Playoffs or bust for TFC? Bet on bust
Toronto fans can expect another season of heartache
A few new players, a new coach, a brand new natural grass surface at BMO Field and a new season.
But will 2010 bring different results for Toronto FC?
The Reds kick off the new Major League Soccer campaign Saturday against the hometown Columbus Crew, a game that could mark the Canadian club's first step toward clinching its first-ever playoff berth.
Hope always springs eternal at the start of the season, but it would be foolish to be too optimistic about the club's chances this year.
New coach Preki has been dealt a bum hand by general manager Mo Johnston, who, as in previous years, is scrambling to fill out his roster and assemble a full team in the final days before the season's debut.
Toronto FC has only 15 healthy players on the roster — 11 starters and four on the substitutes' bench. The team's lack of depth is a big problem and raises serious questions about Preki's ability to field a competitive starting line-up, especially in the long term.
Here's a breakdown of the 2010 edition of Toronto FC:
Toronto has little to worry about between the posts.
Fully healthy again after succumbing to injury late last season, Stefan Frei is ready to build on his sensational 2009 campaign (when he was a finalist for the MLS rookie-of-the-year award) and establish himself as one of the elite goalkeepers in the league.
Frei played with a maturity and confidence level well beyond his 23 years of age in 2009, winning praise for his superb shot-blocking technique and the way he effectively organized his defence.
Preki has already tabbed Frei as his starting goalkeeper this year, but that doesn't mean Frei is taking anything for granted. He admits there are plenty of areas in his game that he needs to improve — mainly, his ability to come out effectively and cut off crosses into the box.
"When I came into the league, this was all new to me, so it was harder for me to adapt. Now I know what I'm getting myself into," the Swiss net custodian said. "That doesn't mean I can ease up. I still have to work hard and improve and earn my spot, and get better every week."
So Frei is the team's No. 1 goalkeeper. But who will be No. 2?
The job will fall to MLS veteran Jon Conway, after the club released former back-up Brian Edwards on Friday. Toronto announced it signed Conway, who was put on waivers by Chivas USA earlier this week, to a contract Friday afternoon.
"Mo told me this morning that I wasn't in [coach] Preki's plans," Edwards told CBCSports.ca. "I guess we didn't see eye-to-eye. He didn't give me a lot of games in the pre-season, so it's not that surprising.
"The move is fine with me. I was hoping for a good, fresh start somewhere else anyway, but I don't necessarily agree with them waiting until the day before the season starts to do it, which they chose to do. But it's time for me to move on."
This is one of two major problem areas for the club.
With a disturbing propensity for being breached late in games (turning wins into ties and ties into losses) Toronto's defence was the third-worst in the MLS in 2009, conceding a whopping 46 goals. Shockingly, the team's back-line didn't improve in the off-season. If anything, it's worse.
Canadian Adrian Serioux was traded to the Houston Dynamo earlier this month, leaving the error-prone and slow Nick Garcia to team up with newcomer Ty Harden in the middle. It's a partnership that shouldn't inspire confidence in TFC fans — Harden is inexperienced and Garcia is, frankly, a defensive liability.
Also, captain and left-back Jim Brennan is coming off a sub par season, and much more will be expected of him in 2010. He's a threat going forward down the wing, but there remain serious doubts about his ability to defend.
Nana Attakora was one of the bright spots for the club last season, the 20-year-old prospect winning plaudits for his polished and precise performances in the centre of defence. But with the recent trade of Marvell Wynne to the Colorado Rapids, expect Attakora to play at right-back — something he did a few times capably last season, but it's not his best position.
Can much be expected of 17-year-old rookie Zac Herold, the club's top draft pick?
Gambian teenager Emmanuel Gomez showed promise last season, but he's nursing a knee injury and could be sidelined for a long time. Countryman Amadou Sanyang also showed flashes of brilliance in 2009, but he's still a developing talent.
It's no secret that what this team needs is a quality and experienced centre-back, a veteran defender who has been around the league and can quarterback the defence and organize the troops, in the same fashion that Franco Baresi did for so many years at AC Milan.
To an outside observer, it's clear that the defence has to be retooled. Worryingly, Preki doesn't see it that way, believing only a few minor tweaks are needed.
"I do think we have a good group [of defenders] and we're trying to add to the group," the coach stated. "As of now, I don't have any complaints because they're working pretty hard and if you saw us in the pre-season, we only had one game where I think we were lethargic and came out not ready to play."
