Artificial turf and Canadian talent were two of the topics that had Toronto FC supporters riled up at a recent question-and-answer session with the MLS team’s braintrust.
Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, shot down the turf question by saying it’s a non-starter.
But the issue of how the team treats its Canadians kept coming back to the microphone.
“I’d like to see Canadians being played,” said one fan. “I think that was one of the draws to me coming to this is to see Canadians play. I’m not seeing enough of it from this team.”
“My concern is how you’ve treated the Canadian players since the beginning,” lamented another supporter. “I’ve looked at the salaries every year and every year since Year One, the Canadian kids get almost the lowest pay across the board. Every year. And this will never work unless you start to respect the Canadian soccer player.”
Manager Ryan Nelsen patiently answered the questions, pointing to local defenders Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry and midfielder Jonathan Osorio currently starting with rookies Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman also in the squad. Goalie Quillan Roberts completes the TFC Canadian contingent with homegrown player Manuel Aparicio newly promoted from the academy.
Talented and young, said Nelsen.
“We have to nurture them. We can’t throw them in the deep end, we can’t scar them,” he added.
They’ll get their chance, he added, pointing to Sporting Kansas City star midfielder Graham Zusi, who made just nine starts in his first two MLS seasons.
Bottom line, said Nelsen, “I want more Canadian players on my team.
“Even when the Canadian (national) team goes and plays in Spain and they take all my players away and I can’t field them for TFC, I’ll take that hit. Not a problem.”
The questions about the handling of Canadian talent took Nelsen by surprise.
“I was expecting a lot worse questions, to tell you the truth, but on that one I was a wee bit let down because no other Canadian team is producing the young kids that we’re playing and giving them the opportunity,” he said after practice Tuesday.
The Vancouver Whitecaps roster features three Canadians: midfielders Bryce Alderson and Russell Teibert and goalie Simon Thomas. Another Canadian, 20-year-old midfielder Caleb Clarke, is on loan to FC Augsburg in Germany.
The 20-year-old Teibert has seen action in 20 MLS games this season, starting 18, and is seen as a rising star. Alderson, 19, and Thomas, 23, have yet to play in the league in 2013.
The Montreal Impact have four Canadians listed on their roster, including hard-nosed veteran midfielder Patrice Bernier. The others are 19-year-old goalie Maxime Crepeau and 21-year-old defenders Karl Ouimette and Maxim Tissot, who have a handful of games between them this year.
Nelsen identified Osorio as a rising talent from Day 1 of pre-season and he has partnered the 20-year-old Henry with captain Steven Caldwell at centre back. Morgan has won back his job at left fullback.
And he says he remains a big backer of Bekker and Welshman, who have played 200 minutes between them in the league this season.
Nelsen says the two first-round draft choices perhaps got “blown up a wee bit in the media” when they arrived on the Toronto FC scene.
“But they’re fantastic players, they’re very good players and we believe in them,” he said.
It’s a tough learning curve, however,
Bekker, 23, choose his words carefully when asked about his first pro season.
“It hasn’t been the easiest,” he said Tuesday.
“It is what it is,” he added. “It’s my first year. I just have to keep working ... and bide my time.”
Nelsen reminded his Saturday morning audience that his players have every day at practice to stake their claim to a place in the starting 11.
“I don’t pick the team. The players pick the team ... trust me. Young Canadian players? I’ll play them, I’ll play them when they’re ready.”
“It’s all about production,” added Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko.
Leiweke had the last word on nationality when asked about where the club is conducting its hunt for designated players.
The focus is on the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A, he said, adding: “I know this. If we win, I don’t care where they’re from. You’ll love them.”