Toronto FC Media Day has never been better. Seriously.
Seven years of losing has brought many different faces, players and management, to the annual pre-season get-to-know-the-team round up. Unfortunately for those player-media relationships initiated and cultivated, most of the interviewees have been shipped out prematurely. Media Day became a meet-and-greet, followed by a see you later.
Tuesday's team time out for Toronto's media throng had a much different vibe at the Kia Training Grounds. A good mix of young up-and-comers with a core of veteran leadership has been assembled after an off-season of change, signings, spending and hype. First impressions are just that, but on initial glance, it all felt right. Nothing has been accomplished yet. But every ship needs a sail before heading out to sea. The good news is the mast is up and the TFC ship is heading in the right direction. Hopefully. Finally.
Progress, alas. Stability and confidence go hand-in-hand. The revolving door of players and personnel has been TFC's worst enemy. General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko and Head Coach Ryan Nelsen have been busy in recent months filling the gaps and adding genuine quality. Bezbatchenko, hired in September, likes what he has in his group.
"I'm very comfortable with where we compare with other teams right now," said Bezbatchenko.
The roster has coming a long way since end of season apologies and promises. On February 11th, comfortable will suffice. More is to be done, at least one more player is coming in, and more will go out. A work in progress.
Here are eight notable notes from the eighth Media Day in franchise history.
1) Brazil Head Coach Felipe Scolari confirmed the seeming inevitable early Tuesday; that goalkeeper Julio Cesar, 34, has in fact joined Toronto FC on loan. The club refused to confirm anything,
"I haven't spoken to Julio for a couple days, but I think it would be really nice … I may have to give Scolari a call," said Nelsen.
Give that man a phone! All sources indicate the deal for Cesar to join TFC on a short loan is done. He's coming. The club will save that announcement for another day, with the five-time Serie A and UEFA Champions League winner in the flesh. Save that ink for another day. A lack of confirmation didn't stop anyone not named Bezbatchenko from heaping praise on the pending new arrival.
Nelsen – "He's a gentleman of a man, he's a quality guy, his character is flawless, and he's great around the locker-room. When you see him at work, there's a reason he's played nearly 80 times for Brazil and won everything in the game."
Michael Bradley -"It's amazing, speaks volumes for the direction that this club is going. A week ago, if anybody had told us that now another guy like Julio Cesar would come in, I don't think anyone would believe them."
Dwayne De Rosario – "He's a winner. To have him here is a great opportunity to learn from him."
The excitement is palpable. Although goalkeepers are often times interchangeable in MLS, the Cesar move to Toronto not only adds quality but also further shows the symbolic shift in approach and ambition of the franchise.
2) Last season's number one goalkeeper Joe Bendik is the potential short-term loser with Cesar's arrival. Key word: potential. It all depends on how Bendik takes the setback. Although Bendik won't play much, if at all in the opening months, it's his job for the taking long-term. How he handles the situation will reveal whether his mind is on self or team. Cesar's arrival is an opportunity not wasted rather than a shot at Bendik.
The 24-year-old signed a new contract in December and has to understand this. Regardless, Bendik was noticeably uneasy about taking a back seat to Cesar. "It motivates me. Obviously it's a little shot and a bomb to swallow … but it can't go badly because I can learn a lot from him and compete with him every day to play. It's a win-win." Bendik has to keep the long-view in mind. He need understand Bendik will be relied upon post World Cup as the team marches towards a potential playoff spot; the time with least room for error.
3) Big money signing Bradley didn't back away from my question regarding the sentiment amongst many MLS analysts saying Toronto FC overpaid for the midfielder.
"I think it's great, we're now to the point with the growth of soccer in North America, a decision like mine to come to Toronto and back to MLS can illicit such a wide variety of responses and opinions … it doesn't bother me." Bradley remained poised throughout his time with the media.
His teammates glowed when speaking about 'The General's presence already in camp. De Rosario even spoke about meeting with Bradley and captain Steven Caldwell about direction and leadership. Bradley ticks all the boxes in terms of leadership and on-field qualities of a winner. Money necessarily spent.
4) Many players believe TFC have become the hunted after years of being the hunter.
Caldwell is one of them. "We are probably the team to beat in MLS and it's going to be difficult wherever we go."
Teams will have undoubtedly taken notice the moves Toronto has made. And it's unlikely the Reds will be MLS doormat of previous years. But it takes more than a team on paper to be the class of the league. Caldwell acknowledges as much, that the work is still to be done. Still, the acceptance of expectation is a healthy mindset and speaks to the newfound confidence in the group.
5) The third, often times forgotten designated player, Brazilian Gilberto has set lofty goals for himself for his inaugural MLS season. Through a translator, the striker stated his aim to score 25 goals. Seriously. No hesitation. Camilo Sanvezzo won MLS Golden Boot last season with 22 goals. Perhaps the proclamation was somewhat lost in translation, as the Brazilian says his biggest challenge right now is learning the language. After I wished him luck at learning English, he wished me luck learning Portuguese. Gilberto is a really friendly guy. He will be easy to cheer for, especially if he scores 25.
6) I couldn't resist asking Nelsen what he learned about MLS officiating last season. Nelsen, like many others, grew frustrated by the inconsistency and downright inferior refereeing performances on a regular basis.
"They are really good guys, but for me, (they) just need experience at the very top level. In my humble opinion, they've come to the top rather quickly without the pressure soaked experience. It's tough for them."
It will be tougher for Nelsen to bite his lip when officiating goes against them this year. The stakes have been raised. How Nelsen grows from year one to year two in composure and approach will be a test. The manager sets the tone. Consistency will be key and a massive challenge for a manager with questions to be answered.
7) An ongoing worry among the media and diehards is the salary cap situation. It's a rather nerdy habit to worry about a GM's bookkeeping. Bezbatchenko tried to alleviate worries on potential limited financial flexibility.
"You can always make room on your team for new players. We do have some space left. We always have space."
This is a much different tactic than previous regimes, which overspent on players and used the cap ceiling as an excuse for lackluster play and lack of positive player movement. Bezbatchenko's experience with MLS puts him and the team in good stead in cap management. So don't lose sleep, moves can be made.
8) The clock is ticking on Toronto FC's efforts to resolve Matias Laba's future. A loan move within or outside MLS is the most logical step. Laba is in Toronto and the club continues to consult with the player on what's best for the Argentine's future.
Bezbatchenko is clearly aware of the messy, borderline deceitful break-ups between club and player that have contributed to a negative perception of TFC among agents and power brokers.
"We're trying to treat our players a little differently than in the past," said Bezbatchenko.
This isn't a shot at past management. It's the truth. Good on him and the front office to right this long-standing wrong. The Laba situation will continue to be handled with kid gloves. Reputations and the future of a good young player caught in the middle of a rebuild are on the line.