TORONTO - It appears the writing is officially on the wall for Toronto FC fullback Richard Eckersley.
There is no problem with his play. Far from it.
A product of Manchester United's youth system, the 24-year-old English defender is a quality defender who can push up the flank. An afternoon playing against the hard-nosed redhead will likely leave a mark.
But Eckersley is simply too expensive under the confines of the MLS salary cap.
His salary was listed at US$390,000 last year and $310,000 this season. The actual number was probably higher, with the club using allocation money to buy it down.
In 2014, it will be even bigger.
Suffice to say that the current TFC regime did not sign him to the deal.
The underachieving MLS team has shed salary this season in a bid to pave the way for new talent. Eckersley is seen as one of the last dominos to fall.
On Tuesday, manager Ryan Nelsen offered his bluntest assessment when asked about the fullback's future with the club.
"This is not anything to do with Richard, because Richard's a fantastic player. He's a really good player in this league," said Nelsen.
"But if you got Dani Alves (of Barcelona), Glen Johnson (of Liverpool), Ashley Cole (of Chelsea) and put them on $5(00,000), $6(00,000), $700,000 contracts here, you wouldn't do it. It makes absolutely no sense to put a left or a right back on that amount of money because it just destroys your salary cap.
"So it's not the player's fault that they're on this type of contracts. It's just obviously you've got to balance your salary cap to proportion where you want the most amount of money on the field and where it can have the biggest amount of impact.
"That's why I kind of feel really bad for Richard, because he's kind of in that situation where his agent did a really good job for him — but probably too good of a job."
Nelsen said Eckersley's deal was so big — second only to designated player Danny Koevermans' US$1.66 million on Toronto's salary list this season — that renegotiation was out of the question.
Koevermans' actual hit against the $2.95-million cap is only $368,750 as a designated player.
The fact that Eckersley missed 14 games — almost 100 days — earlier this season after injuring his hamstring celebrating teammate Darel Russell's tying goal March 6 against FC Dallas must have made Toronto's bean-counters grind their teeth.
Eckersley has not played the last two games. He missed the Sept. 14 defeat in New York with a knock and sat out last Saturday's home loss to Sporting Kansas City as Nelsen rewarded Mark Bloom ($46,500) with another start.
Eckersley said diplomatically Tuesday that he was "happy to share the load." And that Bloom deserved the Kansas City start because he "did brilliant" against New York, he added.
"When I'm recalled and when he (Nelsen) wants me to play again, I'm ready," he said.
It's the kind of model citizen he has been at the club.
But he knows he is a square peg in a round hole, salary-wise in the MLS.
"Fullbacks in this league don't get paid a lot of money. But I'm not some ordinary fullback," he said matter-of-factly.
"But it's the club's decision. I'm happy to go with whatever they decide. My future's in their hands, isn't it."
His 72 career TFC games (70 starts) are second only to Stefan Frei's 81 (81 starts) among active club players. Frei, another faithful servant of the Reds, is also headed towards the exit sign, his $200,000 contract expiring at the end of the season and his job usurped by Joe Bendik.
With Eckersley under contract next season, Toronto (4-15-11) has limited options considering his price tag.
The team could come to a settlement with him, but the severance cost would go against the salary cap. And a trade or loan within MLS is unlikely under his current terms.
There is also the option of an international transfer.
The most likely exit strategy is Toronto using its one permitted off-season buyout. The club can use its own funds to negotiate a settlement, which would not count against the salary cap.
An MLS official said such a buyout usually leads to the player exiting the league.
Asked if he expects to be back with Toronto next season, Eckersley laughed and said: "I don't know. If you ask me that in a month's time, I might give you an answer.
"But because there's three, four games to go, I'll just say I'm going to keep working for now."