Toronto FC captain Torsten Frings has announced his retirement after 18 seasons.
The 36-year-old former German international was coming back from hip surgery that cut short his MLS season last September. He made one pre-season appearance as a substitute earlier this month before leaving camp to attend to what the MLS club called a personal issue.
That now appears to have been his future.
"During pre-season we discovered that my recovery would take longer than expected. I always want to do what's best for the team and that is why I have decided to step away," Frings said in a statement Tuesday ahead of a club news conference. "I really enjoyed my time in Toronto and playing for Toronto FC. I wish the club all the best this season and hopefully they can continue to embrace the winning spirit that I brought to the team."
When healthy, Frings was a commanding player for Toronto albeit one slightly diminished by age. But injuries robbed him of playing time and the struggling MLS franchise failed to surround him with talent during his one and a half seasons with the club.
Questions about his future were raised during pre-season when president Kevin Payne said the team may have to buy out a contract to ease its salary cap crunch. Payne did not mention Frings by name but the German's age, cost and injury history pushed him to the forefront of the debate.
Frings is some 11 months older than new manager Ryan Nelsen.
Toronto also signed a ready-made defensive midfield replacement in the figure of Brazilian veteran Julio Cesar over the off-season.
"Everyone is sorry that Torsten will be unable to lead our team this year but the injury he had often requires a lengthy period of rehab, and that is the case here," Payne said in a statement. "We appreciate Torsten's commitment to Toronto FC and are pleased he has agreed to work with us, particularly in Europe, on future projects. We part as the best of friends and wish him nothing but the best."
At $2.43 millionn US, Frings was the highest-paid Toronto FC player in 2012 although as a designated player, only $350,000 of that counted against the cap.
But earlier this month, Frings made it clear he wanted to play this year for Toronto.
"I have one just year [left on my contract] and that's it," he told The Canadian Press at training camp in Orlando. "I don't want to play after. I want to have a good season with TFC. We want to reach our goals and that's the most important thing for me now."
He saw action as a substitute in a pre-season game against the Columbus Crew and then returned to Toronto while speculation mounted about his future.
Payne said he expects several players to step up to fill the team's leadership void, making direct references to Swiss goaltender Stefan Frei and Irish defender Darren O'Dea.
"I don't think there's going to be any one player that will assume the role that Torsten has had with our team, but my hope is that we'll see several individuals step up and start to assume more responsibility," Payne said.
Wants to coach
Payne also indicated that the team wanted to maintain a relationship with Frings "not just for next season, but for seasons to come."
Frings said he wants to return to the game as a coach.
Frings, who won 79 caps for Germany, joined Toronto FC along with Dutch striker Danny Koevermans in June 2011. The club was coached by former Dutch international Aron Winter at the time.
Frings said former national team coach Juergen Klinsmann, who led the management search that brought Winter to Toronto, helped sell him on the MLS franchise.
Paul Mariner, then Toronto's director of player development, called the signings "unbelievable role models" for the other squad members.
It took just two games for the hard-nosed midfielder, whose 92 yellow cards in the Bundesliga were third most in league history, to take over as captain.
Frings, while not the fastest, showed real vision in his passing and was a clear leader on the field.
He helped Toronto to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League in early 2012 but injured his hamstring in the 2012 season opener in Seattle and missed a month. Toronto was 0-5-0 by the time he returned and went on to a league-worst 0-9-0 record before registering a win.
Frings showed his toughness by taking three injections in two days to dull the pain of a damaged shoulder to continue playing later in the season.
But the hip issue shut him down in September. TFC finished the campaign mired in a 14-game winless streak.
He played just 33 MLS games in his first two seasons in Toronto, scoring two goals. Defensive problems forced him at times to retreat to the backline rather than play his favoured defensive midfield position
He made 46 appearances in all competitions, scoring two goals and adding three assists.
Frings has a glittering soccer pedigree.
The tattooed midfielder with a penchant for motorcycles was part of the German team that was runner-up at the 2002 World Cup and at the 2008 European Championship. For years, he helped shield the German back four with Michael Ballack.
He made headlines at the 2006 World Cup for a post-match brawl against Argentina that saw him suspended for two games for punching an opposing player.
Frings played for Werder Bremen (twice), Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in Germany, turning down an offer to move to Italy with Juventus.
He had no regrets moving to Toronto, saying he loved the city. He also relished his relative anonymity in Toronto after his fishbowl existence in Germany.