New designated player Pablo Piatti could make his Toronto FC debut on Wednesday in a pre-season game against the Chicago Fire.
Toronto medical staff have been careful not to rush the 30-year-old Argentine winger, who has played just seven games since undergoing surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament last February.
“He’s been training full (out) since the end of last week … we expect he’ll start getting match minutes starting Wednesday, Saturday,” coach Greg Vanney said from the team’s training camp in California.
“His fitness level is solid … now we’re just trying to get him integrated into the team,” Vanney added.
Toronto wraps up pre-season play Saturday against the Colorado Rapids at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. Vanney’s squad opens the regular season Feb. 29 at San Jose.
The five-foot-four 139-pound Piatti came to Major League Soccer from Barcelona-based Espanyol on a free transfer earlier this month after extensive tests that involved medical experts from the Raptors, Maple Leafs and Blue Jays.
Piatti returned to action in late September from his knee surgery but was soon sidelined again by a muscle injury, with Toronto team president Bill Manning saying one of his doctors believes the Argentine came back too early.
Toronto’s medical staff wants to ensure that Piatti has the strength and balance needed to return to action.
“He’s been champing at the bit just to play soccer. That’s what players do,” said Vanney. “Now he’s back into the group.”
Piatti joins Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo and U.S. international striker Jozy Altidore as Toronto’s designated players.
Aside from the unexpected news last month that captain Michael Bradley would be out for four months following ankle surgery, training camp has gone smoothly for Vanney.
That’s in stark contrast to last year when GM Tim Bezbatchenko quit to take over Columbus, star striker Sebastian Giovinco and midfield maestro Victor Vazquez both left for greener partners in the Middle East and Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel was dismissed after a training camp bustup.
Even the weather has co-operated, unlike last year when there was plenty of rain in California forcing the team to go in search of dry fields.
“It’s been a nice camp,” said Vanney. “Aside from not being able to have Michael with the group, we by and large have had everyone here which we don’t usually have.
“I’ve liked the games. We’ve played at stadiums. We’ve played good teams. The environments have been nice because there’s been fans. It adds to the experience for the guys in terms of preparation.
“I think we’re in a good place. When the season starts, you never really know. You’ve got to execute and get things going. But I like where the group is mentally and physically. I know everyone is getting anxious and excited to really get going.”
Toronto’s first team roster currently stands at 28 including Bradley. Vanney expects to go to the maximum of 30, with some younger players loaned out if it means more playing time.
This year’s roster is made up of veterans and youngsters. There are currently seven players 30 or older and 12 aged 24 or younger.
Vanney says his experienced players have taken on the role of mentors with some of the younger players.
“It is an interesting mix,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes, but some of these young players are going to be called upon this year and will have to take big steps forward.”
One of the youngsters, 15-year-old midfielder Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, has returned to Toronto because of a concussion.
“He was doing well … unfortunately we weren’t able to get him in a game,” said Vanney. “I really wanted to.”
Vanney said there were no other injuries of note.
Altidore, who has captained the team in Bradley’s absence, drew praise from Vanney for his work ethic and positivity as well as his on-field performance. Pozuelo, meanwhile, required a little fitness work, the coach said.
“I don’t think he’s used to having quite as long an off-season as he’s had,” said Vanney.
The Spaniard looked good in Saturday’s win over Los Angeles Galaxy, scoring the winner from the penalty spot.
“He was his typical self,” said Vanney.
With three goals in as many games, rookie forward Ifunanyachi Achara has also impressed.
“He’s very bright. He takes information quickly. He adapts quickly,” Vanney said of the 22-year-old taken 25th overall from Georgetown University. “He’s got a really nice skill set.”
Vanney also said Achara’s maturity has stood out, no doubt in part from his life journey from Nigeria to North America.
NOTES: Clemson defender Malick Mbaye, taken in the second round (33rd overall) in last month’s MLS SuperDraft, has left TFC to join a USL team in the U.S. Indiana defender Simon Waever, taken in the second round (51st overall), has also departed. Syracuse defender Nyal Higgins, a Canadian selected in the first round (19th overall), is training in Toronto with TFC 2.