TORONTO, Ont—It was a shock to almost everybody in the room when Toronto FC general manager Ali Curtis told reporters on the opening day of training camp that captain Michael Bradley, fresh off signing a new contract to stay in Toronto, would be out of action for approximately four months following surgery on his right ankle.
It was also a surprise to those within the organization, especially Jozy Altidore, who was quick to ridicule the club for its part in handling his fellow teammate’s injury.
“In my opinion, it was handled poorly,” said Altidore. “I don’t think it’s good enough. He’s a guy that takes care of himself in an incredible way. Incredible professional, he pushes himself, the group, he holds everybody to a high standard and I think he was let down. For this to happen, I’m extremely gutted for him, I’m extremely disappointed in how it was handled.”
But as I mentioned at the time, Altidore appeared to be particularly upset about the situation because it was Bradley who he felt was let down.
“He’s a DP. He’s a club captain. He’s a guy you have to take prime care of,” added Bradley’s U.S. international teammate.
While he didn’t agree that the team was to blame, Greg Vanney was quick to echo his striker’s sentiments on what the loss of the Reds’ leader meant to his squad.
“Obviously it’s a big blow,” said the Toronto FC head coach. “Michael’s captain of our team, has been an important part of our team. He’s one of those omnipresent guys in the defensive midfield, whenever he’s around he’s on the field. So, we will for sure miss him. It’ll be time for somebody else to step up.”
With Bradley expected to be out of the lineup until at least May, not only will someone have to step up to fill the midfielder’s position on the field, somebody will also have to step up to fill his role as Toronto FC captain.
“I don’t have a specific plan yet,” said Vanney. “We have a veteran team; there’s a number of guys who are probably worthy of it. I’ll sit down through the course of the preseason, and between seeing how it’s going and communication with some guys, we’ll make a decision of how we’ll play that out through the course of the first part of the season.”
So while the TFC coach and his team (who arrived back in Toronto on Thursday following the first part of their preseason in Orlando) mull the captaincy decision over, let’s speculate.
If you were a betting person, this is where I would’ve recommended you place your money coming into to training camp (that changed, but more on that later).
Despite being as durable as they come, it’s actually pretty often that Bradley misses time with Toronto FC. It’s not because of injury, however, but rather due to the U.S. international suiting up for his country whenever he can, most recently missing seven TFC matches in 2019 for the Gold Cup.
In their first four matches with their official captain out last season, the Reds had an obvious choice as their fill-in skipper: 35-year-old MLS veteran Drew Moor (who has since moved on to Colorado). But when Moor failed to make the starting XI on June 26 against Atlanta United, Vanney elected to give the captain’s armband to a 33-year-old Quentin Westberg, who was making just his 11th start as a member for the club.
In soccer, it’s not unheard of for a club to make their goalkeeper captain, in fact it’s quite common. In a sense, you sort of live and die by the position. And it makes even more sense if you get to know the type of person that the former-Paris Saint-Germain FC academy goalkeeper is. A true professional, Westberg sets the tone for the Reds on and off the field.
“Just the things that people don’t always see,” recently said Vanney. “His ability to work with people in the locker room... He has a great relationship with Chris [Mavinga] and Laurent [Ciman] as they’re French-speaking guys. He’s really mature, has a great mind for the game and you need those guys in the locker room who have a great way of keeping it light but also bringing a reality to the situation and helping others... He’s a guy we want here for as long as we can.”
If you had any question of his ability to lead, we got a sense of Westberg’s potential to inspire the club just a few months ago when he was backstopping Toronto en route to the MLS Cup Final. With momentum against the Reds, Westberg faced a breakaway from Wanye Rooney, several chances against a dangerous New York City FC side, and a penalty shot against Atlanta United with his team already down a goal—and he was up to the task every single time (especially with that penalty save).
Even though Vanney may have tipped his hat elsewhere, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see Q wearing the armband to start the season.
Toronto FC’s all-time leader in appearances made, I don’t think there’s anyone at the club who wears their emotion on their sleeve more than Jonathan Osorio.
Having recently captained Canada’s men’s national team against Barbados, the Brampton, Ont. native is Toronto FC’s longest-tenured player (still on their roster), having been with the organization since 2013. Now 27 years old, Osorio has also matured immensely over the past few seasons, turning his energy off the field into performances on the field.
Furthermore, he’s also turned into a role model for younger players at the club to look up to. When speaking to 21-year-old Liam Fraser, he credited Osorio (and former teammate Ashtone Morgan) for being like “his big brother,” helping the young Canadian along the way for both country and club.
On Friday, 17-year-old Canadian Jayden Nelson shared those same sentiments.
“I went in nervous, but there were a couple guys—Jonathan Osorio & Samuel Piette—kind of took their arm and put it around me and said ‘just play your game, you’re here for a reason.’ I think I kind of took that to heart,” said Nelson, on his first senior national team camp experience. “It’s kind of a weird thing because [Osorio] is in my position as well. Everyday, I see him in the change room and I try to strive to be exactly like him. He’s definitely a player I look up to, and it’s a good feeling to know that he’s a guy that looks out for me, as well.
“It’s great to see guys like that go big in soccer because it gives me and other kids from Brampton the idea that ‘okay we can make it as well’, so I’m happy for him and I’m thankful for him as a teammate.”
With Toronto FC putting a greater emphasis on Homegrown Signings in 2020, the best example for their younger local players trying to make it might just be someone who has.
All eyes are already on Alejandro Pozuelo, so why not add a few more?
