TORONTO – Torsten Frings worked out diligently, rehabilitating his ailing hip back home in Germany in hopes of capping his illustrious career with one final season in Toronto.
But in the end, his injury proved too much to overcome.
Toronto FC’s captain announced his retirement Tuesday after 18 seasons on the professional pitch, leaving the game with the same measure of class with which he carried himself on the field.
He stepped away, he explained, because he could no longer give his all to the team.
“I think (retirement) is the best for the club and for me. I can’t help the club if I’m not 100 per cent fit, and I’m not 100 per cent fit,” Frings said at a morning news conference at BMO Field.
“It’s an emotional day for me. I’m disappointed because of my body, but I’m happy with my decision,” he added. “I had a great career and it’s not worth it to play with pain. It’s not easy to say goodbye. But honestly I’m really happy with my decision now. I feel good.”
The 36-year-old former German international was coming back from hip surgery that cut short his MLS season last September. He made one pre-season appearance as a substitute earlier this month before leaving camp to attend to what the MLS club called a personal issue. Turns out, he was contemplating his future.
“After my surgery I tried to get fit, I ran a lot and worked out a lot, but during the pre-season camp in Orlando I felt my hip again, and the pain,” Frings said. “I wanted to try in the pre-season, maybe everything was fine or not. In this case it was not fine.
“It’s OK for me because I had a great career, and now … my hip, my body is a little too weak for a professional soccer career. I hope and I’m pretty sure Toronto will have a lot of success in the next years. I’m a little bit sad because I won’t be a part of this, but I feel good and happy with my decision.”
When healthy, Frings was a commanding player for Toronto albeit one slightly diminished by age. But injuries robbed him of playing time and the struggling MLS franchise failed to surround him with talent during his one and a half seasons with the club.
“Any time a player who is as accomplished as Torsten reaches the end of his career, soccer loses a little something,” said TFC president Kevin Payne. “And certainly Toronto FC loses a lot with our captain stepping away. It’s not possible for us to replace the experience, the leadership qualifies that Torsten brought to our team. People who have played the number of high level professional games in a league as strong as the Bundesliga, played in two World Cups, European championships … those players don’t grow on trees.”
Questions about his future were raised during pre-season when Payne said the team may have to buy out a contract to ease its salary cap crunch. Payne did not mention Frings by name but the German’s age — Frings is some 11 months older than new manager Ryan Nelson — plus cost and his injury history pushed him to the forefront of the debate.
Toronto also signed a ready-made defensive midfield replacement in the figure of Brazilian veteran Julio Cesar over the off-season.
At US$2.43 million, Frings was the highest-paid Toronto FC player in 2012, although as a designated player only $350,000 of that counted against the cap.
“It’s a loss and it’s a gain,” Payne said. “It’s hard to replace a guy who’s played in two World Cups, but we do have a designated player slot, international slot, and cap money available.”
Earlier this month, Frings made it clear he wanted to play this year for Toronto, telling The Canadian Press at training camp in Orlando “I don’t want to play after. I want to have a good season with TFC. We want to reach our goals and that’s the most important thing for me now.”
But it wasn’t to be for the player who said he fell in love with Toronto in his 20 months living in the city. He relished his relative anonymity in Toronto after his fishbowl existence in Germany.
“I had a lot of good experiences here,” Frings said. “I just want to say thank you to the city. It’s a great city, I love Toronto. I want to come back every year maybe for vacation. It was a great experience for me. All I can say is ‘thank you.'”
A couple of his best memories: Toronto’s 2-2 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy in front of almost 48,000 fans at Rogers Centre, and a CONCACAF Champions League game in Nicaragua.
“That game in Nicaragua was unbelievable,” he said, with a chuckle. “I thought we’d never play. I saw the pitch and it was unbelievable to play there. . . it was funny.”
The tattooed midfielder with a penchant for motorcycles arrived in Toronto in June of 2011 along with Dutch striker Danny Koevermans. A translator helped him through his first Canadian news conference.
He can hold his own with the media now.
“I’m not shy. My first day I was pretty shy to speak,” Frings said. “I’ve lived here 20 months, I feel good with my English now.”
He came with a glittering soccer pedigree — 79 caps for Germany, runner-up at the 2002 World Cup and at the 2008 European Championship, stints with Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in Germany, and turning down an offer to move to Italy with Juventus. For years, he helped shield the German back four with Michael Ballack.
It took just two games with Toronto for the hard-nosed midfielder, whose 92 yellow cards in the Bundesliga were third most in league history, to take over as captain. Frings, while not the fastest, showed real vision in his passing and was a clear leader on the field.
Payne said he expects several players to step up to fill the team’s leadership void, and referred to Swiss goaltender Stefan Frei and Irish defender Darren O’Dea.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any one player that will assume the role that Torsten has had with our team, but my hope is that we’ll see several individuals step up and start to assume more responsibility,” Payne said.
Payne said Toronto will have three new players in camp Wednesday — Hogan Ephraim of Queens park Rangers, who he hopes to sign on loan, John Bostock, who plays for Swindon Town on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, and Welshman Robert Earnshaw, who plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Payne said the club is looking at two players in Honduras and a potential designated player in the Argentine league.
“The cavalry is coming,” he said. “It just won’t arrive as quickly as we might have hoped, but I’m not surprised. We’ve been building this airplane while it’s in flight.”
Payne said the club plans to continue working with Frings and developing a partnership with Werder Bremen, the Bundesliga club for which Frings played 12 seasons. Frings is keen to return to the game as a coach.
Frings helped Toronto to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League in early 2012 but injured his hamstring in the 2012 season opener in Seattle and missed a month. Toronto was 0-5-0 by the time he returned and went on to a league-worst 0-9-0 record before registering a win. The hip issue shut him down in September. TFC finished the campaign mired in a 14-game winless streak.
He played just 33 MLS games and 46 appearances in all competitions, scoring two goals and adding three assists. Defensive problems forced him at times to retreat to the backline rather than play his favoured defensive midfield position.
He said he would liked to be remembered in Toronto as a player “who gave everything for the club and the fans.”
— With files from Neil Davidson.