TORONTO - Toronto FC flies to Florida on Friday to continue its MLS pre-season, with questions about some players' fitness and the future of its designated players.
President and GM Kevin Payne said he was not happy with the condition that some players reported to camp in. And he continues to look for ways to lessen the binds of the team's current salary structure.
That may mean buying out a designated player or restructuring other players' contracts.
Payne, who left D.C. United two months ago to take over the struggling Toronto franchise, is looking to remake a team that was a league-worst 5-21-8 last season.
Eleven TFC players have left since last season with seven coming the other way so far.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Payne said Thursday.
A player signing is expected possibly this week, with three bigger deals coming down the pipeline, according to Payne. The focus is on young, energetic attacking players, with an eye to the Central and South American markets.
"We're not interested in 33-year-old halfway-over-the hill EPL (English Premier League) players," Payne said.
Toronto currently has three designated players — midfielder Torsten Frings and strikers Danny Koevermans and Eric Hassli. All are coming off injuries and are on the wrong side of 30.
Koevermans, who had knee surgery, is not expected to return to action until June. The other two are far closer to resuming action.
The club has been reluctant to deploy Hassli, who is getting over a variety of injuries, and Frings, who had hip surgery last season, on artificial turf during the Toronto portion of training camp so is waiting to see how they do on the grass in Florida under the watchful eye of new coach Ryan Nelsen and his assistant Fran O'Leary.
"It's a new situation for Fran and Ryan and we're tying to be fair to people, trying to keep an open mind," Payne told a roundtable of local media Thursday. "We don't want to kind of throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak."
Frings is 36, Koevermans 34 and Hassli 31.
Payne says the three designated players and defenders Darren O'Dea and Richard Eckersley take up "a very very very large percentage of our salary cap."
"So we have to figure out how do we make that work or is there any wiggle room to adjust that. It's hard to have the percentage of your cap tied up in (the) five players that we had and still put an effective team on the field."
The DPs each count for US$350,000 against the salary cap. Eckersley made $390,000 last season while O'Dea was at $436,250.
MLS clubs are allowed to buy out one contract per season.
"I don't think we feel like we have to make that decision yet but it is an option," said Payne.
"We have a bunch of decisions to make," he added. "And some of those decisions may be to not make a decision. It may be to just continue with something the way it is."
Hassli's contract was renewed just days before Payne was hired, a move Payne said was never explained to him.
He made the least of the three DPs last season at $790,000. Frings collected $2.4 million while Koevermans got $1.56 million.
Some on the current roster have already come in for criticism. Payne says he has been disappointed at the fitness level of "a number of players."
"I said 'You will never, ever come back here after the break looking like this again — it just won't happen — or you won't be here, end of story.'"
"Lots of guys did a great job," he added, "and came back in great shape. But there were more than one or two who were not even close to being fit. I have a hard time understanding that. Ryan feels the same way ... There's just no excuse for it."
Payne said the players in question had been given off-season conditioning program and conceded that he club needed to do a better job of monitoring them.
Fitness was an issue last season, with several players saying the 2012 training camp was inadequate.
The club also confirmed that the home opener March 9 against Sporting Kansas City will be played at the Rogers Centre.