One final kick for Dichio

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

This is Danny Dichio's 19th spring with a professional soccer team and he has all the aches, bumps and bruises to prove it.

"This will be my final year," Dichio said yesterday, emerging from the trainers' room.

At 6-foot-5, Dichio is an imposing presence but he freely acknowledged that all the body parts don't move quite as well as they once did.

ACHES

"The ache seems to hang around a lot longer than it used to," he said, grinning.

This is a watershed season for Toronto FC, and for its first hero. The third-year expansion club is expected to reach the playoffs for the first time. And, as the team prepares for its season opener Saturday in Kansas City, Dichio is expecting to be a spare part instead of a main part.

"I'm realistic," Dichio said. "I won't play or start every game. (Coach John Carver) spoke to me and I can give my knowledge and fit into games at times or when players are injured. I can thrive on that -- helping guys out in the changing room when they're having a bad time, giving encouragement when they're going through a sticky patch. I've been there. I know what it feels like when you haven't scored in a few games."

Dichio is to soccer fans in Toronto what Doug Gilmour is to Leafs' fans or, perhaps, what Doug Ault was to the Jays. When Dichio scored the franchise's first goal on May 12, 2007, it was the birth of an icon. He has forever since been a fan favourite -- two years ago voted Toronto's most-loved athlete in a fan vote.

It was an adulation Dichio, now 34, never expected when he arrived after a modest career in England.

"I always had a good rapport with fans in other clubs but never the kind of status I had here as the first goal scorer," Dichio said. "I was the face of Toronto FC wherever we went. It was good but I'm kind of glad there's other star players now to take that off me."

He never has been entirely comfortable in the limelight.

"I'm not naturally an out-going guy with the media. I wasn't embarrassed but I'd never had the attention or the fan adulation before in my career," Dichio said. "I was willing to take it on because we were a new club, someone had to do it ... and the fans seemed to take to me."

He is serenaded every game. The love is not unrequited. Many imports come to the MLS to bury careers; Dichio used it to build a new life. He intends to stay in Toronto to coach after this season. He, his wife, Claire, and their three children Luca, 10, Franco, 7, and Alessia, 3, have permanent residence papers.

"I've only been back to England once," Dichio said. "I've got my whole family here now and they're all becoming very Canadian."

Dichio even bought a winter coat last fall and his oldest son, Dichio said with a laugh, "is very interested in baseball. He's only been playing for two years but he's playing AA. In Etobicoke. He's done very well since they got him out of the cricket stance. He loves it."

Dichio said a concussion last year ended any idea of prolonging his playing career.

"It's probably the worst injury I've had," Dichio said.

"I didn't know when the dizzy spells would stop. I was oblivious to everything ... I play a position where I'm going up for high balls and playing against big ugly defenders (he laughs) who want to elbow you. I'm just one hit away from getting that again."

So he hopes for one last hurrah -- then it will be done.

"You come to a stage in your life where you don't want to keep dragging the old horse out," Dichio said.

NEW LIFE

"I've seen a lot of players in England who keep putting their bodies through this strain and don't realize they have a life after football. I want to have a life after the game. I've got three kids who want a daddy to play with in the garden and take for walks. I'm not going to be able to do that if I've got a walking stick or really bad arthritis.

"It's time for the young blood to take over."


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