Is this the year? After two seasons of futility, can Toronto FC finally break through and reach the playoffs for the first time?
Major League Soccer's 2009 regular season kicks off this week and Toronto will be looking to improve on its 9-13-8 record from a year ago, when it stumbled to last place in the Eastern Conference.
The off-season brought a couple of big changes to the Canadian club, most notably the arrival of Dwayne De Rosario, a native of Toronto's Scarborough district and long considered one of the best and most creative players in the league.
With Toronto FC set to open the new season Saturday on the road against the Kansas City Wizards, CBCSports.ca breaks down the third-year franchise in several major categories, and predicts how the league's only Canadian team will fare in 2009.
- 2008 regular season: 9-13-8, 35 points (7th in Eastern Conference)
- 2008 playoffs: Didn't qualify
- Key arrivals: Defenders Adrian Serioux, Emmanuel Gomez and Amadou Sanyang; midfielder Dwayne De Rosario; forward Pablo Vitti
- Draft picks: Goalkeeper Stefan Frei; midfielder Sam Cronin; forward O'Brian White
- Key departures: Defenders Todd Dunivant, Tyrone Marshall and Julius James; forward Jarrod Smith
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP FOR 2009
- (GK) Greg Sutton; (D) Jim Brennan, Adrian Serioux, Kevin Harmse, Marvell Wynne; (M) Carl Robinson, Amado Guevara, Dwayne De Rosario, Rohan Ricketts: (F) Pablo Vitti, Chad Barrett
Greg Sutton missed most of the 2007 season because of a concussion suffered while playing for the Canadian national team but he rebounded with a respectable 2008 campaign that saw him post a 7-10-7 record in 24 games with a 1.46 goals-against average and six shutouts.
Sutton's stellar play didn't lead to any kind of job security, though. Toronto FC has three shot-stoppers on the roster after the club used the No. 13 overall pick in January's college draft to select Stefan Frei from the University of California at Berkeley.
Frei, 22, and 24-year-old Brian Edwards, Toronto's backup last season, will be looking to challenge Sutton for the team's No. 1 goalkeeper position in 2009. Sutton, 31, said he takes it all in stride and welcomes the opportunity to have to earn the starting goalkeeper's job.
"It's great. Any time you have competition, it brings out the best in yourself. Every year there's competition, not just this year. There's been competition my entire life," Sutton recently told CBCSports.ca.
"It's something that's normal in a professional atmosphere … so bringing in new talent is good for us."
Toronto coach John Carver said Sutton is not a lock to start in net and he expects "healthy competition" among the three goalkeepers.
Still, even though Frei looks to have a great career ahead of him, it's hard to see him or Edwards as the No. 1 goalkeeper, as neither can match Sutton's experience.
What's more, Edwards might not even last the season in Toronto - Frei is classified as a Generation adidas player and does not count against the salary cap, which means the team could trade Edwards to free up some valuable cap space.
Bluntly stated, Toronto lacks depth at the back. Once you get past captain and left-back Jim Brennan, central defender Adrian Serioux and right-back Marvell Wynne, the quality of defensive options available drops off drastically.
Last season, Toronto's central defensive pairing of Tyrone Marshall and Marco Velez was dreadful, and their inept partnership was a major reason Toronto allowed 43 goals, one of the worst defensive records in the league.
That was enough to make coach Carver and general manager Mo Johnston both publicly proclaim that the team's No. 1 priority in the winter was to reshape the centre of the defence.
Toronto traded Marshall to Seattle Sounders FC in early February and then, a few weeks later, made a smart move when it acquired Serioux in a deal with FC Dallas.
Serioux is renowned for his physical, tough-tackling style of play, as well as his fearlessness on the field, and he is a welcome addition to the Toronto FC roster.
But he alone isn't the answer to the team's defensive problems.
Although he does play in the centre of defence for the Canadian national team (and he routinely played there during his time in Dallas), Serioux's natural position is defensive midfielder, and he needs to be playing alongside a more experienced central defender to be effective.
What Toronto needs is another experienced, veteran centre-back to work in tandem with Serioux. A defensive general and organizer in the mould of Franco Baresi or Tony Adams.
Toronto can't rely on Serioux to anchor the defence alongside Velez (who is a defensive liability), nor can the team expect him to hold things down while playing alongside Kevin Harmse or youngster Nana Attakora-Gyan.
Velez, Harmse and Gyan are not starters, they're late-game substitutes (at best). They're players who can come on in the final minutes of the game, or be used in an emergency when the regular starters are injured, suspended or away on international duty.
The same can be said of Gambian teenagers Emmanuel Gomez and Amadou Sanyang, two recent additions.
