Retooled Toronto FC kicks off season with high hopes
Seattle Sounders 1st test, as MLS club faces pressure with off-season additions
The pressure is on as a retooled Toronto FC kicks off its MLS season Saturday in Seattle against the Sounders (4:30 p.m. ET).
After seven years of on-field failure, new Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke dug deep into a well-stocked corporate pocket to bankroll manager Ryan Nelsen and GM Tim Bezbatchenko's global talent search.
Many zeros later, Toronto FC is now home to England striker Jermain Defoe, U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley, Brazilian international goalie Julio Cesar and forward Gilberto, and veteran Canadian star midfielder Dwayne De Rosario.
Toronto stocked up on so many designated players, it had to trade incumbent DP Matias Laba to Vancouver to get down to the league limit of three.
The shopping spree has prompted a return to the club's early days, when season tickets were hard to come by. BMO Field should be full this season, although Leiweke has acknowledged the team will still lose money in 2014 because of the outlay on players.
With demand exceeding supply, top football talent is not cheap and MLSE likely had to overpay to convince such elite players to choose MLS over more established leagues.
Fullbacks Justin Morrow and Bradley Orr and Brazilian midfielder Jackson have also joined the party, meaning Toronto will likely have eight new faces in its starting lineup when everyone is healthy.
And there's the early season rub.
Toronto's pre-season was hit by injury, particularly at fullback and forward. Defoe, meanwhile was a late arrival due to club and country commitments.
Gilberto left out
Gilberto, troubled by an upper leg injury, was been left out of the travelling party for Seattle. Nelsen hopes to have him back for the home opener March 22 against D.C. United.
The Brazilian actually returned to training this week but Nelsen doesn't want to rush him in case he aggravates the injury. The artificial turf at CenturyLink Field was likely a factor in that decision.
The good news is Defoe and Bradley are both available for selection. Bradley has been nursing a foot injury while Defoe simply hasn't had much time training with his new team.
But Nelsen says the 31-year-old English forward has adapted well.
"He feels pretty good, to tell you the truth," Nelsen said. "So we'll see how he is."
Defoe could well come off the bench. Nelsen, in his second year at the Toronto helm, is mindful that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Other clubs kept their stars in cotton wool in Week 1 of the season. New York rested French forward Thierry Henry rather than expose him to the artificial turf at B.C. Place Stadium while Seattle sent in U.S. international striker Clint Dempsey off the bench.
As for Bradley, Nelsen said: "He's come through this week pretty good. I think Michael will be a definite."
That's good news for Toronto, which went 6-17-11 last season. Bradley looks to be the straw that stirs the TFC drink. Most everything will run through the American, a box-to-box midfielder who manages to be both cerebral and driven.
Other injured players like Morrow and Orr have also returned to training. Their concern is game fitness rather than health.
Nelsen is taking the long view.
"This game is not going to define us," he said. "It's going to take a bit of time to get everybody kind of on the same wavelength. Even Seattle, when they brought Clint (Dempsey) over — just one piece — were a bit of a different team last year.
"Everybody has to kind of get used to each other and we've done it with several big pieces and several other pieces as well. This game is not going to define who we are. The next probably five or six, seven games are going to define who we are."
Still, he hopes the progress is rapid, starting Saturday.
With the playoffs a stated goal, Toronto cannot wait too long to start making its move up the standings, especially since Bradley, Cesar and possibly Defoe will be away for considerable time this summer on World Cup duty.
When Toronto FC does not have possession, Nelsen expects his team to play the same kind of game it did last year — with players pressing the opposition. The difference should be more noticeable when the team has the ball, given the influx of talent.
"Your options become a lot more with the quality that's on the field. Last year we had to be a bit more conservative because of the personnel we have," Nelsen said. "But when you have good players, you can start being a bit more expansive."
Frei Sounders' No. 1
While Toronto had a bye last weekend, a rain-soaked crowd of 39,240 saw Seattle wins its season opener 1-0 over defending champion Sporting Kansas City with a stoppage-time goal by former Toronto forward Chad Barrett.
Former Toronto 'keeper Stefan Frei was in goal. And on Thursday Seattle coach Sigi Schmid confirmed Frei as his No. 1 goalie ahead of veteran Marcus Hahnemann.
The state of the Seattle turf at CenturyLink Field became an issue in the buildup to the Toronto game after Nelsen said of the surface: "You've got not just an artificial field — it's a bad artificial field."
Schmid took umbrage at the suggestions Seattle's turf is bad, saying all the artificial surfaces are about the same in the league.
"Let me say this first, tell me which turf field is good in this league. There is no good turf field in this league," he told reporters.
"I don't disagree, necessarily, with Ryan's statement," he added. "I'd love to have brand-new turf this year, as would everybody else. But I disagree with the point of making it seem like Seattle's is worse than the others. I think the others are equally as good or as bad — however you want to look at it."
Scottish defender Steven Caldwell retains the Toronto armband as captain. Cesar starts in goal.
To put Toronto's woeful league history into perspective, a win Sunday would only be its 15th road victory since the team's debut in 2007. Seattle is one of seven MLS cities where Toronto has yet to win.