Steven Caldwell: “Sky’s the limit” for Toronto FC’s sensational rebuild

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Barking out orders to a bunch of local youth players on a cold, wet and misty morning in the Glasgow suburbs last autumn, it was clear for all to see that Steven Caldwell’s leadership skills are second to none.

After spending his career as a central defensive stalwart with various Premier League teams in England, Caldwell oozes experience and composed confidence. His career has seen him represent Scotland, play in the UEFA Champions League and spend several seasons in England’s top-flight.

WATCH: Seattle vs. Toronto FC, 4:30 p.m. ET live on NBCSN and online

But now arguably his biggest challenge awaits, as the veteran Scottish defender captains Toronto FC. Caldwell, 33, arrived in Major League Soccer midway through the 2013 season and signed a permanent deal to stick around in what could be a breakout season.

Following a major cash injection from TFC’s owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) over the offseason, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley arrived to much fanfare as Toronto’s much-anticipated 2014 season kicks off away to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN, 4:30pm ET and online via Live Extra) with the rest of the league casting a watchful eye on Ryan Nelsen’s revolution on the banks of Lake Ontario.

Expectation levels at TFC are high after several below-par seasons and not a single playoff appearance in their seven-year MLS history.

“We’ve got a great front office, great coaching staff, great players and a fantastic city. We’ve got everything here to be a major force in world football,” Caldwell said. “MLS is growing at such a rapid rate, one or two teams are going to rise from MLS and become a global brand. That’s what we want to be. As players we have to start making playoffs and winning MLS Cup’s, once that happens I believe this club can be huge.”

Going back to that opening image of Caldwell coaching in his native land, I was fortunate enough to work alongside him in a professional capacity back in November 2012 as we both completed our UEFA B coaching license in Scotland. A calm coach who knew when to step in and when to let sessions flow, Caldwell’s aura off the pitch was indicative of a leader who lets his boots and actions do the talking.

source: AP
Clint Dempsey and Seattle are Toronto’s opponents, as TFC’s much-anticipated season starts with a bang live on NBCSN this Saturday.

“We are expecting big things, but we know it’s not going to be easy,” Caldwell said of TFC’s hopes for 2014. “There are a lot of very good, established teams in this league. We’ve got a lot of new guys trying to gel, it’s going to take a little bit of time. But with the quality that we have we’re hoping for at least the playoffs and then to try and push for MLS Cup. That’s the aim.”

MLS Season Preview: Toronto FC

That task of launching a monumental turnaround in Toronto — the franchise has failed to win more than 10 MLS games in a single season since they arrived in 2007, plus have a record of 17-51-34 over the last three campaigns — is not an easy one, and Caldwell accepts that.

TFC have suddenly vaulted from a team used to propping up the standings to a favorite for the Eastern conference and MLS Cup. Without even kicking a ball in 2014. Dealing with those expectations and fostering a winning mentality at TFC, where struggles have been commonplace for most, if not all, of the teams existence, is easier said than done.

“We have got to accept that responsibility and take that pressure on,” Caldwell said. “It will come with the players we’ve signed, but we need to embrace that and enjoy the challenge of having to win every week. That’s a little bit new to Toronto Football Club. Hopefully we can rise to that challenge and be the team everybody wants to beat.”

As for Toronto’s season opener, it could hardly be tougher. A trip to CenturyLink Field is something most teams and players dread, as Seattle’s talented squad, in front of their sizable, loud home crowd, makes for a tough environment. But Caldwell is the type of character who thrives in a cauldron of animosity. And the 6-foot-3 Scotsman revealed his side are ‘champing at the bit’ to get their season underway, after being forced to watch on during opening weekend as TFC had a bye-week.

source: Getty Images
A leader on and off the field, Caldwell has slotted in superbly at the heart of TFC’s defense.

“It is a huge game, they’re expecting a massive crowd, so it will be a very exciting game to play in,” Caldwell said. “Seattle have got some top players, they’ve brought Clint Dempsey back to MLS and are going to be a challenge. We understand it’s going to be a tough, tough game. But we are of the caliber now that we feel like we can go anywhere and achieve results. We have to be hard to beat, first and foremost, but our quality means we’re capable of winning most, if not every, game.”

