There was a palpable buzz around Toronto FC training on Thursday, the kind of energy one wouldn't expect with most players going through a light, regeneration session following the club's Concacaf Champions League loss to Cruz Azul down in Mexico two nights prior.
Thursday was no ordinary day in training for Toronto, though. Yeferson Soteldo was able to join the group for the first time after the Venezuelan international was acquired from Santos last week. Though many had no obligation to stick around, most players stayed to support and watch their new star man in person.
Even head coach Chris Armas, among the finest defensive midfielders in MLS history in his day, laced up his boots and got involved in a warm-up 5v2 session.
“It was cool to see him in person," Armas told media on a virtual press conference. "I hopped into the drill and stood right next to him, to see if I could get on his same page. Even in a little segment like that you could see, wow, how intelligent. The ideas —and it’s just day number one. … I’m pretty sure his first touch was an upper 90 bullet.”
Added Soteldo through a translator: “Training was great, I was really anxious to get on the field and meet my teammates. I was looking forward to this moment.”
Soteldo is among the league's most heralded acquisitions of the primary transfer window. The 23-year-old Venezuelan international was named to the 2020 Copa Libertadores Best XI and had 18 goals and 16 assists in 85 matches for Santos, one of Brazil's biggest clubs. He had been oft-linked with a big-money move to Europe before signing with Toronto.
With his first training session behind him, with visas sorted and quarantine done, Soteldo is available to make his MLS debut on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls (1 pm ET | MLS Live on ESPN+). Armas didn't divulge his plan, but it sure sounded like Soteldo would play a part against the Red Bulls.
So, what can fans (and defenders) expect?
The diminutive attacker is comfortable with both feet, is known for his technical ability and dribbling prowess, and can play on either wing. Given his ability to both score and create, Toronto have added yet another dimension to an already potent attack.
“It’s about creating goals," GM Ali Curtis said. "Part of it is scoring goals, part of it is assisting goals and creating situations that lead to goals. At the end of the day, they’re goals. We were really trying to find a player who created goal scoring opportunities was our philosophy in trying to find our third DP. Yeferson will help our pursuit in that, the way we play as a team and winning football games.”
There are no worries about Soteldo's ability to fit into Armas' high-energy system, either.
“He’s committed to running for the team," Armas said. "As much as we talk about pressing and that dialogue, it’s still about meeting the demands and doing what’s required for the team. There are guys who run for themselves, then there are guys who run for the team. You can see even on a day like today, he’s committed to the team. He’s an exciting player, can’t wait for our supporters and MLS to see what he’s all about.”
Toronto are still dealing with injuries, but reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo is getting closer to returning. He won't be ready for Saturday, but soon enough, fans will see the pair share the field. Fellow DP Jozy Altidore missed the club's last game because he wasn't feeling well, but will be back in no time. Ditto for Jonathan Osorio. Ayo Akinola recently returned from injury after missing the first few games of the season.
It's all coming together.
“We think he’s the type of player who is going to fit incredibly well," club president Bill Manning said. "He and Pozuelo have very high soccer IQs, guys like Jozy and Ayo will benefit from his service. Teams will have to prepare for us. There will be a lot of connections there.”
“It doesn’t take that long for good players to get on the same page as guys," Armas added.
Soteldo carries a quiet confidence about him. He routinely deflected any notion of pressure during his introductory press conference, the kind of trait unsurprising for a player who took the No. 10 shirt at Santos, made famous by the legendary Pele during his time at the club.
In outlining his expectations in Toronto, Soteldo is setting the highest possible bar by pointing to the success countryman and friend Josef Martinez has enjoyed in the league with Atlanta United.
“It’s an honor to be a Designated Player, but I don’t see it as a pressure," Soteldo said. "I wanted to come to MLS to make history. Josef Martinez is like my brother, I’ve seen the success he’s had. That’s what I want in Toronto.”
Those at the club have big expectations, too.
“The Designated Player tag in Major League Soccer comes with high expectations," Manning said. "It’s a big position, a big role to play. The best teams get them right, the teams that win championships get it right. … We believe he’ll live up to that tag. We think he’s the guy who will help us win championships.”