Soccer

Bendik back as Toronto FC's No. 1 goalkeeper, credits Cesar

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The Canadian Press
5/21/2014 4:38:42 PM
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TORONTO -- On a day when Julio Cesar essentially said farewell to Toronto FC, fellow goalie Joe Bendik opted not to talk to the media.

Perhaps he was ceding the day to the Brazilian No. 1, one reporter surmised.

A day later, Bendik came clean. Chatting with journalists had conflicted with his tee time Tuesday.

The 25-year-old American 'keeper, who shot a round of 79, comes with a certain amount of swagger.

That ego took a jolt when, after winning Toronto's No. 1 job in 2013, Bendik lost his starting role in pre-season to Cesar.

"A hit to my pride today but luckily I've got tons of it! Going to take in everything I can from a top shelf gk (goalkeeper) to better my abilities," Bendik tweeted, with a colourful adjective before tons, when Cesar's signing was announced in February.

Three months later, Bendik is back as Toronto's No. 1. Cesar has left the club for the World Cup and is not expected back, with England's Queens Park Rangers looking to cut short the loan agreement with MLS.

Bendik says he is a better goalie for having spent time with the 34-year-old Cesar.

"He did things for my career that I couldn't do over 20 years, probably," said Bendik, his post-practice calendar apparently a littler clearer Wednesday. "Just to see him play, see his professionalism was amazing.

"Now I have to step in and start to play some games and continue what I did last year. And continue what I've done the last three games."

Cesar gave way to Bendik for both legs of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinal against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Bendik also played in Saturday's 2-0 league win over the New York Red Bulls when Cesar was laid low by the flu.

Bendik came to Toronto in a December 2012 trade with Portland. The Timbers got forward Ryan Johnson and goalie Milos Kocic in exchange for Bendik, the third overall pick in the 2013 SuperDraft and allocation money.

At the time, the goalie component of the deal seemed like a swap of backups with Bendik taking over for Kocic -- who believed he should have been No. 1 in Toronto -- behind the oft-injured Stefan Frei.

But when Frei was injured in the first pre-season game in Florida in 2013, Bendik took over and started 33 games for Toronto. Frei was traded to Seattle at the end of the season and Bendik was rewarded with a new contract.

When he heard Cesar was coming to Toronto, Bendik said he knew it could go "either amazing or terrible. Luckily it's amazing."

It helped that inside the team, word was that Cesar was likely going after the World Cup. Rather than being left out in the cold, Bendik knew in essence that he was having an extended training camp -- while having the opportunity to learn from one of the best goalies in the world.

It was no coincidence that Nelsen, praising Bendik after he helped Toronto win a penalty shootout in the Amway Canadian Championship, said he would not be surprised to see his young 'keeper earn a call-up to the U.S. national team after the World Cup.

Cesar was moving on. Bendik was back.

For Nelsen, the Cesar acquisition was always a marriage of convenience with a short timeline. Cesar needed a place to play ahead of the World Cup and QPR wanted some salary relief.

Toronto got a world-class goalie, a tutor for Bendik and the invaluable publicity of seeing Toronto FC by the name of Brazil's goalkeeper at the World Cup. Having Cesar around would also help settle fellow Brazilians Gilberto and Jackson.

Plus the short-term nature of the relationship means that the club will have some salary cap space come the summer.

It was win-win.

"It's benefited the league, it's benefited the club and it's benefited every single player here at Toronto," Nelsen said.

It helped that Cesar, like England's Jermain Defoe and American Michael Bradley, was a good citizen with an ego seemingly in check. They may be stars, but they don't act like it.

Cesar met the media only periodically in Toronto. But he was always relaxed when he did, his arm invariably around translator Daniel Correia.

"That's Nellie," Bendik said, referring to Nelsen. "I think his No. 1 prerequisite is you have to be a good guy. You have to be a character in the locker-room. If you're not, he doesn't really care for it."

Cesar's relaxed way was infectious. Bendik, for one, says the Brazilian's message was to let mistakes go, to look ahead rather than behind.

When that advice comes from a Serie A goalkeeper of the year and Champions League winner, you tend to listen.

"When he came, right away he took me under his arm and he wanted the best for me right from the start," Bendik said. "That helped me a lot to embrace the moment."

It's help that Bendik says he will pay forward -- if he finds himself playing in his mid-30s with a young goalie.

"I hope I'm half the way he is," he said of Cesar.

"It's been fantastic," said backup goalie Chris Konopka.

"Working side by side with Julio, with the Brazil No. 1, he's as focused as he will ever be because he's preparing himself to be on the world stage, for basically the No. 1 team in the world," he added. "All eyes are going to be on him. It was definitely a unique and great experience working side by side with him."

The goalies aren't the only ones to praise Cesar. Captain Steven Caldwell says playing with Cesar has been one of the highlights of his career.

"The impact he's had on me and everybody else at this football club is huge," said the Scottish defender. "In such a short space of time, for everybody to have the pleasure to see what it's like to be a top, top professional and an outstanding goalkeeper is a real pleasure."

"An outstanding human being," added Caldwell.

The whole team plans to stay in touch with the Brazilian, by means of a chat group during the World Cup. No one will cheer louder than the Toronto FC dressing room if Cesar gets to hoist the World Cup.

Joe Bendik  (Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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