As soon as the rumblings emerged that Dwayne De Rosario would not be returning to DC United, the whispers began amongst hushed circles in Toronto.
By the time his departure was made official on October 31, the questions were openly being asked and since then the chatter has only escalated.
But, as with any good novella, the possible return of such a character brings with it a plethora of questions – many of which cannot truly be answered until after the plunge has been taken.
De Rosario’s departure at the start of the 2011 season was controversial and in many ways a sad end to the simple tale of a hometown-boy-done-good returning to the land he once forsook in search of soccer-adventure.
Rather than focus on whether it should happen – or whether ‘tis better to let the proverbial sleeping dogs lie – this discussion will focus on a few of the more answerable questions, though of course, contained within is ample room for debate.
Will those old problems rear their head once more? Can he contribute or were last season’s struggles a sign that is he past his best? And just how would he fit into the side?
These are a few of the many unknowns, but come Wednesday’s re-entry draft it is possible that the next chapter in one of the more sordid sagas in Toronto FC’s tumultuous past will have begun.
To glory or demise? Well that is difficult to foresee….
One thing that is certain is that the club that he would be joining would not be the team that he left.
The last three seasons have been bleak.
And in that time the club has undergone a revolution of sorts.
In 2010 Mo Johnston - who first precipitated De Rosario’s arrival in December of 2008 - and Preki were dismissed. Aron Winter, Bob de Klerk, and Paul Mariner, who oversaw his departure, have also made their exits in due course.
In the front office the likes of Tom Anselmi and Earl Cochrane are gone too, while the roster has churned in tune – in fact, from De Rosario’s last appearance for the club on March 26, 2011 against Portland no player in the starting lineup is still with the club (now that Stefan Frei has left for Seattle) and only Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry from the game-day eighteen remain.
Dwayne too has changed.
This is no thirty year-old star a year removed from winning the MLS Cup, no perennial all-star.
De Rosario is now a grizzled veteran and though he may well have a few good seasons left in him, he knows that the twilight of his career is fast approaching and far removed from its beginnings.
Will age have mellowed the man?
Perhaps not – I don’t think Toronto would want that anyways – but with time, and mistakes, come perspective; as much as the fans are displeased with how round one ended, so too must be the player, regardless of whom was at fault.
Subtle though it may have been, there has been a maturation to the man – getting traded from Toronto to New York then on to DC had to be a humbling, disorienting experience, though of course being named the league’s MVP would have assuaged any ill-feelings.
He followed up that whirlwind 2011 season with a solid campaign in 2012, helping to lead a young DC side to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference and deep into the playoffs.
But 2013 was a let down, to put it mildly.
Despite that setback, De Rosario showed his drive and hunger, exhibiting flashes of his greatness to lead the desperate team to Open Cup success – at times, near single-handedly.
And it is a strong possibility that the knock of being jettisoned from DC – and the ignominy of the coincidentally-timed removal of his banner as he left the building – will only serve to motivate him further.
The league knows, as do all his former clubs, to beware of a slighted Dwayne with a point to prove.
Once long ago on a conference call, one intrepid reporter – ahem – asked De Rosario a question about whether playing with a younger side allowed him to take on more of a leadership role.
He rebuked the question, stating that he always tried to play the leader, but perhaps the question was poorly-worded. Perhaps 'leader' was the wrong epithet, perhaps 'mentor', or 'protector' would be better suited.
When DC struggled last season and criticism was plentiful, Dwayne took a lot of that on himself.
Yes, Chris Pontius was injured, Nick DeLeon unfit, and the back-line struggled to find consistency, while most, if not all, of their new acquisitions flopped – any body remember Rafael? – but De Rosario took the brunt of the hard questions.
He did not always like it – once noticeably butting heads with Ben Olsen over playing style – but he stood up for the team.
And that is a quality that Toronto needs.
Too often these past few years it has either been a pity, or bad luck, or inexperience, or lack on concentration, or too much extra time – some intangible perpetrator’s fault for the lack of success.
It is important in MLS to have experienced league guys, players who know the league, what it takes and have done it all before in the side – there are few as accomplished in MLS as De Rosario.
As one scribe noted recently, the club has finally been freed of their past, is there a better way to evidence a new dawn than by reframing one of the darkest errors and building to the future?
There is, of course, the potential for disaster – and were this move to go wrong, it would carry more weight than the average failed manouevre – but as sports fans, especially in Toronto, know well, they must be the eternal optimist, lest they go insane.
The current brain-trust, though a little too verbose for some, have not yet fallen flat – ah the optimism of an off season with no games to get in the way, eh? – and there are the outlines of a relationship with Ryan Nelsen that could bloom.
The two rose to prominence in the league around the same time (and though they never met in the playoffs, nor at an All-Star Game, their clubs, DC and San Jose, met twelve times from 2001 to 2005) and both share a certain kinship as top players from less-heralded countries.
