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Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo unfazed by high expectations at Toronto FC

While Yeferson Soteldo has just one training session with Toronto FC under his belt, the expectations for the 23-year-old Venezuelan international winger are already sky-high.
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While Yeferson Soteldo has just one training session with Toronto FC under his belt, the expectations for the 23-year-old Venezuelan international winger are already sky-high.

"We think he's the guy that's going to help us win a championship," team president Bill Manning told reporters Thursday from Orlando. "And that's, at the end of the day, what matters for us."

"He's going to be an incredible player for this club," added GM Ali Curtis.

"This is another statement by our club — the commitment to winning," said coach Chris Armas, whose team is 0-1-1 in the young MLS season.

High expectations come hand-in-hand in Major League Soccer with designated-player status and a US$6 million transfer fee — $4 million now and $2 million next year, according to a source granted anonymity because the amount has not been made public.

But the five-foot-two, 121-pound Soteldo seems unfazed by such weight on his shoulders.

"For me it's an honour to be a designated player but I don't see it as pressure for me," he said through an interpreter. "I've just come to Toronto (FC) to play, enjoy … I just wanted to come to MLS to make history, to be able to win with the team."

Soteldo's ease with pressure was demonstrated by the fact that he wore Pele's No. 10 at Brazil's Santos, although he admitted he initially asked the team president for the number as a joke.

But he also said that wearing No. 10 had been a dream as a kid.

"I think my personality helped just to enjoy having that number," he said.

Soteldo, who joined Santos in January 2019, repaid the favour with 20 goals and 17 assists in 104 games for the club.

With Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo wearing No. 10 in Toronto, Soteldo will revert to No. 30 — the number he wore with his hometown club Zamora FC for whom he debuted at age 16.

Armas said Soteldo could see action Saturday in Toronto's road game against the New York Red Bulls. The Venezuelan last played April 20 for Santos against Ecuador's Barcelona in the 2021 Copa Libertadores group stage.

Soteldo is shifty and elusive, able to torment defenders with his close control. While he normally plays on the left, he can also cause damage with his right foot. 

"A player … that is going to put you on the edge of your seat," said Armas. "Every time he gets the ball, something's going to happen."

Curtis says he will add to the attack while fitting into Armas' aggressive pressing style when the other team has the ball.

"He's a dynamic attacking player … We were looking to really add a whole lot more dimension to what we're doing in the attacking third," said Curtis. "And also we wanted players that when they don't have the ball, they're attacking their opponent in the same way when they have the ball."

"It should be exciting. He's powerful, he's explosive. You'll be able to see that from Day 1," he added. "And (he'll) help us create more attacking chances that gives us an opportunity to win games and to win trophies."

Soteldo will add to TFC's creativity while making it more difficult for opponents to focus solely on Pozuelo, the reigning MLS MVP.

"He and Pozuelo have very high soccer IQ's," said Manning.

Soteldo, who is signed through 2025, arrived in Florida on April 28. Because he flew from Brazil, he had to serve a seven-day quarantine mandated by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Soteldo comes with top credentials. He was named to the 2020 Conmebol Copa Libertadores Best XI and, according to numbers provided by TFC, has scored 57 goals and added 64 assists in 269 club games to date.

After winning three Venezuelan League titles (2014, 2015 and 2016) with Zamora, Soteldo signed with Chile's Club Deportivo Huachipato. He was loaned to Universidad de Chile in 2018.

Soteldo has earned 19 caps for Venezuela and was a member of the youth team that finished second at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017.

He shares an agent with Atlanta United star striker Josef Martinez and Toronto's Erickson Gallardo, both fellow Venezuelans.

Manning and Curtis said they are still learning about Soteldo the person, although they say the young father of three ticked all the boxes when it came to references on and off the field.

Curtis called him a "young man with a lot of belief in himself" who "wants to prove himself in this league."

"He has got a good heart. He's a good young man. And that's important, whether you're bringing in a player or whether you're bringing in a staff member. We've made that very clear that that's our North Star at this club."

Curtis said Soteldo has been on TFC's radar for some time. The club was also looking at other talent, including Colombian forward Rafael Santos Borre.

Under MLS rules, only $612,500 of a senior designated player's salary counts against the team's $4.9-million salary cap budget.

In 2019, the last figures released by the MLS Players Association, Toronto's three designated players ranked No. 2 (Michael Bradley, $6.5 million), No. 3 (Jozy Altidore, $6.33 million) and No. 7 (Pozuelo, $3.8 million) among MLS players in pay.

Bradley has since signed a new non-DP contract, opening up a space that was used last season by Argentine Pablo Piatti — who is now in Spain with Elche CF — and Soteldo.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press