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Who TFC Were: Selfless Steven Caldwell continues to grow the game in Canada

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The former Toronto FC captain’s dedication to growing the game in Canada is evident

SOCCER: OCT 25 MLS - Toronto FC at Revolution Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2013 season was really a transition period for Toronto FC.

Kevin Payne arrived as Toronto FC’s new general manager and Ryan Nelson was appointed as the club’s new head coach, replacing Paul Mariner to try and get TFC into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

The Reds underwent another offseason rebuild: midfielder and German international Torsten Frings retired from his playing career; Welsh international Robert Earnshaw was signed to lead the lines; and, Matias Laba became the star midfielder from Argentina, along with many other players.

Things weren’t working out as planned midway through the season with only one win in the first nine games. So as a result, 32 year-old Steven Caldwell was signed on loan from Birmingham City to see out the last few weeks of his contract before later signing a permanent deal with Toronto about two months into July.

Birmingham City v Sheffield Wednesday - npower Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

After Caldwell arrived in May, he didn’t dramatically improve the defence, but he performed well enough to make a few of Toronto FC’s poor defensive stats improve. Before he arrived, Toronto FC conceded roughly 1.44 goals per game, while after he arrived it declined slightly to 1.36 goals per game. That’s not too much of an improvement but when you consider the fact that Toronto FC’s win percentage improved by nine per cent after he arrived (from 11% to 20%) that’s a fairly big deal.

Funnily enough, Caldwell was appointed captain of TFC just a few months after signing, after Darren O’Dea moved to a team in Ukraine. Fans rated his first season very well, as he was voted as the best player in the 2013 season by Waking the Red so many years ago.

Toronto FC would sill go on to finish third-last in the Supporters’ Shield that year, missing the playoffs yet again, having the sixth-worst defence in the league, and the third-worst offence in the league. Ryan Nelson stayed on as manager for another year, but team president and GM Kevin Payne was fired.

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In 2014, there were a lot more hope for the Reds. Caldwell continued his reign as captain, leading a side that had the likes of Julio Cesar, Gilberto, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. Toronto’s front office was spending big, hoping to make the playoffs for the first time in club history.

However, things also didn’t pan out as predicted for Toronto FC once again, as the Reds conceded even more goals than they did in the previous year, missing the playoffs once again. One of the positive aspects of the 2014 season in terms of defence though, was that it appeared Caldwell found potential defensive partners for the next few years in two young defenders: Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund. As we know, that was definitely not the case though for Doneil Henry come the end of the season, as the Canadian international ended up moving onto West Ham United.

Soccer - MLS - New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Then came 2015 — an odd year for Caldwell. He was demoted from his captaincy role, as Michael Bradley was promoted to club captain, hinting that perhaps Caldwell might have a smaller role in the squad for the year to come.

On the pitch, the then 34-year-old finally had an experienced defensive partner signed to play beside him in central defence in Damien Perquis, whom had signed on a free transfer. This was a big move as the TFC front office wanted the defence to not rely on one player too much, as Caldwell would have a good chance of picking up an injuriy as he was getting up there in age as far as soccer goes.

As it turns out, the front office’s hunch was correct, as Caldwell was forced out to injury midway through the second game of the season versus Columbus Crew SC. However, with the spotlight on him, Perquis seemed to not really display his experience and often tended to make youthful mistakes in the backline causing very avoidable goals.

The injury that Caldwell had been forced off with appeared to not be a major injury at first. Since Caldwell was getting older, though, it took him a very long time to get back to full fitness, and what became a predicted recovery time of a few weeks morphed into a few months. Thus, came the point where he actually retired midseason, to pave the way for a new centreback signing — more on that shortly.

In his press conference after he retired, I remembered Caldwell being gracious and professional as always, but stating how he wished he could’ve played until he was 40 if he had the physical capacity to do it at a good level. It was unfortunate he couldn’t reach that career milestone, as he retired at the age of 34 years-old.

Toronto FC’s defence was not performing well in his absence, so this was a move to provide the front office with some flexibility to hopefully turn the defence around. Unfortunately, his replacement was Ahmed Kantari, and let’s just say that he might have been a good defender elsewhere, but he definitely didn’t perform anywhere close to standards in Toronto.

When Caldwell retired in Mar. 2015, I was hoping that he would stay in Canada, but thought that he wouldn’t. At that point, it was a rarity for retired TFC players to stay behind in Toronto. However, Caldwell surprised me.

Born in the United Kingdom, the Scottish international went on to work for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in July of 2015 as the Director of Corporate Development where he continued to work behind the scenes with Toronto FC to continue growing the game in Canada. In addition to his work at MLSE, Caldwell became an on-air soccer analyst for TSN, calling Toronto FC matches where he quickly grew into a household face in Canadian soccer.

Marc Randolph, Co-Founder of Netflix, In Toronto For The Audi Innovation Series Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images for Audi

Of recent, Caldwell has been invested in many other things, most notably becoming an assistant coach on John Herdman’s Canadian men’s national team staff in September. Caldwell also became president of League1 Ontario side Oakville Blue Devils, investing even more time into the game in Canada.

On a personal note, Steven Caldwell has been one of the my favourite players to ever play for Toronto FC One of the other reasons why I like Caldwell is that he was always a professional. Like most people, Caldwell didn’t want to lose his captaincy, but when the coaching staff thought that would be best for the team, he was gracious and accepted their decision. He also didn’t want to retire midway through the 2015 season due to injury; but, he saw the reality that he was getting injured a lot, which would potentially hinder the team’s chances of making the playoffs that season. By retiring midway through the season, he gave the front office the opportunity to sign a replacement defender that could have turned around Toronto’s fractured back line. The signing of Ahmed Kantari may not have worked, but what was most notable was Caldwell’s willingness to see the end-goal for the team.

Soccer - Major League Soccer - Toronto FC v D.C. United - BMO Field Photo by Vaughn Ridley - PA Images via Getty Images

Lastly, this has been a rarity among many foreign TFC players, but he stayed in Canada after his playing days were over. I expected and would have fully understood if he decided to move back to Scotland. If I was a professional soccer player playing abroad, I may love the country that I’m playing in, but ultimately come the end of my career, I would probably feel inclined enough to move back home. He decided to stay in Canada, and not just work here, but actively try to make soccer better in Canada. He’s the current president of a League1 Ontario side (semi-pro), with a primary purpose of developing young Canadian soccer players, and he is on the coaching staff of the CanMNT.

Signings prior to 2015 for Toronto FC have not often panned out the greatest, but Steven Caldwell is definitely an anomaly having contributed to this club and to soccer in this country at such a great extent. His time as a TFC player may not be noted as much as others, but given the time that he played professionally in Toronto, he should be given great credit for the work that he’s done both on and off the pitch.