In a league like MLS, which has committed itself to ensuring parity
among its clubs, it's striking that the three Canadian teams would be at
such different stages of their development.
In a league like MLS, which has committed itself to ensuring parity among its clubs, it's striking that the three Canadian teams would be at such different stages of their development.
One finds itself embroiled in a full-on re-build, teetering once again towards irrelevance. Another entered the season looking like a model of stability and has managed to keep itself in the playoff picture despite some serious lack there of it. And the third finds itself not only competing for top spot in its conference, but looking like a serious contender for an MLS championship.
This is a look at the three Canadian franchises and how they got to the point they're at this season.
The question when Toronto FC's new General Manager Kevin Payne took over last year was: could he turn around a club who has been living in a Groundhog Day-like existence for the past seven years?
Much like the famous Bill Murray character, Toronto FC has been waking up to the same horrible story day in and day out, to the extent that even this movie reference has been used before.
But for Toronto fans, Groundhog Day has always meant the same old promises from management, which has led to new players on the pitch, which has ultimately led to the same old anger in the stands, which has always led back to another manager being fired.
Through the half of this year, that scenario, once again, looked to be playing out like clockwork. Toronto's new management was dumping players from their roster to make room for a squad that they could potentially lay claim to down the line. The losses were adding up and the frustration was palpable.
Captain Darren O'Dea was politely told he should look elsewhere if he wanted to continue making a salary of his size. He quickly packed his bags for Ukraine.
Luis Silva, widely regarded as one of the club's most talented prospects, was shipped off to D.C. United for Toronto's favourite player Al Location (also pronounced allocation money.)
And it seems likely that any combination of Danny Koevermans, Stefan Frei, Ashtone Morgan or Richard Eckersley will be gone by season's end, if the right option presents itself.
In the meantime, Julio Cesar, Darell Russell, Danny Califf, Robert Earnshaw, Hogan Ephraim and John Bostock were all brought in before the start of the year to help make Toronto a stronger squad. Just two of those players are still with the club. Only one of them sees regular time.
Additional bit players have been added to the roster, but quite frankly they barely warrant the column space.
But, despite all that, there is some indication that this squad is finally breaking from its patterns of old.
Diego Forlan's name was front and centre earlier this month when it became public knowledge that Toronto was in discussions to bring the Uruguayan star to the much-beleaguered club. Despite never discussing it on record, both head coach Ryan Nelsen and Payne spoke open and often about chasing a big name target. Behind the scenes, every journalist in Toronto knew who they were after.
When the discussions broke down and Toronto was left holding the phone, the club didn't panic. Despite all the hype -- and there was lots of it -- they didn't go out and try to make a save-face signing.
In years past, Toronto would have -- and did -- go out and sign players like Ali Gerba or Mista or Carlos Ruiz. Players that never really factored into the club's plans but rather were brought in on name recognition and only managed to further muck up the club's finances.
Payne and Toronto have continued along the path they've been toting since arrival. They're dumping salary, adding role players and not committing money to signings they're unsure of. In other words, they're following their plan to build slowly.
Toronto's next few signings though -- specifically who they bring into to replace the likes of Silva, O'Dea or any of the next potential departures -- will indicate whether this club has truly turned a corner, or if they'll be waking up to another morning of Groundhog Day.
If you had told the Vancouver Whitecaps' faithful at the beginning of the season that they'd be missing captain Jay DeMerit, his defensive partner Andy O'Brien and 2012 break-out star Darren Mattocks to injury and still be in the playoff hunt, they might have called you crazy.
If you had told them that Camilo Sanvezzo would be in contention for the MLS Golden Boot, they probably would have accused you of being drunk.
And if you had told them Kenny Miller was playing so well that he'd been offered a contract extension, they'd likely have had you committed.
Throw in Russell Teibert's emergence as one of the better midfielders in MLS and the addition of a David Ousted, a highly touted goalkeeper from the Danish Superliga, and it all adds up to a pretty strange year so far for Vancouver.
There is little doubt that they have been playing some pretty patchwork soccer of late and it's clear the squad has been running on fumes. But after a rough start to the year, one in which Martin Rennie's job appeared to be jeopardy, the Whitecaps have done exceptionally well through the summer months.
If they can get through August relatively intact - a month where they'll face opponents (Los Angeles, Colorado and Portland) they're looking up at on the league table - and can get either DeMerit or O'Brien back to form, Vancouver should find itself in a position to qualify for its second straight MLS playoffs.
Something, again, supporters might have been laughing at the prospect of, after that slow start to the year.
In their short time in MLS, the Montreal Impact has become synonymous with taking risk. Even before their arrival to top-flight soccer in North America, president and owner Joey Saputo was being likened to the riverboat gamblers of old -- always pushing the limits to try and get that extra edge in a game of chance. Never more was that true than when they low-balled MLS with their initial franchise fee offer.
For those who have forgotten, Montreal originally balked at the initial asking price of $40 million for an MLS team. Saputo and the Impact, despite knowing what MLS was looking for in a fee -- and being fully aware the league were being chased by multiple suitors -- decided to splash the pot with a $43 million offer that included a fee and the cost of expanding their stadium.
MLS called their bluff and the Impact had to wait a couple more years before they could play at the main table once again.
That kind of gamble though has become the blueprint and model for the philosophy the Montreal Impact have brought to the league. The hiring of Swiss head coach Marco Schällibaum is perhaps the greatest example of that to date. The move, roundly questioned, even mocked by some in the American MLS soccer media, was supposed to be just another example of Canadian clubs not getting it. The hiring, the thinking went, was that to succeed in MLS you needed a coach that understood the landscape of North America and had an education in the MLS game.
So, far, Schällibaum, who had none of that, has all but proven his critics wrong. And as they enter the final stretch of the season, he has Montreal well positioned to not just finish atop their conference but well within striking distance of a Supporters Shield.
Saputo clearly sees that, and he doubled down last week when he made the acquisition of a second designated player in Argentine midfielder Hernan Bernardello. In part, with the move, he's lending assistance to an aging defence, which has been showing its wear of late. And additionally, what he's doing is adding a part that will help them as they prepare to compete in, not just an MLS playoff race, but also the CONCACAF Champions League.
It's a tremendous risk to go after both competitions. A recent five game winless streak, one that showed that a team of aging veterans can just as easily look like a team of aging veterans, as it can look like a team of experienced leaders, should be proof of that.
And many teams before them have tried to travel the two roads and ended up driving off a cliff in both competitions.
Conservative, conventional thinking suggests they should pick one route over the other. But, as it is, Saputo and Montreal are far from conventional and so far, they've proven to be anything but conservative.
Ben RycroftBen Rycroft covers the world's game from a Canadian perspective. An authority on the Red and White, he is the founder of Canadian Soccer News, the host of the popular podcast It's Called Football and a regular on soccer shows across the country. When he's not covering the beautiful game, he can be found singing in the stands, hacking legs on the pitch or cooking up BBQ at the post game pub.