TORONTO — Veteran midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, whose class and experience helped lift Toronto FC to the next level, has announced his retirement after 19 seasons.
The 36-year-old Frenchman will remain with the MLS club in an academy coaching role. Cheyrou worked on his coaching badges while playing for Toronto, flying back to France to continue his studies.
Cheyrou spent three seasons with Toronto, mostly as cover for captain Michael Bradley, but started 28 games in 2015. Prior to that he spent 16 blue-chip seasons in France with Lille, Auxerre and Olympique de Marseille.
He leaves a winner, after a record-breaking season that saw Toronto capture the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and Canadian Championship.
"It has been an absolute pleasure for me to be a part of this team for three years," Cheyrou said in a statement Thursday. "I am blessed to finish my career with the treble and I am very proud of that."
Cheyrou made a combined 68 appearances for Toronto in all competitions with five goals and nine assists. He missed 10 games and more than two months of the 2017 season with a calf tear.
He is perhaps best remembered for a dramatic goal in the 98th minute of Game 2 of the 2016 Eastern Conference final against Montreal, just two minutes after coming on for a cramping Sebastian Giovinco with the series tied 5-5 on aggregate.
TFC fans have the play burned in their memory.
After taking a pass from left fullback Justin Morrow, Bradley found Jozy Altidore who, closed down by a Montreal player, contorted his brawny body to send the ball out to Steven Beitashour on the right flank.
Beitashour used some fancy footwork to create space from his defender and sent a perfect left-footed cross that a diving Cheyrou — with a defender draped all over him — headed into the net.
"One of my greatest moments, for sure," Cheyrou said.
Tosaint Ricketts scored two minutes later to give Toronto a 5-2 win on the night and 7-5 aggregate victory.
While scoring was not Cheyrou’s raison d’etre, his soccer resume contains some beauties for Olympique Marseille.
"It’s not my job actually to score," Cheyrou once said. "Sometimes the team needs it, I try to help. But it’s not my job."
Cheyrou was sheer elegance on the field, with the feet of a dancer. He could read the game and deposit a pass on a dime 50 yards down the field.
As a member of TFC’s leadership group, Cheyrou was influential off the field. His character, plus his vast experience, earned him respect.
Coach Greg Vanney also credited the Frenchman for driving and organizing the so-called scout team at practice as it drilled the starting 11, forcing Bradley and company to excel.
Cheyrou’s teammates were quick to praise him.
"It is said that Pirlo is the Italian Cheyrou. Classiest man I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with," tweeted Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono, referencing Italian legend Andrea Pirlo.
"It was a pleasure sharing a field and locker room with this man. Legend," said centre back Eriq Zavaleta.
"One of the greatest teammates and mentors I’ve ever had," said midfielder Jay Chapman.
Cheyrou was always worth watching on the field.
During a pre-season win over Miami FC in February, he showed his class. Playing defensive midfielder, he saw a crease in the opposition formation and surged ahead. As the ball came to him, he took a touch and shifted his body weight to get the ‘keeper leaning before beating him with a left-footed flick to the back post.
"The goalkeeper has no idea what’s going on," marvelled Vanney, who played against Cheyrou in France during his time with SC Bastia.
Cheyrou comes from Colombes, a northwest suburb of Paris. Several generations of Cheyrou played soccer for the venerable Racing Club de Paris and Benoit, growing up 500 metres from its stadium, was no different.
He learned his football there from six to 16 before moving to Lille’s academy. He graduated to the senior side at 18, spending five years in the north of France.
He helped Lille win promotion to the French top-flight and qualify for the Champions League.
Cheyrou left for Auxerre, winning the French Cup (2005) during a three-year stint before moving to Olympique de Marseille in 2007 in a five-million-euro (C$7.5 million) deal that sent a player the other way.
He excelled in the fishbowl that is OM football.
In seven seasons with Marseille, Cheyrou made 304 appearances in all competitions with 28 goals and 42 assists.
He won the Ligue 1 title (2009-10), ending an 18-year drought for the club, and three consecutive Coupe de la Ligue titles (2010, 2011, 2012).
Cheyrou represented France at the under-19, under-20 and under-21 level, winning the UEFA U-19 championship in 2000. He earned a call-up to the senior side in 2010 but didn’t earn a cap.
Brother Bruno, three years older than Benoit, was once dubbed "the new Zidane" by then-Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier. While he did not live up to that gaudy praise, he did enjoy a long club career and won three caps for France.