That new-found star quality Caldwell speaks of comes mostly from the acquisition of Bradley, the U.S. international midfielder. Arriving from Italian giants AS Roma for $10 million in January, and reportedly paid $5.8 million a year in wages, Bradley is the focal point of TFC’s revolution. On Saturday fans across the USA and Canada will be tuning in to watch Bradley go head-to-head with USMNT colleague Dempsey, as two of MLS’ poster boys square off.

In terms of settling back into MLS with Toronto, it’s a case of so far, so good, for the “General,” according to Caldwell.

“I’ve been very, very impressed. He’s a very mature young man and a fantastic player,” Caldwell said. “Michael is a real winner, which is very exciting for us. He’s going to be a major player for this football club for many years to come. It’s a big coup for us to have such a quality player coming from a huge team like AS Roma. That fact that he chose to play for us, when he probably could’ve joined some of Europe’s best teams, is a major coup.”

Many thought with the money TFC splashed to bring Bradley to BMO Field, plus his experience in Europe and with the U.S., that he’d be taking the captain’s armband on arrival.

source: AP
Michael Bradley, right, and Jermain Defoe are two of the most expensive players in MLS history. They’ll team up to help Toronto win it all in 2014 and beyond.

But it shows the huge admiration and faith head coach Nelsen has in Caldwell. The big Scot revealed that respect is reciprocal, as he heaped praise on Nelsen’s coaching techniques and is desperate to repay the faith shown in him by his manager.

Captaining teams is not new to Caldwell. He’s been the skipper of Burnley, Birmingham City and now Toronto, which is a role Caldwell is relishing as he leads TFC into a brave new era.

But what about the future? Can Toronto really overtake the perennial MLS powerhouses?

Caldwell has been with Toronto since the start of the sides huge rebuild, and despite hiccups along the way, the progress everyone was hoping for is finally clicking into place ahead of the 2014 season.

“When I came to Toronto at the end of last May, I still felt like we were progressing a little bit. Not as quickly as we would’ve liked, but this process is a building period,” Caldwell said. “We’ve now got a structure, a nucleus and a way we want to play. The guys who’ve been kept on this season know their jobs and roles. We’ve got the base to be a very successful team, with the likes of Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto adding to that. We need to learn how to win consistently now. Once we do that, the sky is the limit for this football club.”

Report: Toronto to send Giovinco to Tigres for Valencia, cash

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An Mexican site reports that Tigres UANL is ready to send Enner Valencia and cash to Toronto FC to land Sebastian Giovinco.

Normally that’s seem a bit wild for TFC to send their perennial MLS MVP candidate packing, but the club has been hesitant to meet Giovinco’s terms on a new contract.

[ MORE: PL Manager Power Rankings ]

And Valencia is nearly three years younger and a bit bigger than Giovinco.

Valencia scored in bunches for Tigres after arriving from West Ham, scoring nine goals with an assist in 16 Apertura matches including three multi-goal games. He then saw his numbers dip to two goals and three assists in 11 Clausura appearances.

Giovinco, meanwhile, has six goals and six assists in 15 matches between MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League.

It would be a significant risk for TFC, though the idea of pairing up Enner Valencia and Jozy Altidore is a physical nightmare for MLS defenses.

Whoops! Unai Emery puts up Arsenal message on web site

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Arsenal’s next manager is very close to being officially Unai Emery.

That is unless, the Gunners’ brass has its mind changed by his sloppy web savvy.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Emery — or his people, or hackers — mistakenly put up a graphic featuring the Spanish coach, the Arsenal logo, and the phrase “Proud to be a part of the Arsenal family” before taking it down in short order.

Emery is expected to take over for Arsene Wenger at the Emirates Stadium this summer. Something tells us we’ll have an announcement on Wednesday or even later tonight…

State TV: Ghana president orders arrest of FIFA executive

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo on Monday ordered police to arrest football federation head Kwesi Nyantakyi, a member of the powerful FIFA Council, over allegations of fraud.

