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Toronto FC players make plea for stability so current foundation can grow

10/28/2014 02:23 EDT | Updated 12/28/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Asked how many managers he has worked under at Toronto FC, 21-year-old defender Doneil Henry paused and thought for a while.

"I want to say six," he said finally.

Henry, amazingly the longest-serving player currently at the MLS club, has played for Preki, Nick Dasovic, Aron Winter, Paul Mariner, Ryan Nelsen and Greg Vanney since making his debut in 2010.

The young Canadian international, like many of his teammates, sees talent on the current Toronto FC roster. But too many times, he has seen the team chop and change players in a bid for a quick fix.

On Tuesday, as players met the media for the final time this season after missing the playoffs with an 11-15-8 record and finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference, one after another made a plea for stability and the chance to build on the existing foundation.

"I've seen it happen here for as long as I've been here, where they've changed the roster completely," said Henry, sitting next to English veteran Bradley Orr. "There's quality in the changing room. There's young players that are coming through the academy and showing well.

"If we can just keep those players and some of the older guys like Brad to nurture them, I'm sure we'll have more than a good team to compete in the playoffs. Every year with a changed team, it's been really hard. Top teams, they've been together for more than three, four seasons."

"It's a long-distance race, it's not a sprint," added veteran midfielder Dwayne De Rosario.

"We made a step forward. Now it's about keeping the team together and forming a foundation so that in the years coming, we'll be contending for championships," echoed midfielder Jonathan Osorio.

Goalie Joe Bendik, the team's player rep, says little during the season. And he chose his words carefully Tuesday, nailing exactly what was needed and was not needed.

"This club has had too many players in and out, to begin with," he said.

A "couple more weapons or a little more depth" may be all that's needed, Bendik suggested.

Ironically the need for time to bed in new talent was something Nelsen had preached from Day 1 since his roster was enriched this season with the likes of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto.

Nelsen said it would take time for the team to take root. He just didn't get it.

It has been a glass half-full, half-empty season for Toronto. The club set single-season franchise records for wins (11) and points (41) and seemed destined for the playoffs for the first time. But injuries to key personnel and a string of poor results in the second half of the season made for another disappointing end.

The players took responsibility, but also saw light at the end of the tunnel.

"There's teams in those playoffs that aren't as good as Toronto FC, in my opinion," said Orr. "But they've got players who have been in and around the league, know what it takes to win in this league.

"When that penny does finally drop with this group, which I think is very possible that it will happen very soon, I think they'll be a force to be reckoned with because they've got a fantastic mix of good young players with a little bit of experience."

While 14 players spoke Tuesday, Defoe and Bradley were both absent. They had dates with doctors in England and New York, respectively.

Defoe, who is pondering surgery for a persistent groin injury, left with a question mark over his head. In a story published in the Guardian on Tuesday, he seems unsure of his future. He likes Toronto but was hurt by comments from MLSE boss Tim Leiweke questioning his commitment.

The English striker led the team in scoring with 11 goals in 19 games but missed 15 more through injury or suspension after his body broke down due to back-to-back seasons in England and North America.

When healthy, he proved he can score a bucketful of goals in MLS. Toronto went 6-0-2 when he scored.

But his body let him down. Defoe last scored July 16 and played just 387 minutes in the 18 league games since, seeing action in just six.

Almost to a man, the Toronto players brought in front of the media Tuesday spoke warmly about Defoe as a teammate and said they hoped he would be back.

Captain Steven Caldwell, who said he expected Defoe to be back, also talked of the need for more mental toughness and to grind out points when things weren't going well.

"I felt we were a little bit easy to beat at times," he said.

Caldwell said while there is good unity and camaraderie among players, the squad has to reach a point where it is comfortable enough to show "real honesty" in the dressing room.

He pointed to past clubs — winning teams — he had been on "where you could tell people what you think, they could take it the right way and they could move forward. And we have to grow to achieve that in this locker-room. And it only really comes from winning."

"We have to be a little more honest with each other, demand a lot more from each other out on the training field and accept that when somebody tells you something, it's not a criticism or a slight against your character, it's to make you a better player and to make the team ultimately better."

Caldwell did not elaborate. But his words evoked memories of an exchange with the fiery Bradley after a win over Chivas USA in September, a discussion that continued back into the dressing room. Both players downplayed the exchange later.

Orr, who said he doubted he would be back next season, says he leaves with nothing but good memories about the club and league. Except for the refereeing.

"Some of the officiating has been shocking," said Orr.

Vanney, who is set to meet the media Wednesday along with GM Tim Bezbatchenko, was 2-6-2 at the helm after Nelsen, who was fired along with five assistant coaches after a 9-9-6 start.

Vanney, who has been told he will be back next season, was dropped in the deep end without a coaching staff but won kudos from players for his communication and clarity.

The club has issues on and off the field.

Leiweke, the outgoing president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, promised the soccer team would make the playoffs in 2014. It didn't and, despite record attendance, the team will lose money this year because of the investment in players like Defoe and Bradley.

On the plus side, the team has three first-round draft picks in 2015, its own selections obtained from Chivas USA and Portland. A pick acquired from Seattle in the Stefan Frei deal is expected to go to FC Dallas.

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