All eyes will be on Julian de Guzman in 2010, and for good reason.
The Canadian midfielder became the team's first-ever designated player when he signed a muti-year, multimillion-dollar deal last September. With TFC now lacking central midfielder Carl Robinson (traded to New York) and playmaker Amado Guevara (who the club didn't re-sign), it'll be up to de Guzman to orchestrate the attack for the Reds in the middle of the park.
A superb two-way player who possesses sublime distribution skills, de Guzman has the potential to become the best midfielder in the league. If he can surge forward more often and chip in with some goals, there's no telling how far he'll go in the MLS.
He failed to make an impact last season after joining the team late in the campaign. This year, he has no excuses. He has to produce the goods on a weekly basis.
Lucky for de Guzman, he has some talented teammates to work with in midfield, including Sam Cronin, who is coming off a strong rookie season where he showed great versatility and maturity. Newcomer Nick LaBrocca, a solid young prospect, will likely take over the holding midfield position from the departed Robinson, allowing de Guzman to focus on the more creative side of his game.
Winger Jacob Peterson was acquired in a trade with Colorado in January with the hope that he could provide some width to the team's attack — something that was sorely missing last season. But the Michigan native is still recovering from injury and isn't expected to be ready to play until mid-April at the earliest.
Dwayne de Rosario remains the heartbeat of this team.
The hometown hero was Toronto's best player last season, scoring a team-high 11 goals and setting up teammates with countless scoring opportunities. Dero is a tireless worker who runs himself ragged on game day, but he's not just a workhorse — the Canadian international boasts great technical skill and is a deft playmaker, as well as a proven goal-scorer.
With Guevara gone, he'll have to take on a bit more of the creative work in midfield, but that's a role he appears to be perfectly suited for. If things go according to plan, he and de Guzman could form one of the most dynamic and threatening midfield partnerships in the league.
Ever since entering the league in 2007, Toronto FC has been in dire need of a standout forward — a proven scorer who is capable of bagging 15 to 20 goals a season.
TFC fans are still waiting for such a player to arrive at BMO Field. Like defence, this is another major problem area for the club, thanks to a threadbare collection of quality, proven strikers.
Chad Barrett is still recovering from injury and, according to Preki, the earliest he'll return to action is mid-April. Even when he does come back, Barrett has a lot to prove - noted for his work ethic, he possesses a distinct lack of finishing in front of the goal and is the type of forward who needs six or seven scoring chances in a game before he can put one away.
With Barrett watching from the sidelines, sophomore O'Brian White will carry the scoring burden on his shoulders in the early part of the season. White had a respectable rookie campaign after missing most of the season because of injury, scoring two goals in nine appearances.
But it's a daunting challenge that he now faces as the club's No. 1 forward. Is he up for it? Preki thinks so.
"He's very coachable, he listens, he wants to get better — those are the guys you want to around, because at some point you know that he's going to become good," Preki said.
Preki will also have to rely on youngster Fuad Ibrahim, who has failed to make a big impact in two seasons with Toronto.
One player who Preki won't be calling on is Ali Gerba. Earlier this week, the Toronto coach revealed he will not use Gerba for the coming season, which effectively brings the forward's tenure with the team to an abrupt end.
"We evaluated as a staff for five weeks in pre-season and we felt that we need a different type of player here," Preki said when asked to explain his decision.
With Gerba gone, Barrett injured, White still finding his way and Ibrahim a non-factor, who will score the goals this season for Toronto?
The responsibility will fall upon De Rosario, who can play up front, even though he's much more effective as an attacking midfielder. Still, he can't do it all by himself.
Toronto will finish ahead of the expansion Philadelphia Union, but a top-two finish in the Eastern Conference (and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it) is a pipe dream.
Can the club improve on its fifth-place showing from a year ago and make a push for the post-season? Don't bet on it, not with the current roster of players, anyway.
If Johnston can make some moves and trades and bring in a proven scorer and an experienced central defender — and do it fairly soon — Toronto will have a chance to contend for a playoff berth. But until that happens, the team's glaring lack of overall depth and absence of genuine quality up front and in the middle of defence means they will struggle to win games
Toronto FC fans are a loyal bunch and have supported the team through three lean years. They deserve success. They deserve a top team on the field. In short, they deserve to see some playoff soccer.
But that won't happen in 2010. A long, dark and frustrating campaign lies ahead for the Reds, leaving their success-starved supporters to hear that all-too familiar refrain from club management at season's end:
"Maybe next year."