Toronto FC's Torsten Frings close to return
Captain strained hamstring in season opener
Goalkeeper Milos Kocic was answering reporters' questions outside the Toronto FC locker-room Tuesday morning when it became clear he was needed elsewhere.
His teammates had headed to a nearby room at BMO Field for a players-only meeting in the wake of a fourth straight MLS loss. A team official hovered by the media scrum, trying to politely intercede. But the questions continued.
Then out came impatient captain Torsten Frings to reclaim his goalie. The former German international gave Kocic a "let's wrap it up" gesture and the scrum was over.
On and off the pitch, Frings runs the Toronto FC show.
Teenage goalie gets call
It's been quite a year for teenage goalie Quillan Roberts.
Last June, he made history when he scored against England at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. And now the 17-year-old 'keeper has been elevated to Toronto FC's main roster from the MLS side's academy.
"It's a good feeling — being noticed and coming up through the academy," Roberts told reporters Tuesday.
Roberts gets his chance in the absence of backup Stefan Frei, who will be out for four to six months after breaking his fibula and damaging ankle ligaments March 24 in training.
Toronto FC has been using Brian Rowe, one of the league's pool goalies, as a backup to Milos Kocic but Rowe is currently helping out in Portland. He is expected back in Toronto after his stint with the Timbers.
"We need a third goalkeeper and he's a youth player with a lot of potential," said Toronto coach Aron Winter.
By signing an MLS contract, Roberts has closed the door on the NCAA.
"A lot of thought went into this decision," he said. "I think this is the right one for me."
A Grade 12 student, Roberts catches up on school via "co-ops and online courses."
"I don't get to go in a lot," he said.
He says he's "a little bit behind, but I have time and it will be finished."
Roberts, six foot and 193 pounds, will wear No. 40 for Toronto.
Born Sept. 13, 1994, Roberts entered the record books at the FIFA U-17 World Cup when he boomed a kick from just inside his side of the halfway line with time winding down and Canada trailing 2-1 to England in Pachuca, Mexico.
The ball bounced over a pair of players trying to get their head onto it and into the net over the lunging English goalie.
It was the first goal by a goalkeeper in any FIFA 11-a-side finals competition.
The 87th-minute goal also gave Canada a 2-2 tie and its first point at the under-17 tournament after 14 straight losses.
Roberts only got the start after star goalie Maxime Crepeau suffered a knee injury in the dying minutes of Canada's opening loss to Uruguay.
Roberts says a couple of people noticed him in the airport after his goalscoring heroics "but that was about it."
Roberts has seen action for TFC already. He was part of a largely reserve side that lost 1-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps in early March in the final of the pre-season Disney Pro Soccer Classic.
Most of Toronto's first-stringers had already left Florida by then to prepare for a CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
— The Canadian Press
The good news for manager Aron Winter is that Frings is now just "a couple of days" away from returning from the strained hamstring that has sidelined him since the season opener in Seattle on March 17.
"It's not going to take weeks with him," Winter said of his 35-year-old defensive stopper.
"He's very close to coming back," he added.
Asked if Frings could play Saturday against visiting Chivas USA (2-3-0), Winter replied: "That, we have to wait [and see]."
But when Winter was asked if he will be popping the champagne at seeing Frings back, the Dutch coach turned serious.
"No, no, no ... I'm popping the champagne at the end of the season when we make the playoffs and we have got good results."
Still, he welcomed the imminent return of his captain.
'What's up bro?'
"Torsten is very important for the team. It's not only about his qualities, technical and tactical, but also about his leadership."
Like the luxury German automobile he drives, Frings is a thoroughbred. And when he talks, players listen.
His English is ever-improving, as witnessed by a recent "What's up bro" to a colleague as he walked on the pitch at BMO Field.
The team declined to make Frings available Tuesday.
At 0-4-0, Toronto needs something to kickstart its season. Despite reaching the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, Winter's side has yet to register a point in MLS play this season.
The team has been outscored 9-2 in four league games — although six of those goals were conceded in its first two outings. Toronto also has yet to lead an MLS game this season.
Winter's position is the club is playing well but paying the price for defensive mistakes and not converting its own chances in front of goal.
Critics might respond that good teams find ways to win. Toronto has done that just once this season, compiling a 1-5-2 record in league and CONCACAF Champions League play.
Like a parent with a wayward child, Winter manages to be hopeful, disappointed, perplexed and understanding about his team all at the same time.
But he has added to his shopping list of discontent in recent days.
While never one to name names in public, he has said some players have let the team down at certain moments. And he has tangentially suggested that some veterans have not stepped up in Frings' absence.
He also noted he did not see "the fire" in his players until it was too late in Saturday's 2-1 loss in Montreal.
"The confidence is there, but we're missing something," he said. "We're trying to figure it out, to be sharper on certain things. But it's not a good start, it's a very bad start.
"I'm still confident, I've got all the belief with the other games that we have, that we're going to get a lot of points to get to the playoffs."
Winter has said he will make changes. Asked whether that will come from inside or outside the squad, he replied "both."
Giveaways have cost Toronto FC dearly recently.
"The goals we concede are just ridiculous," said Kocic.
In Montreal, the Impact scored after midfielder Terry Dunfield's pocket was picked and defender Ty Harden failed to clear the ball properly.
Players respond to such errors in different ways.
"That's part of football," said Dunfield, adding "mistakes are going to happen."
"I wish I could say I could just forget it but of course I've thinking about it — especially the second goal in Montreal — that's all I've thought about for like the last three days," said Harden.
Winter has no answer for such errors.
"I don't know exactly why, but it's not good," he said.
Such giveaways are a cardinal sin in a 4-3-3 system designed around ball possession.
"We're trying to mimic Barcelona and Ajax and all that stuff. If you want to mimic them then you have to keep the ball," said Kocic who did his part with some artful distribution from the back.
"What's really the point of playing this system if we're not doing the right things?" be added.
Tuesday's players-only meeting was nothing special, according to defender Richard Eckersley who says such gatherings are held regularly.
"The message was 'We're all in as a team and we're going to show that Saturday."'
Despite the recent run, players insist morale is good.
"This is one of the tightest groups of players I've ever been part of," said Dunfield.
Added Eckersley: "I believe in this team. I think we've got a great team spirit. Eventually, if we just be a bit patient, it will all come good."
After five games in 14 days (an 0-4-1 run that included a trip to Mexico), Toronto players now get to sleep in their own bed and take part in a full week of training.
"Saturday to me is like a clean slate," said Eckersley. "We're starting again."
But Kocic has not forgotten one bit of Toronto's bad start.
"You don't want to get into that mentality of losing games and I feel like it can easily go the wrong way if we don't step up on the weekend and understand that we have to score goals, we have to possess [the ball]," he said.
"There are no more excuses," he added.