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Toronto FC shows off vision for future, but has to answer questions about present

12/18/2014 02:46 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - It speaks volumes about Toronto FC that after a lengthy presentation to local media about the team's vision, the questions afterwards focused almost entirely on the immediate status of Jermain Defoe.

No matter what general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney do to right the ship down the line, the future is now for TFC.

Eight losing seasons, nine managers and several other tattered visions have taken a toll. Talk is cheap when your franchise record is 62-120-74.

The official line on Defoe? He's coming back but we'll listen to offers.

On Thursday, Bezbatchenko and Vanney laid out their plans for the future along with Jim Liston, the MLS club's director of sports science and Michael Rabasca, director of cognitive development.

It was an impressive show.

Toronto measures everything from shoe size to heart rate as players progress through the ranks. The club has 23 principles on the field — 13 attacking and 10 defensive — that will be taught from the under-10 side team to the first team.

Players are tracked on eight traits: motor general, motor specific, emotion, cognitive, life, psyche, social and personality.

Practices are planned to test players' ability to solve problems and react to situations on the field. Apparently even grit can be measured.

Players are given daily schedules and tasks tailored to their needs, logging in by computer.

A new USL feeder club is in the works to help bridge the gap between the first team and the senior academy side.

Everything is up for consideration. It was noted that famed Dutch club Ajax has its youngsters learn martial arts as part of their physical education. Toronto has introduced gymnastics to its under-12, -13 and -14 players to help with their balance and co-ordination.

Brain power can be improved too. Rabasca, whose career has involved both coaching soccer and occupational therapy for traumatic brain injuries among other issues, believes that TFC is on the cutting edge when it comes to the cognitive development side.

For Vanney, whose brain is clearly firing on all cylinders, it's all about helping players process what's going around them on the field.

The former defender, who played both in MLS and France, believes that North American players have the physical tools to play at the highest level anywhere

"You add in the cognitive, the ability to read the game, the ability to do that in a timely manner at the proper speed, to have the solution, to have all of that sorted out prior to receiving the ball, that's where I think we fail. That's where I think we are short."

The presentation over, it was all about Defoe in the question-and-answer session.

"The player has never indicated that he doesn't want to be here," said Bezbatchenko. "He's a professional soccer player and he's committed to being (on) whatever team he's on.

"I think there's a community around him that maybe has indicated in various ways that they could be here or elsewhere, but from him no."

Is it any wonder that Defoe's future with the club has continued to be an issue?

Bezbatchenko says the 32-year-old Defoe is recovering from groin surgery, is back running on the field and is in regular contact with club staff.

But the GM also says that the team has contingency plans, in case Defoe or anyone else leaves.

"We have names, we are actively vetting those names, watching films on those names, speaking to clubs about names on that list."

"If someone comes and there is an offer, we'll consider it," he added.

Defoe's future has been the source of speculation since Toronto turned down a club-record transfer bid at the end of the summer transfer window. The next transfer window opens in January.

Vanney, once again the voice of reason, saw two different Defoes last season.

At the beginning, there was a striker who was sharp, healthy and scoring goals.

"He was that guy around the building and also on the field," said Vanney.

Then Defoe was left off England's World Cup squad and was plagued by a nagging injury — "he's not necessarily in the same place that he was at the beginning."

Defoe then left for treatment in England.

The question is which Defoe comes back. Vanney says the first indication from the player is positive, that he wants to get healthy so he can perform.

"We like that guy," said Vanney. "That guy can make a difference in this league. And the guys like him in the locker-room."

Bottom line? A fit, healthy and motivated Defoe is a huge asset — for someone.

"We'll see where it all falls out in the end," said Vanney. "I feel very confident that if he shows up, we have a plan for him. If he doesn't show up, we'll have another plan that we're very comfortable with.

"So we will stay on our toes on that. The football world moves very fast on any given moment so we'll be prepared."

To Vanney's and Bezbatchenko's credit, they are thinking long-term, well beyond Defoe.

As Vanney noted, when he walks through the door the final time he wants to leave a legacy for the franchise and Canadian soccer — something that was largely lacking in the past.

"If people leave and you have to start back from scratch, it's very hard to get anywhere," he said.

As Toronto FC fans know well.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

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