Ex-Sunderland and Newcastle United star Caldwell in new MLS role

Steve Caldwell on his return to Turf Moor.
Steve Caldwell on his return to Turf Moor.

These are heady days for soccer in North America.

And a familiar face to Newcastle United and Sunderland fans is looking to play his part in an even brighter future – but not on the pitch.

I’m very excited about my new role with MLSE

Steve Caldwell

Toronto FC defender Steve Caldwell yesterday announced his retirement from the game.

Plagued by Achilles and calf problems this season, the 34-year-old reluctantly hung up his boots and ended a career which started at St James’s Park during the Sir Bobby Robson era at the club.

Caldwell, looking forward to seeing Sunderland visit BMO Field on July 22, might have been expected to go into coaching.

After all, his younger brother Gary – who also started at Newcastle – is now manager of League One Wigan Athletic.

Caldwell, however, is taking a different post-retirement path.

The former Scotland international will take up the post of director of corporate development with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Toronto’s parent company, which also owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors.

It is the largest sports and entertainment company in Canada, and one of the biggest in North America.

While there is sadness felt by Caldwell at the end of his 15-year playing career, it’s tinged with excitement at the future for him – and football across the Atlantic.

“It’s never a nice time to give up playing – it’s a very difficult process for any football player,” said Stirling-born Caldwell.

“You’ve done the thing that you love for so many years, so it’s tinged with a bit of disappointment.

“But I’m also very excited about my new role with MLSE.

“It’s going to be exciting. I’m going to be learning the business side of things, and hopefully, I’ll have a bright future in that department.

“It’s an exciting opportunity, and one that I’m dying to get started with and move on to the next stage of my life and career.

“It’s a great time to be in the MLS, and I feel that we are a sleeping giant in the MLS.

“We’ve got the fanbase and infrastructure.”

“It’s going to be a battle, but we’re really committed to being a success in this league.”

MLS, year by year, is growing in popularity, and the decision of Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard to head across the Atlantic this summer underlined the financial muscle of the league.

The age of the players making the journey is coming down, and the talent pool is steadily getting deeper.

Toronto themselves signed 28-year-old Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus in January.

Giovinco – who scored a stunning nine-minute hat-trick against New York City at Yankee Stadium on Sunday – is the best paid Italian footballer in the world.

What MLS clubs now need to do is add depth to their squads, with the focus, up to now, having been on attracting flair players to North America.

The attacking play has improved with the addition of the likes of Giovinco. Now the defending must also improve, something while was underlined at the Yankee Stadium, where Toronto and New York drew 4-4.

Against the backdrop of the MLS’s growth, the Women’s World Cup – won by the US women’s national team – was successfully staged in Canada last month.

The USWNT was given a ticker tape parade in New York last Friday, and the sports-mad country is seemingly embracing the beautiful game.

Attendances are up on both sides of the border.

“I think our average attendance is around the 23,000-mark,” said Caldwell.

“It’s a substantial attendance, and we’re building more soccer-specific stadiums to cope with that kind of capacity.

“The Women’s World Cup was here in Canada, and there was great attention on it.

“It’s an area of the world that’s really taken to football, or soccer as it’s called.

“And the designated players we’re getting are scary. We’re getting them younger, and we’re paying good money to get them here.

“The next stage is to try and improve the overall quality of the league.

“The squads need to get a little bit stronger, and then we could be a league to be reckoned with.”

Giovinco, certainly, is a player to be reckoned with, and the day will soon come when MLS clubs are selling as well as buying top talent.

That, it seems, will be the next stage in the evolution of the league, which has been built on solid financial foundations.

“He’s been outstanding,” said Caldwell. “Seba’s 28, so he’s not a 33 or 34-year-old near the end of his career.

“He has a lot to offer, and Toronto FC has got a very valuable asset on its hands.

“When you look at the form he’s in, you’d imagine a lot of top teams would love to have him.”

Sunderland and Newcastle chose to tour North America this summer.

“I really excited for Sunderland to come,” said Caldwell, who scored the goal that took Sunderland back to the top flight in 2005.

“Obviously, Newcastle, Sunderland and Burnley are clubs that are really close to my heart.

“Sunderland was a very special time for me.

“Obviously, Jermain (Defoe) is coming back to Toronto, and that should be exciting.

“He might get a bit of stick from some parts of the ground, but personally I’m looking forward to seeing him and finding out how he’s getting on in the North East.”

On the English pre-season invasion, he added: “It’s absolutely fantastic. We’ve really grown the league.

“We have numerous teams from Europe coming over every year now and playing these friendlies.

“Everybody seems to want to come here from Europe to tune up for the season ahead.”

Caldwell, having called time on his playing career, must now make his mark off the pitch.