Soccer

Limping Toronto FC welcomes bye to open MLS season

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The Canadian Press
3/4/2014 5:51:33 PM
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TORONTO - Toronto FC went 1-2-2 during an injury-plagued Florida training camp, coming home to a frozen tundra.

Star striker Jermain Defoe has yet to touch down and fellow marquee signings Michael Bradley and Gilberto have been hampered by injury.

Goalie Julio Cesar is on international duty with Brazil in South Africa and backup forward Bright Dike is already probably out for the season after tendon surgery.

Manager Ryan Nelsen has been down three fullbacks and three strikers. Minor niggles have turned into more bothersome setbacks.

It's meant extra minutes for some players and new positions for others.

For an MLS franchise that has gone all-in on the transfer market in a bid to finally make the playoffs after seven seasons of failure and a woeful 51-105-66 record, there is still much work to do.

The good news is Toronto has a bye this weekend when 16 clubs kick off the 2014 season. Toronto opens March 15 in Seattle.

"We planned that brilliantly," Nelsen said dryly after practice Tuesday under the bubble at the team's well-appointed north Toronto training ground.

Nelsen, in his second year at the helm, has managed to find some positives in the rocky pre-season.

"It did expose our weaknesses," he said. "You always get exposed at some part of the season, whether it's injuries or suspensions or international call-ups or something like that."

"We know what we have, we know what we need to be and where we need to get to," he added. "It's good to know now rather than a quarter or halfway through the season.

"We'll be a different animal come the 15th but in the back of my mind, it's a nice thing to know moving forward."

Depth is an issue. Toronto can field an impressive starting 11 but pre-season has already shown that the wrong combination of injuries at the wrong position can cause havoc.

The team remains very much a work in progress. Even MLSsoccer.com, which ranked TFC 17th out of 19 teams in its weekly "power rankings," has Toronto 14th in its pre-season list.

"We're not all aboard the bandwagon just yet," said the website.

Nelsen, whose team went 6-17-11 last season, says he doesn't concern himself with "outside voices." But the former New Zealand international knows that whipping up a gourmet meal is more than just buying the right ingredients.

"Just because you make some changes, it's not like a light switch. It does take time," he said. "That's the beauty of sport.

"But in saying that we fully expect to get where we want to be. And if you think the expectations are high outside, they're probably higher inside. But we know it's hard and we know it's a journey to get to."

The pre-season injury list has included forwards Gilberto (quadricep) and Dike (tendon), midfielders Jonathan Osorio (flu) and Daniel Lovitz (knee) and fullbacks Mark Bloom (quadricep), Bradley Orr (calf) and Justin Morrow (hip).

Bradley, who withdrew from the U.S squad to face Ukraine in Cyprus, is nursing a minor foot issue.

More worrying for Nelsen is the fact that the injuries to Bloom and Orr started as minor issues but got worse.

"We'll definitely be addressing it," Nelsen said. "You always get niggles and you always get injuries but they're re-injuries. When you re-do an injury, it's major cause for concern."

Nelsen expects everyone to be ready for the season. Defoe, the former Tottenham star, is expected to join the team after Wednesday's England friendly against Denmark.

"As soon as he plays the game for England, he'll be on a plane over," said Nelsen.

Still, that means a longer road for team chemistry. Although, unlike past off-seasons, Toronto's transaction list has been relatively short and very select.

Bradley, Defoe, Gilberto, Cesar, Morrow, Jackson, Orr, and veteran midfielder Dwayne De Rosario are all targeted as starters.

The injuries at fullback have meant rookie centre back Nick Hagglund has been shifted to an emergency right back.

"Couldn't be more happy with Nick," said Nelsen.

Bright Dike (Photo: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty )

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(Photo: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty )
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