And money will, as always, be an issue, but the Tim’s (Bezbatchenko and Lieweke) know this league and any deal would be hinged on whether the two can come to terms that are both equitable and workable – plus there are always other avenues than cap-salary and a future beyond the pitch, as it were.
To sum up this rambling simply, this is a different time for both parties – and timing is everything.
Aside from these insoluble conundrums of timing and attitude, there are two other pertinent questions that must be asked – is he a spent force on the down-slope of his career and what role could he play in this new team?
It is patently true that last season saw a dramatic dip in his production.
In 2011, the season of three clubs, De Rosario scored sixteen goals and tallied twelve assists; in 2012 he scored seven and added twelve assists.
But in 2013 he managed just three goals and a pair of assists in the league – the Open Cup was a different story, where in five matches he contributed five goals, a shootout conversion, and had a hand in the trophy-winner in the final.
De Rosario’s season was a stop-start adventure, struggling for rhythm and fitness throughout the year, often playing with a nagging hip flexor injury that, at times, stifled much of his mobility.
It should be remembered that he suffered a troublesome knee injury – MCL sprain – for Canada in Panama the previous September that ended both his season and his World Cup Qualification campaign.
Rehabbing from an injury such as that is always difficult, one needs to first establish base-line fitness in training and then push into true game-shape by getting those precious minutes against real competition. It is very important, especially as one’s career extends and the risk of compensatory muscle strains comes with the territory.
His pre-season was cut short after an altercation with Danny Cruz that saw him suspended for the first two matches of the season and shortly after returning from that enforced vacation he picked up first an adductor strain that saw him miss a spell, before the hip flexor began to flare up just months into the season – and by then DC’s season, in the league at least, was pretty much over.
After such a troubled start – and with the hip injury nagging – he would never get up to full stride, often managing his injuries to be available for the big matches.
De Rosario takes very good care of himself – he credits his rigourous off-season preparation with much of his success, along with his healthy eating – and such a series of unfortunate events could well be the root of the lack of production, not to mention that the team around him struggled to create much at the best of times.
He will be 36 next May, but still has a few good seasons left in him.
Assuming a proper, trouble free preseason and that the compensatory muscle injuries have been worked out with some rest and preparation, it may be fair to expect a different looking Dwayne on the pitch next season.
So, if the club were to see the prodigal son return and those hampering injuries were overcome, what role would he play in Nelsen’s TFC?
Stationed as either a withdrawn forward (in a 4-4-2) or as the attacking midfielder (in a 4-2-3-1), De Rosario could pull the strings of an attack that was really lacking in creativity last season.
With the likes of Matias Laba, Jeremy Hall, Jonathan Osorio, and Kyle Bekker dropping deep behind him and a pair of runners (Alvaro Rey, Reggie Lambe, Jackson) on either side, De Rosario would not be required to hold too many defensive responsibilities and he could hang up higher, where he can cause the most damage.
A 4-2-3-1 with De Rosario in the middle would end up looking an awful lot like a 4-4-2 when defending anyways.
In DC, one of their problems was a gap in the middle of the pitch from the defensive unit to De Rosario, who often had to drop deeper and deeper to get on the ball – that is until Luis Silva show up and the two, when not getting in each other’s way, linked up very well.
Toronto finally has some truly skillful ball-movers in Laba and Osorio, who will be able to get the ball up to De Rosario in a timely manner – and if Bright Dike, this Brazilian Gilberto (or any other possibly incoming striker – wink wink) is as proficient as hoped, there lies the potential to be devastating on the counter, with that added touch of class and vision at the pointy end of the formation.
Toronto’s schedule, especially come the dreary meat of the season – July and August – is horrible (seven games in July and five in August – without factoring in any CONCACAF commitments or Friendlies).
The team will need depth, it will need options.
Off-field there is even more value to his return - Canadian soccer is in desperate need of heroes.
In the player profiles provided by the CSA for the recent U17 national team only one Canadian player was mentioned amongst all the Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s – that player was De Rosario.
He will likely not be around for the next qualification campaign, but he could pass on his wealth of knowledge to the next generation in Osorio, Bekker, Henry, and Morgan.
The shot at redemption is a sports classic and the hard-working, never-say-die hero is an archetype for which this town aches.
De Rosario is no Wendel Clark, but he is a Toronto boy and in his recent interview with MLSsoccer.com’s Extra Time, he made it clear he is not interested in a rebuild, he wants to win.
As long as the club doesn’t throw buckets of cash at Atiba Hutchinson in a year’s time, it could all work out pretty well.
There has been a shadow hanging over the club since he left – whether his departure precipitated a Bambino-esque curse or was merely a symptom of the dissolution, is a matter for debate, but his return could provide for a turning of the page on that dark period.
De Rosario remains the club’s leading scorer with 27 goals in 57 league matches – 32 in 75, all competitions – and the possibility of re-acquiring such a performer is something that should seriously be considered.
And at least he won’t be scoring any more goals against Toronto should he return – he has seven goals in five matches against TFC since he left.