Frenchman Cheyrou still a key figure for Toronto FC

Benoit-Cheyrou

Toronto FC midfielder Benoit Cheyrou (8) has two goals in 45 MLS appearances in his two seasons with Toronto. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — Benoit Cheyrou is a man among men, a true gentleman.

Cheyrou is not yet signed to a new deal after Toronto FC declined the option on his contract in December, but he was back with the club this week when it opened pre-season training camp. The veteran midfielder is currently negotiating with Toronto, and the expectation is that he’ll re-sign with the Reds long before the start of the MLS regular season.

On Wednesday, Cheyrou, who turns 36 in May, was supposed to talk to local reporters after practice, but then he backed out at the last second — one of the club’s PR people said that he didn’t feel comfortable speaking to the media until his contract situation had been fully sorted out. On Thursday morning, as he prepared to walk off the field after another training session, the elegant Frenchman strolled over to the three reporters covering practice, shook each of their hands and apologized for not speaking to them the previous day.

“I hope you understand,” he said, and then answered “maybe in a few days, or even a few hours” after being asked when his contact situation might be resolved.

There was no need for an apology from Cheyrou, as none of the reporters in attendance felt aggrieved. But it was a simple gesture that speaks to the Frenchman’s class, and the high regard for which he holds Toronto FC and everybody even remotely connected to the club.

The feeling is mutual from coach Greg Vanney, who said re-signing the Frenchman is a top priority for TFC this off-season because of his experience and the leadership he provides in mentoring the team’s youngsters.

“It’s vitally important. He’s a guy who does a number of things for us. He’s very good [in terms of] leadership and working with the younger players, and he and Michael [Bradley] are guys who are in constant communication with the young guys, and sharing their experience,” Vanney said.

The departure of Canadian midfielder Will Johnson, who joined Orlando City as a free agent this off-season, further underlines the need by Toronto to ink Cheyrou to a new deal. Cheyrou can expect more playing time this season with Johnson gone, serving as the defensive shield for the back line from his spot in central midfield. When Bradley is away on international duty, it’ll be Cheyrou who will replace him as the midfield linchpin.

“He gives us more cover at that defensive midfield position, and he gives us that experience of a guy who, when Michael is away, can step in and immediately conduct everything on the field,” Vanney stated.

Cheyrou isn’t an especially flashy player. He only has two goals in 45 MLS appearances in his two seasons with Toronto — although one of them was the winner in the second leg of last season’s Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Impact.

Most times you barely notice he is even on the field, such is the subtlety of his game. But you can’t overstate the sense of solidity and stability he brings to Toronto’s midfield.

“Ben’s experiences, and [the way he carries himself] and the way he goes about his work, it’s always good to have guys like him on your team,” Vanney offered.

Cheyrou is a thoughtful player, and a student of the game, so it should come as no surprise that he’s started to think about pursing his coaching certifications with an eye towards an eventual career as a manager, and he has hit up Vanney for advice.

“[Playing for TFC] is his priority, this is what he wants to do and this is where his head’s at; playing is still his focus. But he also recognizes that he’s not a young player any more, and he’s starting to take some of those steps,” Vanney explained.

Vanney added: “He has the demeanour to be a good teacher and a good coach.”

NOTES: Toronto FC leaves for California on Saturday where they’ll hold a 10-day training camp. The team will then return to Toronto for a week before heading to Orlando from Feb 13-25… Captain Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are away with the U.S. national team. They are expected to join TFC after the team returns from California… The Reds open the regular season on March 4 away to Real Salt Lake. TFC then takes on the Philadelphia Union (March 11) and Vancouver Whitecaps (March 18) before hosting Sporting Kansas City on March 31 in their home opener.

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