TFC opens training camp with sense of direction

Midfielder Dwayne De Rosario comments on the excitement surrounding Toronto FC as they prepare to embark on the 2014 MLS campaign.

This isn’t the way it usually unfolds.

Pre-season training camp normally sees Toronto FC run around like a headless chicken, with management trying to cobble together and finalize its roster in the last days leading up to its regular season opener.

Trialists are invited to practise with the team as an open audition, young academy kids train with the first team to gain some seasoning and make up the numbers, and the coach—whoever he is—scratches his head at the lack of depth and the many holes in his roster.

Who can forget 2013 pre-season when TFC brought a makeshift mob down to camp and then hurriedly signed six players—six!—just days before their regular season opener?

That’s all changed. Toronto FC opened training camp for the 2014 season on Monday in Florida, and there’s a clear sense of direction with this team, unlike in the past.

Last year, the Reds had 21 players under contract just before making those last-minute signings. By this correspondent’s count, TFC currently have 29 players signed to deals for the upcoming year, plus unsigned draft picks Daniel Lovitz and Kene Eze.

There won’t be a mad sprint to the finish line this time around because TFC has finally learned its lesson that the bulk of the team should be in place at the start of training camp—and not at the end.

With a new management team comes a new way of doing things, and on that score credit must go to Tim Leiweke, Tim Bezbatchenko and Ryan Nelsen for using the bulk of the off-season to make their major roster additions (three DPs in Gilberto, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley) and totally revamp the side. The front-office trio were not only efficient in their dealings but wise in their moves, addressing the team’s major weaknesses before the team even boarded the plane for Florida.

Whereas in the past triallists were brought in to see if they could plug major holes, this time around they’re being considered for depth positions. Right now, Canadian midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran is the only player on trial with the Reds, and even Nelsen said earlier this month that he doesn’t expect to bring many triallists in.

It’s a sign of major progress under this new management team that the Reds have it so together that they are using this pre-season to make minor additions, as opposed to doing emergency triage.

Scoring has been a major problem area for the club since Day 1—Defoe and Gilberto should address that. The club has lacked an experienced veteran who can give the club a creative spark in midfield—they brought back Dwayne De Rosario. A midfielder enforcer who can create and destroy was needed—enter Michael Bradley. More versatility in defence was required—Justin Morrow can play at left fullback and in the middle.

Also, Joe Bendik is firmly established as the club’s starting goalkeeper. In past training camps, the number one job was up for grabs and had to be earned.

There’s still a bit more work to be done, of course.

Youngster Doneil Henry was said to have looked very solid in his recent training stint with the Premier League’s West Ham United. But another centre back who can ably partner captain Steven Caldwell wouldn’t be the worst move in the world for TFC.

And then there is the Matias Laba affair. As the fourth DP, he’s the odd man out, which means the Reds have until March 1 to become roster compliant—which means they must finalize their 30-man roster and only have three DPs on the team.

TFC has plenty of options here. They can trade Laba, loan him out to another MLS club, sell him on the international market or pay down his contract with allocation money so that he is no longer a DP. The club has said it is trying to move “heaven and earth” to find a way to keep Laba.

Bezbatchenko’s connections in the MLS front office will surely serve him well here, so don’t bet against the Reds finding a way to keep the Argentine.

It may not have been sunny in Florida on the opening day of camp, but Toronto FC’s immediate outlook is far from overcast.

John Molinaro is Sportsnet’s chief soccer reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

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