From the moment Dwayne De Rosario became available, after D.C. United opted not to pick up his option at the end of the season, those around MLS had been wildly speculating whether a return to Toronto FC could be on the cards for the former league MVP.
In the end, it seems the club were on the very same page, with Toronto picking the Canadian international in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft on December 18, only two years removed from his acrimonious departure.
Playing for the league’s worst side in 2013, De Rosario had three goals and two assists in 24 games, while making a hefty $654,300. While it was that salary which made the Ontario native largely expendable to the remodelling D.C., the 35-year-old who has starred in MLS for over a decade, being chosen to the league’s best XI six times, is also starting to show obvious signs of decline.
However, while he may no longer be the player who anchored MLS Cup-winning sides in 2001 and 2003 with the San Jose Earthquakes, as well as 2006 and 2007 with the newly rebranded Houston Dynamo, ‘DeRo’ can certainly still be an asset to a Toronto team looking to start afresh (once again) under new leadership.
Toronto first acquired hometown hero De Rosario in 2009 from Houston in exchange for defender Julius James and allocation money. At the height of his game as one of the league’s most dominant players, it was a move which sent shockwaves across MLS and signalled a young franchise’s intent to be a major contender. In only their third year of existence, TFC were still largely finding their way but already had the ground-breaking support of a raucous fanbase, with DeRo earmarked as the centrepiece to eventually lead them to success.
As the playmaker with a scoring touch, De Rosario did exactly what was asked of him too, going on to score 27 goals in 57 regular-season games (a club record), while leading TFC to its first major trophy in the 2009 Canadian Championship. Dysfunction however was rife around him, as the club struggled to piece together a winning formula on the pitch while turning over the roster at an alarming rate. Suffering a crushing 5-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls on the last day of the 2009 season, which saw them finish one place outside the playoff spots, it remains the closest TFC has come to post-season soccer.
In September 2010, their star player then caused a stir when he celebrated a goal in a 3-2 home loss to San Jose by pretending to sign a cheque, as part of a prolonged contract dispute. DeRo later apologised for the move but, making $443,750 while fellow Canadian Julian De Guzman and Spanish striker Mista earned $1.72 million and $987,000 respectively as designated players, he still wanted to be paid like the club’s main man.
Labelled ‘MeRo’ by a section of TFC fans, the incident was an ominous sign, as the supposed prodigal son was eventually traded two games into the 2011 season by new head coach Aaron Winter (the fifth of De Rosario’s tenure after John Carver, Chris Cummins, Preki and Nick Dasovic) and director of player development Paul Mariner. Shipped to the Red Bulls for Tony Tchani, Danleigh Borman and a 2012 first-round SuperDraft pick, the Canadian had only just completed the down payment on a new house before he would find himself on the move again, acquired by D.C. in late-June in exchange for midfielder Dax McCarty, where he finished the year as the league’s MVP and joint-top scorer with 16 goals. It was undoubtedly an unconventional campaign, making him the first MVP to play for three teams in a season and still win the award. Then again, unconventional is probably the best way to describe a vegan soccer player who reportedly turned down a five-year contract with AC Milan at 14 years old in favour of his local side, the Malvern Majors.
De Rosario’s two full seasons in Toronto ultimately ended without a playoff appearance and, upon his return, the club is still searching for that elusive first post-season berth. Since their entry into MLS, in 2007, the league’s first Canadian franchise has been in a constant state of fluctuation, with the dreaded word ‘rebuilding’ seemingly echoed year after year. As fellow expansion franchises the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and (to a lesser extent) Canadian rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact have gone about creating a winning formula, TFC have simply struggled to find an on-field identity, with even their once loyal fanbase beginning to desert the stands of BMO Field.
Owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) have understandably borne the brunt of criticism for these failings and increasingly caused many supporters to question whether TFC was ever really about creating a successful soccer team and more to do with capitalising on the latest opportunity to produce entertainment dollars.
The company, which also boasts the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Maple Leafs among its properties, certainly has much work to do to win back the favour of fans but key changes to the front office in 2013 has instilled some hope that this latest rebuild may just be different to those previous.
With the highly thought of Tim Leiweke (the former President and CEO of the LA Galaxy’s parent company, Anschutz Entertainment Group) appointed to the same role by MLSE in April to lead the transformation of the group’s various franchises, his choice of general manager to replace the out-going Kevin Payne is one which has duly roused much intrigue amongst league circles.
That man is 31-year-old attorney Tim Bezbatchenko, who has spent the past three years negotiating and drafting player contracts as the senior director of player relations and competition with MLS. Bezbatchenko was also responsible for finalising loan and transfer agreements to and from the league, while overseeing team salary budgets and youth and player development initiatives, including the home-grown player signing process.
It is certainly a unique appointment, but (while avoiding talk of ‘Moneyball’) Bezbatchenko brings an analytical mind to the job, with an expert eye on how to manage the salary cap and an unrivalled familiarity with the league’s structure and players.
Already it’s a match which appears to be bearing fruit too. With incumbent head coach Ryan Nelsen staying on, Bezbatchenko has signed intriguing Brazilian striker Gilberto as a designated player, moved both Bobby Convey and Stefan Frei for decent returns, filled holes with established pieces like FC Dallas’ Jackson and San Jose’s Justin Morrow, and now has brought back the player who resonates with Canadian fans like no other.
Much has certainly changed since De Rosario last donned a TFC jersey, during a 2-0 win over Portland on March 26, 2011. For one, only two players from that roster remain (Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry), but DeRo is also no longer the game changer who fired his way to 103 goals in 324 regular-season appearances.
However, this isn’t simply a PR move on Toronto’s part. On a reduced salary, a newly-motivated De Rosario, knowing this is likely the final stop of his illustrious MLS career, can no doubt play an important role in breaking the club’s seven-year cycle of disappointment.
With rumours of big-name signings like Jermaine Defoe and Alberto Gilardino also on the way at same stage next season, DeRo does not have to be ‘the guy’ who shoulders the burden of expectations either. He can simply be one of pieces who helps finally turn around this struggling franchise and, as a player who clearly matters a great deal to the Toronto community, that’s something which shouldn’t be underestimated.
At this stage of his career, a player of De Rosario’s ability could look back and regret not showcasing his obvious talents on a bigger stage in Europe, yet this last chance to rehabilitate his image at home could be all that’s needed for a satisfying conclusion. As canadiansoccernews.com’s Duane Rollins wrote: “It’s a redemption story that nearly everyone in Toronto and MLS wants to see happen,” and I can count myself amongst those who hope it is indeed a success.