It wasn't the best team before the weekend. It's not the worst team following the 3-0 reality check
in the suburbs of Salt Lake City.
But, as the coach himself observed before a ball was kicked, Toronto FC
is now a team with a "target on its back."
Let's not go to extremes. TFC has spent many millions with the express intent of transforming itself and its fortunes. Inevitably, it will be a better team in 2014, but the importation of a handful of household names does not magically turn this franchise into an overnight world beater.
Soccer, in common with most team sports, doesn't work like that. There is, however, a new and understandable level of expectation. It is reasonable to assume a better class of player will produce a better set of results over time, but this fresh crop must learn to walk before it can run.
Ryan Nelsen has a point. Toronto FC stole the off-season headlines
with its extravagant spending spree, but not everyone wishes his team well. While the long-suffering TFC fans sense a sea change in direction which leads directly to the MLS playoffs, others across the MLS landscape view it as Open Season.
The target is there to be shot at. Rival fans, players and media will take aim at every opportunity. A sandy pitch in Sandy, Utah was the perfect example. The boisterous faithful that follows Real Salt Lake
couldn't wait to be the first to start the "Overrated!" chant. It won't be the last time TFC players hear that on their travels.
They simply couldn't match the intensity or creativity of an opponent sure of its footing and expectant of another fruitful campaign. At the risk of repeating myself, all the money in the world cannot buy instant chemistry.
Dating websites might claim to have the scientific formula, but it doesn't work in a locker room containing 18 competitive individual personalities.RSL a well-oiled machine
Salt Lake is a comparatively small market, but it has become a model for others to follow. It has built an attractive, accessible stadium, and its on-field consistency speaks for itself. A playing roster which has grown together over multiple seasons is a cornerstone of the RSL success story.
Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio will never be soccer superstars. Saborio is about to get his second taste of playing at the FIFA World Cup with Costa Rica, but it will be a minor miracle if Los Ticos survive the group stages in Brazil.
Nonetheless, Saborio is a proven goal scorer. He has made the most of his talent and physique without ever cracking one of the major European or South American leagues. He will continue to score at regular intervals while Morales, Beckerman and others pull the strings of a well-oiled machine.
Under the personal scrutiny of U.S. national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann, Beckerman outthought and outflanked Michael Bradley. This week they become international teammates, but ultimately Beckerman wants Bradley's job at the World Cup. Young midfielder Luis Gil, who enhanced his international credentials by bagging the crucial second goal, would have also impressed the German coach.
Nelsen wants his team to be "nasty" to play against. Every coach yearns for that mean streak running through his corps group -- a mixture of desire, determination and discipline that warns the next opponent to be ready for a physical and mental battle. The fact he talks about it publicly means it is a crucial ingredient his squad doesn't yet possess.
It will come -- but it will take time. Toronto FC fans have been patient to a fault with this team over the years, and more of the same is required. Nelsen now has the luxury of several seasoned leaders on the field, and it is their responsibility to pull the club into shape week in, week out.
It is far too early to judge this group. The loss was going to happen sooner or later, and given Toronto FC's record in Salt Lake it is no surprise to me it all came undone at the Rio Tinto Stadium. Let's see where this team stands when players start departing for World Cup duty before jumping to premature conclusions.
It is often said the mark of a good team is how quickly it responds to adversity. If Toronto FC is to be as good as advertised -- and make the post-season, as promised -- the reaction must be swift and decisive.
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