Akufo-Addo’s order was announced by the state-run Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Abu Jinapor, deputy chief of staff at the president’s office, said the order for Nyantakyi to be arrested and investigated related to an undercover documentary that purports to show the football official asking businessmen for money in return for access to the president and other senior government officials.

“It was a clear case of defrauding by false pretense,” Jinapor said, adding that Akufo-Addo’s order came after he watched excerpts from the documentary, which has not yet been broadcast.

Nyantakyi is president of the Ghana Football Association, a vice president of the Confederation of African Football, and has been a member of the ruling FIFA Council since 2016. He was the FIFA official chosen to oversee the football competition at the 2012 London Olympics.

Ghanaian media reported that Nyantakyi was not in Ghana at the time of the president’s order but was returning home.

Nyantakyi has been accused of improper behavior before when a British media investigation just before the 2014 World Cup claimed he had been willing to allow the Ghana national team to play in games that could be fixed by others. He denied the allegation.

Premier League managerial power rankings

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There’s a new sheriff at West Ham United, and it’s no small-time boss.

Former Premier League champion manager Manuel Pellegrini is taking over the London side, which had us wondering how high he’d move up the acclaim ladder upon hiring (as of post time).

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

With the 20th spot still open — will it be Fulham or Aston Villa — the Arsenal and Everton jobs vacant for now, and both Neil Warnock and Nuno Espirito Santo yet to manage their clubs in the top flight, we rank the power status of the 15 other active Premier League bosses.

15. Javi Gracia, Watford — Manager don’t usually last long at Vicarage Road, and Gracia doesn’t have a record for sticking around clubs for too long himself.

14. Mark Hughes, Southampton — Saints stayed in the Premier League, and Hughes deserves credit for pushing the buttons on a talented squad.

13. Claude Puel, Leicester City — A disappointing finish to his season keeps Leicester outside the Europa League, and so he has a bit more to prove after an impressive reclamation job at the King Power Stadium.

12. David Wagner, Huddersfield Town — Keeping Town in the Premier League was impressive, but we’re not sure how much we learned about the long-term prognosis of Jurgen Klopp‘s best pal.

11. Chris Hughton, Brighton and Hove Albion — He’d led several clubs to Premier League promotion, and coaxed fine seasons out of what appeared to be a subpar defense at season’s open.

10. Eddie Howe, Bournemouth — One of the brightest young managerial minds, can he take the next step on the South Coast?

9. Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace — What he did upon inheriting and then overseeing one of the worst starts in Premier League history was nothing short of brilliant. Clearly he hasn’t stopped learning unlike many other PL “retreads.”

8. Manuel Pellegrini, West Ham — What will a few years outside the Premier League, if anything, have done to the one-time Man City leader. Don’t forget: The season City won the PL season, he coaxed 20-plus goal campaigns in all competitions from Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo, and Yaya Toure.

7. Antonio Conte, Chelsea — Tactically and experience-wise, he’s so much higher on the list. Regardless of the mess at Chelsea, better was needed this season.

6. Sean Dyche, Burnley — Guiding tiny Burnley to the Europa League is as impressive a feat as any outside of what Guardiola did this year and Claudio Ranieri did at Leicester City.

— BONUS — 6b. Unai Emery, if hired at Arsenal —

5. Rafa Benitez, Newcastle United — Considering his resume, it shouldn’t be as surprising that he kept United up despite his owner refusing to green-light a real answer at center forward. Worked career years out of Mo Diame and Jonjo Shelvey.

4. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool — The Champions League final says something, especially in a year he sold Philippe Coutinho, but his team still lacks the consistency of the three men in front of him.

3. Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur — Spurs have smartly spent and kept their stars around, but their financial outlay arguably should not have them consistently finishing ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal.

2. Jose Mourinho, Manchester United — Still a defensive marvel, still a genius, still somewhat hilarious… but we all know who No. 1 is…

  1. Pep Guardiola, Manchester City