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Jack: Captain Caldwell setting the tone at TFC camp

Kristian Jack
2/26/2014 9:28:10 PM
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ORLANDO - It is a bright, warm morning in Orlando and Toronto FC are going through an intense match between themselves at training.

The smell of freshly cut grass makes you think of those back home chipping away at the ice on their car windows.

Young defender Gale Agbossoumonde receives the ball, looks back and sees Steven Caldwell open. He decides not to pass it and instead forces a more difficult pass forward.

Minutes later he is handed another opportunity. In his strong Scottish twang, Caldwell screams at his defender for the ball but, once again, he doesn't receive it, instead the ball is given away to the opposing team.

It might still be February but Caldwell doesn't let it slide, telling his colleague in no certain terms what he must do next time.

In a quick five-second moment, he shows to Agbossoumonde, and the rest of the team, the type of leader he is and the mentality expected inside Toronto FC's camp.

Caldwell is as intense as he is driven. Hours after the training game he is preparing for a pre-season match here in Orlando and as he walks out of the dressing room he is focused firmly on the match as if it's the most important game of his life.

It is hard to believe this is Steven Caldwell's first pre-season camp with Toronto FC.

Since making his debut last May, the Scot has become club captain and was voted player of the 2013 season. Despite not even playing one full season for the team he also is unquestionably the best centre back the club has ever had.

Toronto FC have struggled a great deal throughout their short existence in MLS and one of the main reasons for this has been the genuine lack of talent playing for them at the heart of defence.

While the likes of Miguel Aceval, Andrew Boyens, Adrian Cann, Nick Garcia, Tyrone Marshall, Darren O'Dea and Marco Velez combined to play over 250 games at that position for this team, Caldwell was playing at the highest level in England.

"I had some great times at Newcastle and in the Champions League I came on against Inter Milan, played the full 90 against Leverkusen, they were fantastic experiences. We had a good run, we went to San Siro, Nou Camp, Feyenoord was a special night when we scored two late goals to get through," Caldwell tells me.

Having played all over the world, the Scot, who signed for Newcastle as a schoolboy, still names St James's Park as his favourite all-time stadium: "Fantastic atmosphere, the noise is incredible. I remember against Sunderland, that game sticks out, my first derby, we lost to a Niall Quinn header, but you couldn't hear the person who was five yards next to you, you just had to read his lips."

Caldwell was loaned to Leeds in January 2004 to try and help them stay in the Premier League. He failed but remembers his time fondly.

"I loved it, it was my first spell of regular football in the Premier League, Eddie Gray was the manager at the time - we had a great group of players, it still perplexes me to this day (getting relegated) - wow we had some team, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte, Alan Smith, stars everywhere really, it was a bitter disappointment for me to not do it for one of the best group of supporters I have ever had."

One of the lowest moments of the season for Leeds was a crushing 5-0 loss against Arsenal at Highbury. Caldwell was one of the defenders asked to stop Thierry Henry that day, instead he was given a memory to last a lifetime.

"Without even thinking about it, I can say he is the best player I have ever come across. That game he scored four goals and the last one Gary Kelly tripped him up and he still put it in," he laughs as he recreates the goal for me. "He was the best player in the world, for me, then and I was fortunate to say I played against him. What a gentleman he is and it is a real honour to still play against him now."

In the summer of 2004, Caldwell joined Mick McCarthy at Sunderland and it was there where he created another special bond. Current Vancouver Whitecaps boss Carl Robinson had played on loan for Sunderland the year previous but would sign permanently the same month as Caldwell.

"Mick brought in a special group who could deliver every single week, we were a fantastic group. We had that togetherness, spirit, camaraderie. We won so many games 1-0, in the end we couldn't get beat, we were just rolling along and won the Championship with games to spare. That year means Robbo and I are very close, we spent a lot of time together in that first season. Our careers moved on and we would play each other and have the weekends together with our families, we always hooked up and stayed in touch. We will always have that bond because we have won something together."

Robinson can't say enough about what kind of person and player, Caldwell is. He told me this week: "Toronto has a fantastic leader. He is one of the best teammates I ever had, he is a true friend off the field."

Both Robinson and Caldwell experienced that feeling of success at Sunderland and are hoping to bring that to their MLS teams this season. Caldwell said coming to work every day knowing your team is at their best and won't let you down 'is the best feeling in football'.

He said: "I had it at Sunderland and Burnley, different makeups of teams but one thing that was the same was the spirit of the team and you just wake up and you know what you are going to get."

After winning promotion to the Premier League with Sunderland, Caldwell did it again with Burnley, this time via the playoffs when he would lift the trophy at the iconic Wembley Stadium.

"We played Reading in the first leg of the playoffs - they were superb with Kevin Doyle and Shane Long, they'd been in the Premier League a couple of years earlier, and they came to Turf Moor and battered us, but we beat them 1-0 with a penalty late, and I am driving home thinking 'we cannot play any worse than that' (in the second leg) so in my mind we had won it already because I knew it couldn't be that bad. We got bombarded again but held out and scored two goals late on to take us to the final, where we felt the momentum was with us."

Burnley ended a 33-year drought of top flight football at Wembley that day and the image of captain Caldwell lifting the trophy sits proudly inside their Turf Moor Stadium.

It is the end result of a team going from below average to very good in one season and is something the 33-year-old is leaning on this season for Toronto.

"It is a similar type of experience, you start (the season) and it grows and you know you have something going and I feel it here again. I am not speaking too quickly and getting ahead of ourselves, I have that feeling here that something is building at this club and it was very similar at Burnley."

Caldwell has heard often about the constant comparisons between the Championship and MLS and, as a veteran of so many matches in the second tier of English football, offers a unique perspective on it.

"I think MLS has a little bit more talent, a lot of that comes because we are fresher and play a lot less games. The Championship plays far too many games - you have 46 league games, players get tired, in the middle of the season you are exhausted, it's crazy. You cannot even play the game you want to play because of fatigue so you just do what you can and hope you have that striker or that one bit of quality to change a game.

"Here we have the quality, the facilities, the conditions, the weather, it's a bit more enjoyable to play but where we have to catch up in North America is with our mentality. We have to be a little more tough and once that improves, which it is doing, I think you will start to see MLS teams improving and going on to win the CONCACAF Champions League."

Much has changed in the offseason for Toronto. Yet, Caldwell is not the missing piece. He was the first piece awaiting others to surround him. Jermain Defoe, Gilberto and Dwayne De Rosario have been brought in for goals. Michael Bradley has been signed to anchor the midfield and Julio Cesar signed to make the crucial saves. One thing they need to secure to create a strong spine through the middle for this team is a centre-back who brings leadership, experience and, above all else, a strong mentality that becomes contagious.

It was once the thing Toronto FC lacked the most. Now it is the one thing they know they can rely on.




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