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Toronto FC rolls out the big guns with slew of pricey talent

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The Canadian Press
1/9/2014 7:53:08 PM
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TORONTO -- Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko calls it a revolution and the MLS team is rolling out the big guns.

Former league MVP Dwayne De Rosario came back on board Thursday and England striker Jermain Defoe is to be unveiled Monday.

It looks like the Spurs star will be joined by U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley. While Toronto FC officials twisted their tongue into knots Thursday trying not to say anything about Bradley when asked, AS Roma issued a release later in the day saying the American had been sold to Major League Soccer for US$10 million.

A source with knowledge of the league subsequently confirmed that the Bradley move to the MLS had passed another significant hurdle. The source also said Toronto FC was the MLS club pursuing him.

It represents a remarkable shopping spree, one that should jolt life into both Toronto FC while further adding lustre to Major League Soccer itself.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is shelling out millions to turn what has been the MLS doormat for seven years into a world force.

A club official rejected reports that the combined bill for Defoe and Bradley is C$100 million including wages and transfer fees, but the real number probably isn't that far south.

Like any other sport, the big boys of soccer come with big price tags. And MLS teams may have to overpay to overcome European snobbery.

For a team yet to make the MLS playoffs, Toronto ownership is thinking big -- well beyond mere post-season play, according to Bezbatchenko.

"We want to be internationally recognized as a top club," he said after welcoming De Rosario back at a packed news conference at BMO Field "We want to be competing internationally ... There's a certain type of player you need to achieve those (goals)."

Defoe, 31, and Bradley, 26, will do nicely.

The 35-year-old De Rosario, a Toronto native who left the club in 2011 after a contract dispute, adds experience, class and local appeal.

Up until now, the only thing world-class about Toronto FC has been its training centre -- a C$20-million-plus complex that probably rivals all but the top clubs in Europe.

Poor results have led to management and player turnover which have led to poor results which have led to management and player turnover.

MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke, who helped bring David Beckham to MLS, is not one for half-measures and, with the backing of the MLSE board, has opened up the vault for Bezbatchenko and manager Ryan Nelsen.

The team has a vision -- and buckets of cash to back it up.

"In all honesty it wasn't a really hard sell when you just tell them where we're going to go," Nelsen said in describing his sales job to De Rosario.

Unfortunately for De Rosario, under the MLS salary cap rules, only a few get to cash in.

De Rosario, who ranks sixth on the all-time MLS scoring list with 103 goals, made US$654,300 in 2013. He will undoubtedly earn less in Toronto, but said his return to Toronto is about more than money.

"For me right now it's about winning ... You can't put a price on that," he said.

It's a comment that speaks volumes about today's De Rosario, who once was all about the numbers on his paycheque. Remember the 2010 goal celebration that saw him pretend to sign a cheque, by way of showcasing his financial discontent in Toronto.

Once seemingly more concerned about the De Rosario brand than anything else, the veteran midfielder has changed his stripes in recent years.

With the national team, he has worn the captain's armband and, at a Canada training camp in Arizona in early 2013, went out of his way to connect with younger players.

The new galaxy of TFC stars will probably have to build bridges with their lesser-paid teammates. Fullback Ryan Richter, for example, made US$34,125 last season while several others made US$46,500.

MLS is a league of have- and have-nots. Most Toronto players will be more acquainted with a Metropass than a Porsche.

Jordan Hamilton isn't complaining, however. Toronto FC also announced the signing of the 17-year-old academy product Thursday.

"A dream, come true," said the young forward.

A dream that may include training next to Defoe.

"To be practising alongside Defoe, what more could a 17-year-old ask for," Hamilton said with amazement.

While MLSE is spending big, Nelsen says the team's salary cap is actually in better shape that the bottom line bloated with bad contracts that he inherited last season.

As he noted, designated players may cost millions but their salary cap hit is US$390,000

The arrival of Defoe and Bradley as designated players, along with Gilberto and incumbent midfielder Matias Laba means that Toronto has four DPs -- one over the limit.

Laba is the odd man out, with Nelsen only saying at this stage that there are contingency plans.

As Nelsen points out, the MLSE board has dug deep into its pockets because it believes this is smart spending.

In the short term, improvements are needed to retain and build on the 14,600 season-ticket base.

With an average attendance of 18,131, the franchise ranked 10th in the league. MLSE will have looked longingly at Seattle's league-leading average of 44,038.

