TORONTO - Expect a tougher, more hard-nosed Toronto FC this season, with new captain Michael Bradley leading the way.
And look for some urgency. Team ownership knows it's running out of chances to win in a marketplace starved for soccer success.
Eight losing seasons, nine coaches, a string of attempted quick fixes and dismal MLS record of 62-120-74 are in the rear-view mirror. As is Jermain Defoe, last year's designated saviour.
Toronto (11-15-8) set franchise highs in wins (11) and points (41) in 2014 but missed the playoffs yet again.
Bradley has been handed the on-field keys to the franchise. The 27-year-old American was confirmed as captain Tuesday, taking over from veteran Scottish defender Steven Caldwell.
Head coach Greg Vanney called the 34-year-old Caldwell a good player and a good person. But Bradley is the team's future.
The new skipper is a relentless, intense and skilled player who never stops working. When Bradley talks, people listen. His gaze bores into you like a laser.
Bradley, a former teenage soccer phenom who is older than his years, is very comfortable in his own skin.
"I am who I am and I'm proud of who I am as a player and as a person, as a competitor," he said Tuesday in a roundtable session with The Canadian Press. "There will always be people who don't like me and I have no problem with that. But I have all my cards out on the table and they're there for everybody to see.
"At the end of the day, nobody can ever question my commitment, my determination — the fact that my heart and soul go into whatever I'm doing."
That was not the case elsewhere in the locker-room during what Bradley termed as an "extremely frustrating" first year with the club.
Bradley called the team "too young and too naive."
Toronto has added experience and character in Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Benoit Cheyrou and Damien Perquis. Bradley says he looks around now and sees "winners, fighters, leaders."
Added MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke: "We are a little but more comfortable with the guys that are in the trench next to us ... We've got a lot of captains in that locker-room. We didn't have that last year."
Leiweke and his soccer lieutenants painted a picture last year of a "house divided" as former manager Ryan Nelsen butted heads with general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, with the negativity seeping into the dressing room.
Bezbatchenko and Vanney also suggested some players couldn't handle the fishbowl that is Toronto sports.
"We're the only team in the league who gets booed off the field at halftime if you're losing," said Bradley. "That doesn't happen in Seattle. That doesn't happen in L.A. But it happens here."
Bradley, like former Marseille midfielder Cheyrou who was sitting to his right, is used to such scrutiny.
"When you play in Europe, when you play at big clubs — Marseille, Roma — if you don't win a few games, you don't leave your house for a few weeks," said Bradley, who counts Roma among his clubs. "And obviously it's not that extreme here and we're all thankful for that."
Vanney pointed to last August when Bezbatchenko sent a message to his team via the media, saying it was time to "to take it up a notch.''
Instead the team looked disinterested in a 3-0 loss to New England.
"I took that as maybe we don't have enough men, seasoned men in this team," Vanney said. "And maybe we don't have enough guys who know how to win."
Nelsen and five of his coaching staff were fired the next day, with Vanney taking charge.
While Defoe scored goals when healthy, Leiweke said the team "miscalculated" his long-term loyalty to the cause. It's also clear that the chemistry between designated players Bradley, Defoe and Brazilian striker Gilberto was not right.
Leiweke says his club enters the season with a chip on its shoulder.
"We don't think we've done anything yet," Leiweke said. "But I will say we have been more serious, more passionate and more driven this off-season than anything I've ever seen in my 20 years in this league. We cannot let this slip. We understand with the new stadium and the talent we have and the captain we have, this is our moment."
NOTES: Leiweke says the soccer club will not make money in 2015, due to Giovinco's early arrival. The club should turn a profit in 2016 ... TFC will have a league-high eight scouts on the payroll.
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