Toronto FC's Major League Soccer season is barely over, but club officials are already planning for 2012.
Toronto FC Director of Player Development Paul Mariner confirmed to TSN that talks are underway with English defender Richard Eckersley with a view to extending his stay in North America.
Mariner joined our final MLS broadcast of the regular season as Toronto FC tied 2-2 against his former team New England Revolution on Saturday, and revealed that progress is being made in their bid to keep the right back at the club.
"We are trying our best to re-sign him," said Mariner. "I have known Richard for a long time and he is tailor-made for the league. I was out to dinner with him last night and we had a good chat. It is progressing really well. I don't want to say it is 100 per cent yet but it is progressing very well for us."
The news will be well received by Toronto FC supporters who have enjoyed watching Eckersley's whole-hearted performances for the club since he signed on loan from Burnley of the English Championship in April. The 22-year-old began his career at Manchester United before signing with Burnley, but saw limited playing time with the Clarets and had spent time on loan in the lower leagues in England prior to his move to MLS.
When Eckersley arrived in Toronto his goal was to establish himself as a regular starter for the club, something he quickly achieved. His physical and athletic performances led to him earning a place as the team's first choice right back. His qualities not only fit well with MLS, but also with the system played by TFC Head Coach Aron Winter which allows Eckersley to push forward down the right wing. The Salford-born defender missed the final few weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, but still finished with 22 starts in 23 league appearances.
The re-signing of Eckersley is just one piece of the puzzle as Mariner and company look to shape the squad for 2012. The team was vastly improved in the second half of the season following the big changes made by Winter in July, including the arrivals of designated players Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings, but it is still far from the finished product. A strong, commanding central defender has to be top of the list for the club's off-season acquisitions.
Toronto will have the benefit of two defenders returning from long-term injuries next year. Canadian Adrian Cann and Jamaican international Dicoy Williams both needed knee surgery in the spring and are well on the road to recovery, but Mariner still acknowledges the need to strengthen defensively.
"We know we have still got a lot of work to do. It is obvious for all to see," said Mariner. "We conceded another goal from a set-piece against New England so across the back four we need to strengthen. They have had pretty serious injuries and we hope for the best but we don't really know how they are going to come back," he said. "We hope they will come back strong but we have got to be cautious. I don't think it will be a surprise if we bring in another central defender to the club."
Toronto FC's first competitive match of 2012 will be the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final.
Their opponent is still to be decided, as is the venue that the home match will be played at. After finishing the group stage in second place following last week's 3-0 win at FC Dallas, Toronto will be hosting the match sometime during the week of March 6-8.
Tom Anselmi, Executive Vice President and COO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, confirmed to TSN that talks are taking place with the Rogers Centre to discuss the possibility of moving the game indoors. Although the pitch at BMO Field would not be an issue due to its underground heating system, the concern is whether the stadium would be ready to go in early March with the potential for frozen pipes a major problem.
While Toronto could potentially benefit from the 'home advantage' of playing a Mexican side in below freezing temperatures, the safer bet is to move the game across the city. After five years of missing the MLS playoffs, getting a big crowd in the Rogers Centre would be a great way to kick-off the new season and create a buzz around the team heading into year six.
The last time a Canadian team made it to the quarter-final of the Champions League was in 2009, ansd saw the impact made when Montreal had a crowd of over 50,000 at Olympic Stadium for their match with Santos Laguna. It was an incredible soccer spectacle on that night. Three years later, there is a very realistic possibility that those scenes could be repeated in Toronto this winter.