Mike Ulmer

01 March 11:48 am

When Toronto FC open their MLS season Saturday in Vancouver, General Manager Kevin Payne will finally have some results from which to base his rebuild.

In just three months on the job Payne acquired striker Robert Earnshaw, traded Designated Player Eric Hassli, moved the first pick in the MLS SuperDraft, selected Canadian Kyle Bekker third overall, replaced manager Paul Mariner with Ryan Nelsen and negotiated the retirement of veteran DP Torsten Frings.

Senior writer Mike Ulmer asked Payne about future players, the direction of the club and who will provide leadership now that Frings is gone.

Mike Ulmer: It’s clear TFC will struggle to score.

Kevin Payne: We are in the process of signing a player (Earnshaw) we hope will be available on Saturday who is a very accomplished EPL and Champions League goalscorer. He will help us.

MU: What about players already on the roster?

KP: Justin Braun is probably not available for this game. We drafted Taylor Morgan in the supplemental draft. His value will be as a late game super-sub. He’s a big, explosive kid with a great nose for the goal. There’s another player named Ashton Bennett who we signed and who has great natural talents around the goal and who is fast and quick. He’s going to create issues for people when he gets on the pitch. We hope Hogan Ephraim and Kyle Bekker will help.

MU: How will you shore up the team’s ability to defend?

KP: That’s where how most of the work has been done up to this point. I have a theory you have to earn the right to play good soccer. Defending is a mentality. It’s mostly about discipline and courage and mentality. That’s what we need to instill first.

MU: Is Ryan Nelsen’s background as a defender central to that?

KP: Nellie is not necessarily obsessed with a system but he is very devoted to several principles. A key one is having our players understand how they can be in control of a situation even though the situation may not be to our advantage.

MU: Explain that.

KP: He’s trying to get our players to understand how to support one another, how to delay plays. He’s trying to control what’s happening on the field even though we don’t have the ball. That was something Ryan was very good at as a defender.

MU: What are your expectations?

KP: My expectations are we will be a far more competitive team, individually and collectively. We will be far more disciplined, individually and collectively. I think we’ll l be a harder team to play, that we will give up far fewer goals and we will become a team that’s particularly hard to play against at BMO Field.

MU: Are you confident of adding more firepower as the season progresses?

KP: We will add more talent. There are a couple of players we are looking at for the summer. They are very important players on their teams so we can’t get them until then. We’re willing to wait. There are some advantages to that since they will come at a lower cap rate.

MU: Will these players be big names?

KP: One player in particular is a player we want to build around for three or four years. We’re going to spend a lot of time on due diligence over the next couple of months.

MU: How do you replace the experience provided by Torsten Frings?

KP: You can’t really replace a guy like Torsten who played in two World Cups and countless professional games in Europe. I’m looking for Stefan Frei, who has always been a leader on this team, and Darren O’Dea to step forward. Darren has the personal qualities to be a good leader. He’s a good player, he’s played at a high level and he’s very well-liked. I’m looking for a lot from Darren.

25 April 12:20 pm

They are the most unlikely victims, soccer players felled by heart attacks the world around.

Italian midfielder Piermario Morosini died April 14 during a Serie B game in Livorno. He was 25 years old.

A few days later, a player in the Indian A division dropped dead on the pitch. Five years before Sevilla winger Antonio Puerta died on a Spanish pitch, another victim of a heart attack. Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foe fell in a 2003 game.

There is no way to record how many players have died in lower leagues around the world.

This story is about one of the lucky ones, a player who was chosen but never called to play for Toronto FC. It’s about a different form of grief.

Zac Herold was TFC’s first choice in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. The team had traded their first rounder. Drafted 22nd overall, the 17-year-old defender figured to contribute for years to come.

But in the run-up to training camp, doctors found a heart defect. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) causes a thickening of a portion of the heart.  While extremely rare, the altered heart can fail under stress. There is no hope of medication or surgery to alleviate the condition. Zac's pro soccer career, shaped with Generation Adidas, was over before he played his first MLS game.