But MLSE also wants to overhaul and expand BMO Field, likely pouring in C$100 million-plus to add a roof and refit the bare-bones stadium to allow for football and other events.

The 22,00-seat capacity BMO was built on a $62-million shoestring, probably less than what Defoe and Bradley will cost.

Leiweke mused recently about Toronto hosting an NHL Winter Classic, likely timed with the Maple Leafs' 100th anniversary season in 2016-17.

A revamped BMO could also host outdoor music festivals, which were another string to the MLSE boss's bow when he ran the Anschutz Entertainment Group.

AEG is the second-largest music promoter in the world (behind Live Nation), staging tours by Justin Bieber, Bon Jovi, Prince and Taylor Swift and running events like the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival and Stagecoach Festival.

Leiweke, a music fan who has attended Coachella, already has a big-name local music buddy in Drake, MLSE's global ambassador who helped sell Toronto to Defoe.

De Rosario, Defoe and Bradley will sell tickets -- and more than a few jerseys.

Defoe is a charismatic striker with an eye for goal, although one club official mused that recently signed Brazilian striker Gilberto may score more goals this season.

In return for a huge investment, the compact East Londoner offers Toronto FC respectability (55 caps for England) as well as scoring chops (more than 200 goals in all competitions).

He will also serve as a club ambassador, charming and entertaining off the pitch.

Bradley will run the midfield.

Add Brazilian midfielder Jackson and U.S. international fullback Justin Morrow to the young roster that remains from a six-win 2013 season and Toronto FC promises to be interesting watching when the season opens March 15 in Seattle.

For the league, it's compelling evidence that the North American league is a legitimate soccer destination.

"We want to be leading the way," Bezbatchenko said.

"The transformation this club has undergone the past three months is indicative of where we're headed and what we want to do with player signings," he continued. "We want to be top-class in the league, in every way."

While some fans -- following Leiweke's Leaf dreams -- may be planning the TFC parade route, his braintrust knows there is more work to be done in turning around a squad that went 6-17-11 last season.

Exhibit 1 is the Toronto Blue Jays, whose shopping spree produced little more than disappointment last year.

Nelsen knows an expensive bill does not necessarily make for a fine meal.

"Look, we're improved as a team. Everybody can see that. We're better. We're going get better. Are we the finished product? No, not at all ... We've got a lot of work to do."

He welcomed the pressure to win.

"Love it, everybody loves it," he said. "Players want that, everybody want that, the coaches want that."

Improvement will be an ever-present mantra, he added.

Bezbatchenko, meanwhile, was not about to puncture the fans' balloon.

"Let them have their fun. Let's let our fans enjoy the moment because we are making trades, we are signing Dwayne, Gilberto. We're signing some really exciting players.

"So let them have their moment because it's going to be a fun ride."

De Rosario clearly adds some class to the journey. He took time out during his moment at the microphone to note that Canadian national team coach Benito Floro was in attendance.

As with the national team, he will also help mentor a young roster. Twenty of the 26 players on TFC's current roster are 25 or younger.

Toronto selected De Rosario in Stage 2 of the MLS re-entry draft last month after D.C. United opted not to pick up his option at the end of the season.

Nelsen called him a "legend" of Canadian soccer but said De Rosario would have to adapt his game to the demands of the team and his body.

"All the great players redefine their roles on the field, in their training schedules, everything on and off the field. When you get to a certain age," said the 36-year-old Nelsen, speaking from experience

De Rosario, who turns 36 in May, isn't taking any steps back, however.

"I'm a goal-scorer, I'm a winner ... I'm here to win, I'm not just here to be the local kid coming back."

When a reporter suggested he was in the "latter stages" of his career, De Rosario politely disagreed and said the competitive juices are still flowing.

But the 13-year MLS veteran did say Toronto would be the last stop on his playing career.

All it took was "a simple phone call," albeit not one De Rosario ever expected after his earlier disagreements with the franchise.

He admitted it helped that the previous regime had all left.

NOTES -- Nelsen confirmed that English fullback Richard Eckersley will not be coming back due to his hefty contract. Striker Robert Earnshaw has yet to respond to a contract offer, but Nelsen believes that the Welsh international will move on in a bid to get playing time. The manager also said other clubs are interested in U.S. forward Bright Dike and, while he would like to keep him, he will have to listen to any good offers.



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