For the first time since entering the league in 2007, Toronto FC has real depth in midfield thanks to the arrival of hometown boy Dwayne De Rosario.
His importance can't be overstated, as the veteran playmaker was the offensive engine that powered the Houston Dynamo to league championships in 2006 and 2007.
"I'm looking forward to bringing my experience and my winning ways here to Toronto," De Rosario said. "I know they have huge fan support and I'm coming here to do the business to help Toronto first make the playoffs and potentially win a championship."
An explosive attacker who can break a game wide open with his creative genius, De Rosario brings a touch of class to Toronto's midfield and he's also the type of player who helps make his teammates better.
His greatest asset, perhaps, is his versatility - he can play either in the centre of midfield, out on the left wing, or up front as a secondary striker.
"He's a fantastic goal-scorer," stated Carver. "When the games are tight he can open teams up and that's what we need."
De Rosario joins a midfield core that includes Englishman Rohan Ricketts (who is due for a breakout campaign after a mediocre 2008 campaign), and Welshman Carl Robinson and Honduran livewire Amado Guevara, who combined to form one of the best central midfield partnerships in the MLS last season.
Toronto also expects big things from centre midfielder Sam Cronin, selected second overall in January's draft. The Wake Forest University product is a combative and tough player who gives the team some grit, and he can expect to see significant playing time.
Carver believes that having so many quality options will push the players to vigorously compete for the two starting positions in centre midfield.
"If you look at Carl Robinson and Amado Guevara, who were two of our best players [last season], and now we're bringing in [De Rosario] and a top young kid [Cronin] from the draft, it puts pressure on everybody and that's what you want," Carver explained.
Look for De Rosario to play on the left side of midfield (but be given creative licence to drift in towards the middle), as well as in the hole just behind the main forward. By slotting him in these two positions, Carver can keep the Robinson-Guevara duo intact in the centre.
Aside from sporting a porous defensive record last season, Toronto also "boasted" the league's second-worst offence - the Canadian club scored just 34 goals in 30 games.
Part of the problem was that a series of injury problems, player movements and international absences forced coach Carver to constantly tinker with his starting forward lineup.
Veteran Danny Dichio led the team in scoring with a meagre five goals, even though he missed a large portion of the season due to injuries. Fellow forward Chad Barrett, a mid-season pickup in a trade with the Chicago Fire, bagged four goals in 13 appearances, but also squandered countless scoring chances.
As a result, reinforcements were brought in during the off-season, and for the first time in club history it can honestly be said that Toronto will be dangerous when going forward.
Toronto took a bit of a chance by signing forward Pablo Vitti on loan from Buenos Aeries club Independiente. The 23-year-old hasn't exactly lived up to his promise while playing in his home country, but Vitti looked pretty good in the pre-season, and Toronto believes the speedy Argentine is hungry and ready to take the MLS by storm.
Vitti used the pre-season to form a working partnership with Barrett, and the two appeared to develop some chemistry. Barrett will no doubt benefit from playing with Vitti, who is bound to draw defenders out of position with his speed and deft touch on the ball, thus opening up space and creating scoring chances for the stocky forward.
Barrett showed a lot of spark last season, but was dogged by fitness issues. If he can manage to last the full 90 minutes this year, and be a more clinical finisher in front of the net, he could become an effective partner for Vitti.
The aforementioned De Rosario can also play up front and contribute goals, Dichio will again try to use his size and physical style to bully opposing defenders, and youngster Fuad Ibrahim looks set to have a breakout season after showing a lot of promise in his rookie year.
The 2009 MLS season has the potential to be a memorable one for Toronto FC and its passionate supporters who fill the 21,000-seat BMO Field for every home game.
Dwayne De Rosario has given the club a shot in the arm and with the talented Canadian star in the lineup, Toronto can only improve on the field and attack opposing teams with great verve and creativity.
There's been a great buzz in the pre-season training sessions, as the players know that this is the strongest the team has looked since joining the league in 2007, and that will give them the confidence to seriously challenge and push even the toughest opponents on any given day.
After an up-and-down first season, coach John Carver appears to have settled into life in the MLS. He's promised to lay off the officials (who were often the target of his post-game rants last season), he continues to have the respect of the entire locker-room and he has a better handle on how to juggle his lineup and deal with international absences.
The centre of defence still poses cause for concern, though, and GM Mo Johnston would be well advised to sign an experienced centre-back soon. The team would also be in trouble if it loses any of its starting defenders to injury, as its overall defensive depth leaves a lot to be desired.
That being said, Toronto FC made significant improvements in the off-season to mount a serious challenge in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference and qualify for the playoffs.
Anything less would be a major disappointment.