There is a constant in sports. It is redemption. There is always another game, another chance to set things right or make them better. Imagine the reward from years of dedication sifting like sand through your fingers.

“I spent my entire life getting ready for this,” he said from Tampa. “I feel like I finally made it and it’s ripped away.”

At 19, Zac sometimes feels like an old man. He can’t trust his body and can’t do much more than a stiff walk.  A Florida cardiologist put his future in perspective. “You can play two sports,” he said. “Golf and chess.”

His mother, joking about the cardiologist’s recommendation, told Zac she would buy him golf clubs. “Mom, if you do,” he said, "I’ll throw them out.”

Soccer, pro soccer, had been Zac’s goal since he was eight-years old.  He advanced through club teams, eagerly accepted coaching and embraced the lifestyle necessary to optimize his ability.

“I didn’t experience the high school life a lot of my friends did.  I didn’t go to my high school prom. But I was up at 6:30 am getting ready to play with the some of the best young soccer players in America. I loved it.”

Zac is from Port St. Lucie, Florida. He went home and found a void where his life used to be.  His mom Beth searched for a way to help her son. There were difficult times.

“The last two years it was a massive struggle for her to deal with me,” Zac said. “I had no ambition. I would just watch soccer all day on television, maybe play FIFA soccer (a video game) and call it a day.”

“I listened to poor Zac, how terrible it is for Zac for a while,” said Beth. “I wasn’t patient with him. We went to a sports psychologist who told me that Zac had to grieve. It’s like your marriage ending and people say ‘just get over it.’ It doesn’t work that way. That was a hard thing for me to accept but that’s what I had to do.”

Zac’s prospects seemed to brighten this fall when he landed a spot as an assistant coach with the University of South Florida’s men’s soccer team in Tampa.  It didn’t last.

“I just couldn’t handle it,” Zac said. “I still want so badly to play the game of soccer and I was watching players my age running onto the pitch.  I was thinking about it 24 hours a day.”
Shock eventually whirlpooled into depression. For the last several weeks Zac has used anti-depressants. The fog in his mind is beginning to clear but he is still trapped in the cleave between what he thought he would be and what he will become.

Now that Zac can no longer run, Beth is. “I never ran in my life but I did two half-marathons,” she said. “I wear a shirt that says ‘I’m running for Zac’ and ‘I’m running against HCM.’  People ask me about the t-shirt and I tell them about Zac and about HCM.”

What makes Zac Herold so vulnerable, his searing honesty in describing his sadness, will someday be transformed into his salvation. Truthfulness is his best weapon against the grief of losing his life’s purpose. He is a survivor struggling to survive but when he is better, when he is ready, he will act with the same conviction that brought him to the cusp of his lifelong ambition.

Zac landed a summer internship at the office of his agent.  He isn’t sure he will be able to get close to the sport again. His heart has been twice broken, but Zac Herald, unflinching, will not hide his grief.  
“It’s good to talk about it,” he said about this interview.  “This is helping to push me forward.”

03 April 4:38 pm

I’m starting to get your game.

You should know that it’s not treasonous in Canada to come around later in life to soccer.

Major League Soccer came to Canada five years ago so all you really need is a British accent and a reasonable understanding of the game to be considered an expert over here.

That said there is much excitement about the Champions League semi-final that pits Toronto FC and Santos Laguna. The match is to be played Wednesday night in Torrean, Mexico.

You probably don’t know a hockey player named Sergei Fedorov but when the great Russian star was being squired by the Detroit Red Wings they took him to a baseball game.

He watched for a few innings then turned to his translator.

“Do they actually shower after this?” he asked.

Incredulity is the rule when sporting cultures collide.

