I’m not 100 per cent, I can’t help the club anymore,” he said.
He didn’t shy away from pointing out his former team’s biggest problem.
“They need a lot of new players – high-quality players – to get success,” he said. “I’m pretty sure [general manager] Kevin [Payne] and the team are working on it.”
On the eve of their season opener against Vancouver on Saturday, Toronto now has no captain and an incomplete roster that is still very much in flux.
Payne said on Tuesday that the team that faces Vancouver on Saturday could look very different two months from now.
Payne said his staff are scouring the globe for new talent, and several players are getting hard looks, including Welsh international striker Robert Earnshaw, who was to arrive Tuesday night for a tryout. He said he’s also close to working out the loans of two other young players: winger Hogan Ephraim of the Queens Park Rangers and midfielder John Bostock of Tottenham Hotspur.
Payne emphasized that the club is looking for young players, but added Frings, who will continue to help the Toronto team build relationships in Europe, will be missed.
“It’s not possible for us to replace the experience and leadership qualities that Torsten brought to our team,” Payne said. “Those players don’t grow on trees.”
Frings, who won 79 caps for Germany and was part of the German team that was runnerup at the 2002 World Cup and the 2008 European Championship, was possibly the most famous player ever to suit up for Toronto. He played well when he was healthy, but injuries cut into his playing time. He became a fan favourite not just for his credentials but because he took his leadership role seriously and didn’t publically complain despite the team’s woeful record.
Toronto has had only 11 wins in the past two seasons and finished last year mired in a 14-game losing streak. The team’s biggest problem last season, Frings said Tuesday, was that players were out of shape.
“We had a lot of problems last year. The preseason was not the best last season, and players were not fit. And maybe the games against Los Angeles were not good for the team because we won the games, and everybody thought: Maybe we are ready to be champions. But we never had good fitness last season, and that’s the big reason for me, that we played so bad.”
Frings was the highest-paid Toronto FC player in 2012 at $2.43-million (U.S.). As a designated player, only $350,000 of that counted against the cap, which will now be freed up as the team looks for new talent.
“We’re trying to adopt a strategy of not getting married to players until we really understand what they’re about, and what they’re about in our league,” said Payne. “There’s plenty of great players that have been successful players in other leagues, but they may not be the right fit for our league. Unfortunately you don’t always know that until they play a while.”
Asked if Frings fell into that category, he said, no.
“I think Torsten would have been a terrific player. It’s unfortunate Toronto wasn’t as strong a team as it could have been when he was here. I think he would have been better if he was on a better team.”