TORONTO – As preseason got underway at the BMO Training Ground this week, there were two new faces in the fold.
Defender Laurent Ciman and midfielder Nick DeLeon joined the rest of the Toronto FC squad as preparations got underway for the 2019 season, addressing two of the needs highlighted at the end of last year: defence and width.
That both have extensive MLS experience as well – Ciman with Montreal and LAFC; DeLeon with D.C. United – is an added benefit.
They join 2019 MLS SuperDraft pick Griffin Dorsey, and returning Reds Jordan Hamilton and Tsubasa Endoh, whose re-signings were announced on Wednesday, as the initial reinforcements and tweaks ahead of the new campaign.
The 33-year-old Ciman, a Belgian international, spent three seasons with the Montreal Impact before moving to LAFC last season. He departed midway through the year to French club Dijon FCO, but returned to Canada via the allocation process.
"For me, it was important to come back to Canada. It didn't go so well in France for personal reasons,” explained Ciman on Tuesday. “I wanted to come back here, and an opportunity came up with Toronto."
Ciman ticks all the boxes for Greg Vanney and company.
“[He brings] quality,” said Jozy Altidore. “Difficult to play against, good on the ball. It's a huge addition for us. And now he's playing in a big club, in a good club.”
“He knows that he's going to help us and you can see the energy in him already. He can taste it; we can all taste it,” continued Altidore. “We have a good opportunity here with a good group. Now it's time to get to work.”
That he joins the growing ranks of those who will have played for both Toronto and Montreal – Raheem Edwards, Daniel Lovitz, Collen Warner, Kyle Bekker, Quincy Amarikwa, Justin Braun, Issey Nakajima-Farran, Greg Sutton, and Dominic Oduro – will rankle some, but for Ciman it's just the nature of the beast.
"I have a lot of respect for Montreal and what [we] did there,” said Ciman. “I have a history with the fans there and I will respect them, but now my club is Toronto. Everybody knows very well that I'm ready to give my life for the club. Sure, there's a rivalry between the two clubs, but for me, it will be just one more game."
And as he gets to know his new teammates, in addition to facing off against TFC in several heated contests with the Impact, there are some tangential connections that will serve him well.
In Belgium with Standard Liege, Ciman played against fellow TFC defender Chris Mavinga, who was then at Genk. And at LAFC he worked with Michael Bradley's father, Bob Bradley.
"I had the chance of working with his dad, an excellent coach, and I'm now looking forward to working with the son,” said Ciman, who has battled fiercely on occasion with Michael when on opposite sides of the ball. “We've both got a strong character, so there may be tension from time to time, but he's a professional, and so am I. We'll get along on the field I'm sure."
Added Sebastian Giovinco: “Amazing player; a very good defender. He can play also with the ball, so for us he's an important piece.”
It is those two on-field facets, as well as all the other intangibles, that make Ciman such a strong addition.
“The addition of Laurent is huge, for me personally, for all the centre-backs, and for the club as well,” said Drew Moor. “His play on the field – he's represented the Belgian National Team in big tournaments; he knows the league well; played in some big matches in this league; knows this group well from playing against us a number of times.”
“He's a guy that you can rely on, day in and day out,” continued Moor. “He brings a little something different from what most centre-backs have to offer. He's fantastic on the ball; a natural leader. A lot of guys look up to him and will rely on his presence on the field. And, for me, he's somebody I feel that I can rely on: on or off the field, in the locker room, in training, on bus rides, whatever it is. He's going to be huge for our defence and for our squad as a whole.”
Tasked with shoring up a defence that conceded too many goals in 2018, while providing another option in sparking attacks from deep, Ciman has already assessed his surroundings: “Last year [there were] too many injuries, it wasn't good for the team. This year is a new year. The team is ready. I'm here; the others are coming back. It's a strong team on defence for sure.”
Where Ciman handles that area of the pitch, DeLeon provides a different aspect that Vanney has been looking to add to the side. It is a nice benefit that the coach and player go way back.
“Small world,” grinned DeLeon as asked about the links between Vanney and himself. “Greg was back in Phoenix, Arizona. My dad coached him a little bit. I kind of knew him when I was growing up.”
“A full circle-type of thing,” added DeLeon. “It's cool to be playing for him now.”
Days into his time in Toronto, DeLeon's first impressions of his new side were, “Very welcoming. Everyone has been very friendly and very helpful. It's been a pleasure so far.”
And having barely dipped his toes into these frigid waters, he already has the town pinned down pretty well: “Busy. Good food. And very cold.”
After seven seasons in D.C., the 28-year-old is looking forward to experiencing a second MLS environment, having been selected by Toronto in the Re-Entry Draft.
“I did [see the end in D.C. coming],” said DeLeon. “I had a feeling going into the offseason. I didn't know it was going to be Toronto, but it was time to move.”
“I was there seven years – a good seven years – but it was definitely time,” continued DeLeon. “I felt like I was getting a little complacent. You always need a change of scenery to revitalize, get the juices going again. It was time. I'm very fortunate to come to a club like Toronto.”
Like Ciman, DeLeon brings a package of assets that drew Toronto's interest.
“Nick has great MLS experience,” began Moor. “A guy that has been in the league for a little while now. He's bring a bit of a different element: can play outside, comfortable as an outside back, an outside attacker; can come inside and play as well. He's got a little bit of everything.”
“A player who has played a lot on the width, that's good for us, hopefully to stretch some teams out. He keeps the ball well, can cross; showed in the playoffs last year he can score from distance as well, which is always a good thing,” continued Moor. “But just his presence in the locker room, as someone who knows league well, knows the Eastern Conference well, he's going to fit right in and we're extremely excited to have him.”
Where DeLeon had been used extensively at the right-back position in recent seasons, Vanney sees him deployed further afield, on the wing.
“It's perfect,” said DeLeon in his cool Southwestern tone. “That was music to my ears when I heard that. I'm so glad to be out of the back-line. That's my natural position, what I played my whole life, where I'm most confident. When he said that, I was ecstatic.”
Having played many a time at BMO Field over the years, the Arizona-native is looking forward to having the fans on his side for once: “It's always a good atmosphere when you come here. I'm looking forward to the fans screaming for me instead of against me. It'll be nice to be on the other end that way.”