A captain in Belgium, the former KRC Genk skipper arrived in March at BMO Field with sky-high (and perhaps unfair) expectations as Toronto’s new no. 10, asked to fill the playmaking voids left by Victor Vazquez and former MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco.
“If you look at the composition of our roster and our team right now, we’re a very veteran team, and in a lot of respects, you’re looking for a DP that you can kind of build around—and that’s one of the reasons we kind of went out and got Pozuelo,” recently said TFC GM Ali Curtis.
With all of the pressure weighing down on his shoulders, Pozuelo took every moment in stride en route to earning a spot in MLS Best XI. Furthermore, on top of his ability and positive attitude on the field, the 28-year-old has checked all of the boxes off the field.
On Toronto FC’s first day of training camp, there were only two players to speak for the club: Altidore and Pozuelo, the club’s two designated players. Looking back, how many #TFCLive fans knew that the Spaniard spoke to reporters on the club’s first media availability of the season? Not too many? That’s because the talented midfielder (perhaps due to a language barrier in fairness) generally tends to tread within the lines.
Nevertheless, relentlessly hardworking inbetween those lines, Pozuelo—the club’s most talented player—is your all-around professional and has captained his side in Europe. Surely he can do it in the
retirement league MLS should Vanney elect to head this direction, but let’s consider it a longer shot.
When speaking with another Toronto FC reporter about doing this piece, this is a name that they emphasized should belong on this list—I agreed.
To provide a little insight into the type of person Morrow is around the team, here’s a little anecdote. On the first day of camp this year, the team was tasked with doing fitness. While other veterans ached and perhaps complained, Morrow kept things light while pushing those in his group to do more. Following the session, while others (exhausted from fitness) jetted straight for the locker rooms, Morrow took the time to stop and say hi to each and every media member in attendance, even introducing himself to those who he didn’t know. Others followed the 32-year-old’s trend, but he definitely led it.
He also loves Toronto—and he’s quite outspoken about it, even without a contract this past offseason.
Justin Morrow who TFC has an option on for 2020 says “Anyone in the league would want to be here. I’d love to be back. We’ve shown we have a very good team & the future is bright. 2019 was difficult with big players leaving but we showed a lot of strength & character.” #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/2cvi2Lhmd0— Kristian Jack (@KristianJack) November 13, 2019
Aside from Jonathan Osorio, Morrow has been the longest serving Red. In fact, the defender also has the most MLS appearances on TFC’s current roster with 260, followed by Nick DeLeon (226) and Omar Gonzalez (220).
For a team with several veterans from around the world, would it not make sense to give the leadership role to the most experienced MLS player who knows the league the best? Again, in my opinion, while he’s worthy, it’s another long shot.
We’ve reached the more on that later part.
Prior to speaking to Vanney recently, I had Toronto FC’s designated player Jozy Altidore on this list but with an outside shot, especially after his controversial comments to media (again) on the first day of camp. However, after hearing the TFC coach praise his veteran, it actually seems more likely than not that the U.S. international may end up wearing the armband.
“Yeah, I think there’s various guys. To Jozy’s credit, he’s been very integrated in that side of things: demanding of guys, pushing guys, but also working incredibly hard himself,” said Vanney, when asked who has stepped up in a leadership role in Bradley’s absence.
“His fitness level is phenomenal for this start of the season or preseason,” Vanney added. “I think he sees that this is like the first time I think in many years where he’s actually had a real preseason... I think his goal is to take a real advantage of it, but I think in doing so he’s also helping to drive the group.”
Altidore has been a member of TFC for the past six seasons, constantly expressing his love for the city across his social media platforms. He’s also a natural leader: when Altidore speaks, others listen. Furthermore, when Altidore was given the chance to explain his recent comments, he told TSN’s Kristian Jack his reasoning—and it’s hard to really fault the 30-year-old striker.
“I’m here first for my teammates and the fans. That’s where my loyalty lies,” Altidore said. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. I back my teammates because those are the ones I go into battle with on the pitch. That will never change. I have no regrets about backing my guys or doing what I think is best for the fans to make sure we have the best possible team to win championships. Sometimes you have to tell it like it is. I think players should have that right and not be taken out of context or disrespectful because I wouldn’t have been here six years if I didn’t love this club, the fans and these players.”
Does anyone really believe that Michael Bradley’s injury situation was handled optimally by a club of Toronto FC’s stature? In that same sense, wouldn’t you want your leader to be able to hold the club accountable? I mean, Altidore definitely didn’t make those comments for him own clout, let’s call it.
If he can stay on the field consistently to begin 2020, it wouldn’t shock me to see Altidore wearing the armband come opening day.
Omar Gonzalez, Alex Bono, Laurent Ciman, Nick DeLeon
Who should be Toronto FC captain with Michael Bradley out?
This poll is closed
As coach Vanney touched on, Toronto FC have a lot of experience on their roster, players who are worthy of wearing the armband.
“...there are other guys who are always in there between Q and Alex [Bono], Laurent [Ciman] and Omar [Gonzalez]. We have a lot of veteran guys on this team, so I think leadership in committee in some way,” finished off Vanney when asked about who has stepped up to fill their captain’s void.
Regardless of who ends up captaining the Reds in their first game of the season on Feb. 29 in San Jose, California, it doesn’t matter. TFC, a club that’s bringing back 24 of the 30 players that made the MLS Cup Final just three months ago, are a disciplined group who don’t really need one individual to lead... because they have several who do.
Either way, it’ll be fun to see who leads the troops out. Out first glance will be on Feb. 8 when they take on the Colorado Rapids in their first preseason match of 2020. Who knows, maybe we’ll even have a new DP by then ;).