Joao Plata and Richard Eckersley were two of Toronto FC’s most consistent and effective players during the 2011 Major League Soccer campaign.
Whether Plata and Eckersley will be back next year remains to be seen, as both players were only on loan with TFC last season. But club management has been working hard to try to secure both Plata and Eckersley to new deals that would keep them in Toronto.
“I’m forever the optimist, so I’m confident that we can sign them. Hopefully all sides will see the sense in doing this,” Paul Mariner, TFC’s director of player development, told sportsnet.ca.
Plata turned out to be a gem for the Reds, with the Ecuadorian attacker scoring three goals and proving to be a dangerous threat thanks to his brilliant combination of speed, mazy dribbling skills and creativity on the ball.
Eckersley won praise for his poised and mature performances at the right-back position. The Englishman also became a fan favourite, publicly declaring his love of the team and the city of Toronto.
The TFC brain trust started negotiations with Plata towards the end of the season and met in Los Angeles last week with league officials and representatives from the club that owns the offensive sparkplug, Ecuadorian outfit LDU Quito.
“It’s going well,” Mariner said of the contract talks. “We obviously want to keep him. There’s some large (salary) numbers involved. I’m not saying it’s done but we’re getting much closer.”
As for Eckersley, there are two options on the table for TFC: either extend his loan deal or buy him outright from English Championship side Burnley.
Mariner was instrumental in bringing Eckersley to Toronto, having coached the former Manchester United youth product during his stint as manager of Plymouth Argyle.
“We presented some numbers to his agent,” Mariner explained. “Because of the personal relationship I have with Richard, I’m hopeful (of reaching an agreement). He loves Toronto, he absolutely loves it. But the unfortunate thing about football is that it always comes down to numbers.”
Indeed, TFC has three designated players under contract — Julian de Guzman, Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans — which means the club doesn’t have as much salary cap space as it would like to manoeuvre with regards to signing players.
“It’s pretty simple to work out that if we have three DPs that are eating up in excess of a million dollars in cap room, then we have to get everybody else under $1.8 million. It’s difficult because our wish list is long and we can’t afford everybody so you have to be prudent, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Mariner stated.
“We genuinely feel with Richard and Joao that they’re young players, we know that the fans love them and we love them. But it’s a numbers game at the end of the day.”
Mariner declined to give any timeline as to when a deal with either Plata or Eckersley would be announced, only that he and Earl Cochrane, TFC’s director of team and player operations, are “working very hard to pull this off.”
“We want it to be done as quickly as possible,” Mainer added.
The other big question TFC fans are asking is where the team will play the first leg of its CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final series against the L.A. Galaxy scheduled for Mar. 7, 2012.
TFC’s regular home, BMO Field, is an outdoor stadium and unprotected from the elements, making it susceptible to being snowed in during March. With that in mind, the club has explored the possibility of staging the game at the indoor Rogers Centre, home of the Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays and the Argonauts of the CFL.
“Things will be evaluated so I don’t think (a final decision) is imminent. But obviously we need some lead-in time to sell the game and inform our fans as best we can. I would say within the next few weeks we’ll have an announcement,” Mariner said.
But the Englishman has left no doubt where he hopes the club will end up playing the game.
“Personally, I’m a BMO Field guy. I think you use every single advantage you have. We’re familiar with BMO as a group, we know it’s going to be cold. But if we decided to go to Rogers Centre, Rogers it is,” Mariner said.