Rudi Schuller: TFC signals intent with De Rosario return

Dwayne De Rosario will return to a much different Toronto FC than the one he left nearly three years ago. The expectations for the 35-year-old have also changed.
Oh, what could have been.

Almost exactly five years ago, Dwayne De Rosario was traded to Toronto FC in a blockbuster deal that sent shockwaves throughout Major League Soccer.

Then at the height of his powers as one of the league's most dominant players, De Rosario was supposed to be the centrepiece of a TFC side that had redefined the paradigm of the North American circuit. With a blistering shot, tricky feet and a keen nose for goal, "DeRo" was supposed to be the guy who led TFC to as much on-field success as the club had been experiencing off it.

Through the first two seasons of the club's existence, BMO Field was a raucous bandbox of passion unparalled throughout MLS. The only thing that was missing was the winning — indeed, the first couple of years featured some dreadful soccer from the Reds — and the Scarborough boy was going to come in and help change that for the better.

It didn't happen, of course, but not because of De Rosario.

He did everything expected of him. He scored buckets of goals in his two full seasons in red, so much so that he still stands as Toronto's all-time leading scorer. He single-handedly lifted TFC to its first trophy with a Herculean effort in the final match of the 2009 Canadian Championship. 

Yet despite all of that, De Rosario was not able to help TFC to a winning season in the league, and ultimately his two years in Toronto ended just as the club's other five seasons — without a playoff appearance.

Instead, he left on soured terms with his hometown team. An ugly public salary dispute hastened De Rosario's departure in 2011 and he continued to be successful at rival clubs, all while TFC fumbled increasingly toward irrelevance through repeated failure.

It is with all of this in mind that we consider the move made this week by Toronto to bring back its prodigal son, a transaction that has yet to be officially rubber-stamped by the league but is said to be all but completed.

He's not going to necessarily be THE guy, but he's a team player and he wants to win."

- Tim Leiweke, on Dwayne De Rosario

Instead of the universally feared player that Toronto acquired back in December 2008, the club now looks to get De Rosario as he comes off his worst season in more than a decade. He was part of an epically bad D.C. United team that set records for futility in 2013, but instead of rising above the mediocrity that surrounded him (like he did so often at TFC), DeRo fell in line with the rest of his teammates and stunk up the pitch.

A combination of injuries and poor form kept DeRo from performing at the high level that he had just a year before, but the real elephant in the room was that the 35-year-old was finally starting to show signs of slowing down.

Whether that's a fair assessment or not — he's a health nut who could easily bounce back to previous levels of domination in 2014 — the uncharacteristic down year, combined with his advancing age, took a lot of bargaining power out of De Rosario's hands just as his contract was ending.

No team in a league as frugal as MLS was going to give DeRo anything similar to the $645,000 guaranteed compensation he earned in 2013, especially not after a meager three-goal output.

It was within this new reality that De Rosario's camp started getting feelers from Toronto. The new regime at BMO Field — MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Ryan Nelsen — was keen on taking a gamble on DeRo, with the hope that a fresh start at home will rejuvenate the player.

Buoyed by the presence of a completely different management team than the one that had gone back on so many promises during his first stint in Toronto, De Rosario reciprocated, and a deal in principle was done.

Now, with DeRo set to make his return, the player and club find themselves at a crossroads.

Toronto has been making big noises so far this offseason, and with the impending acquisition of another designated player — widely believed to be Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe — to go along with already signed Brazilian DP Gilberto, the club looks to be going "all in" on an ambitious rebuild that would thrust it into the league's elite.

De Rosario, returning to a side that made him the face of the franchise without actually paying him like one, is set to join a TFC that is vastly different from the one he left. If all goes according to plan, DeRo won't be called upon to provide weekly heroics just to keep the team competitive.

Instead, he stands to be a piece of a much larger puzzle.

"He's not going to necessarily be THE guy," Leiweke said of De Rosario in an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "But he's a team player and he wants to win and he made that clear to us. I was very impressed by that."

And while no one wants to mention it, this could very well be De Rosario's last kick at the can at this level. What better way to end a stellar career than to help the perennial loser franchise of his hometown to finally achieve what it should have during his first stint in Toronto?

"He doesn't talk about going out in style because I don't think he thinks like that," Leiweke said. "But I think he wants to win. And he knows we're really committed to it here.

"And we're ferocious at chasing guys now that can help us get this team into the playoffs."

While there is still a lot of work to be done, it's becoming more evident that TFC is building toward something special, and De Rosario — for all that he represents — deserves to be a part of it.