That’s why it was so jarring that in addition to flashing marvelous moments of grace, a great many Santos players behaved abominably in last week’s 1-1 draw. One head-butted TFC’s Ashtone Morgan and then grabbed his own leg prompting a melee at the end of the game.

It seemed every burst of action was punctuated by a Santos player’s cartoonish attempt to draw the charity of the referee.

They were just warming up. After the game, Santos coach Benjamin Galindo spoke of the Gringos and their sympathetic referee while claiming the game was tilted from the beginning.  Santos midfielder Herculez Gomez was quoted as saying his team’s 6-1 rout of Seattle in the earlier Champions League Mexican leg would be merciful compared to the beatdown TFC would suffer in Torrean.

This week Toronto FC players sounded like they were preparing not for a soccer game but the seventh circle of hell.

“I know exactly what’s going to happen,” said TFC netminder Milos Kocic. “If we score a goal they are probably going to whine and dive around and the referee is obviously going to go for that.”

“We know what we have to do there: win the game and go to the final but we have to prepare because the temperament and the culture there is going to be crazy.”

Highly-decorated TFC coach Aron Winter is expecting an opera as much as a game.

“The most important thing is don’t go with the simulation (diving) from them or when the crowd is being hectic and doing stupid things,” he said.

Gamesmanship, from hard-rock serenades of the visitors' hotel to heightened levels of harassment is to be expected, he said.

 “I can compare Mexico with Turkey. The crowd, the people are crazy. It started days before the game in the hotel, a lot of noise, a lot of problems.”

The pre- hijinks are just the beginning.

“In this game you can expect anything,” said Ryan Johnson. “Elbows, late tackles, late kicks. Guys thumping on your legs. Things like that are going to happen. There is no need for broken legs. Guys have to keep an eye on players coming from your blind side because it’s going to happen.”

All this leads me to one conclusion.

These people are friggin’ nuts.

Which brings you smack against another truth. That’s soccer.

Toronto FC’s principal sponsor is a bank, the very symbol of financial stability and good governance. The wealth of Toronto, its skyscrapers and the CN tower loom over BMO Field, monuments to the country’s affluence. A massive trade center sits a couple of hundred yards away and Lake Ontario, incomprehensibly vast and inviting, provides the gusts that chill and later in the year cool the grounds. Hours before the match in Toronto, Santos players were captured on social media, their green track suits dotting the downtown. They were shopping.

The Toronto Star’s incomparable Cathal Kelly points out Santos’ home grounds was the site of a gunfight outside its gates last summer that prompted fans to reflexively crouch behind their seats. Torreon, a city the size of Calgary, has been ravaged by drug wars. It has a per capita murder rate of 40 killings per 100,000. Toronto’s rate is 1.6. 

In Toronto, dousing David Beckham with crepe paper passed for intimidation tactics. Maybe the full beer can also hurled towards him spoke to a malice not uncommon in places like Torrean where crowd control is something less than a given, at least to Kocic, the experienced TFC ‘keeper.

 “If they come on to the field,” he said airily when discussing the game, “we will fight them.”

 The first, second and third world meet in soccer , a game whose arcane statutes limit the number of referees to one beleaguered soul while requiring what amounts to a constitutional amendment to fix its rules.

Interpretation of course varies wildly, as it does in Spain and Ireland and Columbia, on gravely fields in Sao Paulo and impeccably groomed grounds in Santa Barbara.

Santos played a sometimes marvelous but cynical game, a style in keeping with the ungovernable places where soccer players often come from.

Soccer is the samba-influenced brilliance and toughness of Brazil and the get-what-you-can attitude of countries where people are left to prosper or fall without the benevolent hand of government and what we quaintly call the social safety net.

The game and all that surrounds it can be reckless and incomprehensible and unreasonable, just like the places it is played and the planet it is so universally played on.

All this makes for wonderful, wonderful theatre, the same kind of oft- bloody theatre that has long enthralled cultures since people began clustering together to forget their cares or bask in their wealth.

I’m hooked.