Up next in the year end countdown of the top thirty players to feature for Toronto FC in 2014 is Brazilian international, Julio Cesar - number twelve on the roster and number twelve in the countdown; ah, symmetry.
Back in February, when the possibility of the experienced veteran, who found playing time with QPR in England limited, embarking on a loan stint in MLS in preparation for the summer's World Cup surfaced, it was a surprising development. Joe Bendik had firmly been pronounced the starting keeper and Stefan Frei was allowed to pursue other opportunities, landing on his feet in Seattle; Toronto looked to have their situation planned.
And when it became official, fans were stunned at the notion that a keeper who graced the highest stages of the game would be manning the nets at lowly BMO Field. Even now, it still feels like a dream – were it not for the video evidence, no doubt some kook would declare it unbelievable, impossible even.
Undoubtedly, then head coach Ryan Nelsen's contacts at Queens Park Rangers played a role in Cesar choosing to get his reps in Toronto – that Cesar would eventual land with Benfica in Portugal when recalled from the loan, speaks to how peculiar his seven months with TFC were in reality.
Over that stretch, due in part to TFC's rather limited schedule through March and April, Cesar would start just seven matches, the first seven games of the season, amassing a record of three wins and four losses, conceding nine goals from 27 shots, for a goal-against-average of 1.29.
Hardly earth-shattering statistics, to be sure, but as the games wore on it was clear that Cesar was coming into form – his penultimate game, in Dallas, was likely his best, earning Save of the Week plaudits for this stunning save on David Texeira:
Wins in Seattle and over DC gave way to a disappointing outing in Salt Lake – a 3-0 loss that could have been worse were it not for Cesar – before an impressive win in Columbus had Toronto fans unsure of their place in the world, feeling optimistic, if cautiously so.
A run of three straight losses – home to Colorado, in Dallas, and home once more to New England – would quell such exuberance temporarily, only for it to be spurred further with an unbeaten run into the World Cup break.
By the time the club resumed league action in New York, Cesar would be gone – officially recalled from his loan that very day, July 27 – and his impact on the clubs was uncertain.
As he prepared to depart, Cesar wanted the best for his hosts: "Obviously the World Cup is a big event, it’s on the world stage, but right now my focus is on helping Toronto FC. I want to leave them in a great place before I go to the World Cup."
And hailed the team and the league on his way out the door: "The thing I noticed the most was the level of the organization here,. The stadium was always packed, and I wasn’t expecting that. I think that MLS is a top-class league, a world-class league."
Kindly stating that the stint had helped prepare him for the World Cup – though nothing could ready a keeper for what he experienced in the Semifinals (out of respect, the score-line will be omitted).
There was something a tad awkward about the club being willing to accept being used as a training exercise, there was little to be gained on the whole from the experience – not to mention the conflicted experience of watching Cesar represent TFC at the World Cup – though if his positive experience spreads word of the club amongst players of his ilk, such word of mouth advertising can be advantageous.
That the club's fortunes took a nose dive after he left – they returned from the World Cup break to a crucial stretch that saw them drop points in seven of their next nine matches in a busy July – was most likely incidental. Bendik could not be blamed for those shortcomings, though the lack of cohesion borne of a constantly rotating lineup, of which Cesar was a small part, played a role.
Toronto were ranked eighth in the East after his final appearance – with plenty of games in hand – rising to fourth before the World Cup break, only to plummet, more or less, thereafter.
One thing that can be said, is that his experience and organizational skill – an asset that a young keeper like Bendik must constantly be learning – was helpful through the early stages of the season, though goals from set-pieces and in the final fifteen minutes of the match were still a thorn in the club's side.
At first prickly over the decision to bring in a high-profile competition, Bendik would accept the challenge, and absorbed lessons from the veteran, stating in a Toronto Star article that, "Julio did an incredible job for me. Just so many things; little things that add up. One thing he said was about mistakes, and he’s the king of knowing about that because everyone put him in the limelight for 2010. He said when you make a mistake, you meet it head on and move on. You do something thousands of times and you do it wrong once, you’ve got to move on."
For a keeper learning his craft, having someone of such a stature in the game impart lessons is invaluable, even if for such a short period and resulting in a loss of playing time.
In the annals of TFC lore, Julio Cesar will live long in the memory, as for one short moment in time, the starting keeper of the Brazilian National team played in Toronto, but whether there were any lasting effects – be they positive or negative – is impossible to discern.
Still it was fun while it lasted wasn't it? A thrill of a place at the World's table that will likely not be experienced again for some time.