Let's not sugar coat it. The 2011 season for Toronto FC was the worst since its inaugural year in MLS in 2007. Since head coach Aron Winter took over at the start of last season, they struggled on the road, they struggled at home, and it took the heavens opening up biblical-like-rains to assist them in capturing the Voyageurs Cup. Their berth and subsequent run in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) is the only thing that kept that season from being a complete wash.
But, despite all that, as they prepare to take on the defending MLS Cup champions in the first leg of the CCL quarter-finals this Wednesday, expectations for the Reds' 2012 campaign have never been higher.
CBCSports.ca takes a look at each position and weighs where their season will hang in the balance.
2011 record: 6-13-15, 33 points (8th in Eastern Conference, 16th in MLS)
2011 result: Qualified for CONCACAF Champions League. In quarter-final CCL action presently. Failed to make MLS playoffs.
Key additions for 2012: midfielder Reggie Lambe, defender Geovanny Caicedo, defender Miguel Aceval
Draft picks: midfielder Luis Silva, defender Aaron Maund
Key losses: midfielder Peri Marosevic, midfielder Nathan Sturgis
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP FOR 2012:
GK - Stefan Frei. D - Ashtone Morgan, Ty Harden, Miguel Aceval, Richard Eckersley. M - Reggie Lambe, Torsten Frings, Julian De Guzman F - Joao Plata, Danny Koevermans, Ryan Johnson
After last season, when Stefan Frei suffered a rib injury, effectively knocking him out for a third of the year and allowing backup Milos Kocic a chance to step in and shine, some have wondered if Toronto will have a goaltending controversy on its hands this season. Simply put, they won't.
Back from injury, Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei should be the team's No. 1 this season, but backup Milos Kocic is knocking at the door. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
The job is still Frei's for the foreseeable future. Between the two of them he remains the better shot blocker and during the off-season he has made efforts to round out his game. If Kocic ever had a leg up on Frei, it was in his ability to effectively control the 18-yard-box on looping free kicks and corners. But, during a few pre-season matches, Frei showed a level of fearlessness when challenging for those balls that he hasn't in years past.
Kocic will still see a good chunk of playing time this season - especially if Toronto finds itself deep into multiple competitions like the Voyageurs Cup, CCL and the MLS playoff race.
And, if he puts in another season of solid backup performances, raising his stock even further, at this time next year there might just be a legitimate reason to ask if Toronto has itself a goaltending controversy.
With a pair of solid goaltenders, Toronto's league-worst 59 goals allowed in 2011 has to fall to the clumsy feet of its defenders - in particular its central defenders. Andy Iro (no longer with the club) and Ty Harden were last season's whipping boys with a number of casual errors and missed assignments that led directly to goals. Iro's departure, while certainly necessary, has some observers offering up apologies for Harden's play - stating that no one could be expected to perform with a partner who ran the pitch like a wounded giraffe.
There should be no apologies coming though. Harden will likely be paired with either Geovanny Caicedo or Miguel Aceval, both newcomers to the club and neither of which will provide much cover for the slow Harden. Even with their speed, right back Richard Eckersley and left back Ashtone Morgan won't be much help either as they are expected to get up into attack, leaving them 20 yards out when opponents are on the break.
Former team MVP Adrian Cann is back training after successful ACL surgery, but the timetable for his return is uncertain, as is his role within Winter's system.
There was so much inconsistency from the centreback position last year that it forced Winter to move midfielder and designated player Torsten Frings into essentially a full-time defending role.
With Toronto looking like it will play a high backline once again, leaving it vulnerable to through balls and pacy strikers, Frings will find himself playing that support role more in 2012. It's a move that shores up the defence but drastically limits Frings' ability to patrol the pitch and have an impact on the play going forward.
There is little doubt, without Frings playing 18-yard-box to 18-yard-box each week, his potential is being underutilized and puts a greater stress on Toronto's midfield.
Former German international Torsten Frings joined Toronto FC last July. He'll carry both a midfield and defensive role in 2012. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)
Depending on who you ask, Julian De Guzman is either a waste of a designated player spot or someone whose impact on the game will never be appreciated.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Plagued by injuries and little quality support in the early years of his contract with Toronto, De Guzman sprayed a number of errant balls around the pitch. With little to show for his efforts on the score sheet and playing a defensive midfield role that rarely garners many accolades, the best of his play was usually lost in the mix.
The arrival of Winter's possession-oriented football has greatly benefitted De Guzman. In the second half of last year, with better support and structure around him, the Canadian international flourished.
He, along with a myriad of other options such as rookie Luis Silva, stalwart midfielder Terry Dunfield, newcomer Reggie Lambe and emerging winger Nick Soolsma, will be relied up to carry the play with Frings relegated primarily to defensive duties.
For De Guzman, who is in the last season of his contract, it will be a make or break year for his legacy with the club, as well as for the success of Toronto's attack. He will either flourish as the player most have known him to be throughout his career - a crafty midfielder able to split open defences and make pin-point passes to onrushing wingers - or he'll exit quietly as just a another player sent packing through the rotating door that has been Toronto's midfield.
Joining the squad midway through 2011, designated player Danny Koevermans quickly established himself as someone who can be a potent scorer in this league.
Toronto, who finished 17th in goals for last season, will rely heavily on the Dutchmen to continue that form this year, but to do so he'll need consistent service into the 18-yard-box, where most of his goals come from. Flanking Koevermans on the front line attack will be Joao Plata and Ryan Johnson.
In Plata, Toronto's pint sized secret is out of the bag. He will be well scouted this season and opponents will either pair him against equally speedy partners that will try to match his pace or bruising defenders that will take him physically out of the game. To build on the success he had last season, and not suffer a sophomore slump, he must find a way to bring the other forwards into the play more and take some of the attention off his slight shoulders.
In Johnson, Toronto has a player whose performance flew somewhat under the radar last year. He was instrumental in securing the win over Dallas that sent them on to the next round of the CCL and he scored in Toronto's first-ever win over rivals Columbus.
In past seasons, Toronto's attack relied heavily upon one or two men, but this year, if Johnson is motivated and used correctly, he will give Toronto a crucial third scoring threat up front.
There is little doubt Toronto will score goals this season. At least there is a certain air of expectancy around the league that they will.
With all the pieces in place now, they have a three-pronged attack that combines pace on the ground, presence in the air and players with a nose for the net.
As always though, the focus will be on the backline. If they are to see success this season it will be related to two things.
The first is obvious. How well Frings is able to steady his defensive partners will have a direct impact on the result each week.
The second is less so. After the stating 11, Toronto struggles for depth at most positions, defence especially. The MLS season is long and it's made longer by Toronto's participation in other competitions.
This season, they're facing battles on more fronts than they've ever seen. Later this week they'll seek to extend their 2011 CONCACAF Champions League run. One which, if they manage to carry it through, could see them playing CCL games into late April. In May, comes the start of the next Voyageurs Cup that, with success, can lead to more CCL games later in the year.
And, in between all of that are the MLS playoffs - a feat that Toronto has still yet to accomplish and one that can often be tied back to being slow out of the gate.
With tired legs and injuries sure to mount, Toronto would be wise to set their priorities for the year now and commit their best resources to only one competition.
Otherwise, with another slow start, they could find themselves on the outside looking in on not just one competition but all three.
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