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Toronto FC braintrust heads to Europe this week

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The Canadian Press
10/9/2013 6:05:26 PM
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TORONTO -- Toronto FC players practised Wednesday before scattering to make the most of four days off thanks to a bye this weekend.

The MLS club's braintrust also has big plans.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment boss Tim Leiweke, club GM Tim Bezbatchenko and manager Ryan Nelsen head to Europe later this week in search of marquee players.

With the renewal deadline for season ticket-holders pushed back to January, it could be one of the most important hunts for talent in the underachieving franchise's seven-year history.

Leiweke told a recent supporters' breakfast that the itinerary includes "a half-dozen players and teams." The focus is on players with English Premier League and Italian Serie A clubs.

"The days of us putting our toe in the water and trying to find a cheap DP (designated player) are over. We're going to go swing for the fences," said the man who brought David Beckham to MLS.

"We'll see you in January. Because by then we either will have delivered or failed you again," he added. "I'm not interested in seeing you in January and failing you again. It's time we started doing things right."

Top of the list are two strikers, to be signed as designated players.

"Of course we have our targets that we want to sign," Nelsen said after practice Wednesday. "We'll be putting our head down and trying to get them."

Players out of contract this summer can be signed six months in advance of that, so news could come in the January window.

But Nelsen cautioned that wooing a player can take time.

"In my experience of being in the situation myself, being on the other side of it, it generally takes a bit of time," he said. "But I'd come back to you and say we might have already started that a few months ago."

Still the good ones take the most time to romance, he added. Chances are this trip will be only part of the sales pitch.

Designated players allow MLS clubs to sign marquee talent without throwing their US$2.95-million salary cap into disarray.

Only $368,750 of a DP's salary counts against the cap, less if the player is young ($150,000 for a player 20 and younger and $200,000 for a player aged 21 to 23).

TFC's current DPs -- both injured -- are 34-year-old Dutch striker Danny Koevermans, whose actual salary is $1.66 million, and 21-year-old Argentine midfielder Matias Laba ($200,000).

Clubs are allowed two designated player slots and can buy a third slot for a one-time fee of $150,000 (the fee is waived if the third roster slot is for a young DP).

Past DPs in Toronto were Canadian international midfielder Julian de Guzman, Spanish striker Mista, French forward Eric Hassli and former German international midfielder Torsten Frings.

Mista was a bust while De Guzman was a decent player who didn't deserve DP status. Hassli was a panic pickup in the face of growing injuries up front.

Frings, a former club captain, was a classy former international whose considerable influence was slowed by injury. He also often had to play out of position because the Toronto talent cupboard was so bare.

Of the current crop, Koevermans' impact has also been blunted by injury. When healthy, the big Dutchman was a scoring threat in MLS. But he has been rarely fit, with a flurry of minor niggles following serious knee surgery.

Laba seems a good use of the young DP.

But none have combined the kind of success on the pitch and influence off it that Leiweke considers the DP job description to entail.

Toronto also chose not to bestow DP status on Canadian attacking midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who went on to win MVP honours elsewhere.

"We've done a bad job with DPs here. Period," Leiweke said.

Said Bezbatchenko: "Clearly when you look at our team, we have not had goal-scorers. Proven world-class goal-scorers."

The number-crunching GM estimates an MLS team needs between 46 and 55 goals a year to get into the playoffs. Toronto, which has 29 goals with two games to go this season, has averaged between 30 and 35.

While the Toronto franchise has a history of underperforming and poor management, it does have many selling points.

MLSE has lots to offer as an owner, with deep pockets and big league properties.

Toronto is a safe cosmopolitan city that offers its soccer players relative anonymity compared to the fishbowl that is the European game.

And while BMO Field is a hardly a jewel of a stadium, the club's training facility is top-drawer.

Leiweke is a slick closer with a good track record. The newly retired Nelsen has an impressive Rolodex thanks to his years of playing in the Premier League and connections through the New Zealand national team.

No doubt he has used it to good effect.

Nelsen, who still has a home in London from his days with Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers, is likely to stay a little longer in Europe to take in next Tuesday's friendly between Canada and Australia at London's Craven Cottage.

Canadian coach Benito Floro has called up four Toronto FC players for the game: defenders Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry and midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Kyle Bekker.

The rest of TFC players are set to return to training Monday, in advance of their penultimate game of the season Oct. 19 at Chicago.

The club badly needs to restore its relevance. Attendance has been slipping. Once the poster-boy of the league for its crammed stands and season-ticket waiting list, Toronto is drawing season-low crowds.

Toronto (5-16-11) currently stands 10th in the 19-team league with average attendance of 18,439. Alarmingly, the last three home games have drawn announced crowds of 15,879 (D.C. United), 12,627 (Sporting Kansas City) and 15,217 (Chicago).

Media coverage has also waned. Wednesday's practice drew one reporter.

NOTES -- Captain Steven Caldwell has returned to Scotland due to death in the family ... Midfielders Bobby Convey, Darel Rusell and Alvaro Rey missed practice Wednesday through injury ... Goalkeeper Joe Bendik (two yellows in Philadelphia) and midfielder Jeremy Hall (accumulation of yellows) are suspended for next week's Chicago game.

Tim Leiweke (Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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