Canadian MLS teams look to take the next step
Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver kick off 2017 season this weekend
How do you follow that?
2016 was, on the whole, a banner year for Canadian clubs in Major League Soccer. Toronto FC became the first non-American team in league history to reach MLS Cup after beating their bitter rivals, the Montreal Impact, to get there.
Question is: can they steal the show again this year?
Here's how the 2017 MLS season, which kicks off this weekend, may pan out for Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Unfinished business for TFC
So near and yet so far.
TFC is doing its best to forget the way 2016 ended. It's looking forward, albeit with a giant-sized chip on its shoulder.
Despite the huge letdown in the showpiece itself, where TFC lost on penalty kicks on its home field to Seattle, the club would do well to remember and learn from what it did well last year.
In truth, 2016 was the year Toronto FC finally came of age. It was, for the most part, competitive, compact, and confident — a combination rarely seen in previous seasons. It managed to overcome injuries and the absences of key players and still get the job done.
Success comes with a price tag. Every player I've spoken to in pre-season acknowledges TFC enters 2017 with a big target on its back. Opponents will raise their game, eager to take down one of the richest, star-studded franchises in MLS. Toronto will have to be better than last year merely to keep the chasing pack at bay.
The big hitters must lead that improvement. The goal production of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore is pivotal while the dual role of defensive cover and initiating offence provided by Michael Bradley is no less important. The x-factor could be the arrival of Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, whose experience and technical ability will give the club a new dimension.
There can be no excuses in 2017. There is no prolonged road trip to start the season. There are no long-term injuries, or a new coaching staff to mitigate a dodgy start.
This club cannot return to the bad old days of mediocrity and irrelevance. The long-suffering fans will not tolerate it. They have glimpsed the promised land and now expect their heroes to take that final step.
Montreal must keep growing
Professional athletes are no different from the rest of us in at least one respect: they, too, must learn from their mistakes and move on. History cannot be rewritten, but it can contribute to a successful future.
The Montreal Impact has had three months to accept, ponder and learn from those lessons. The bitter taste of defeat to its archrival in the 2016 Eastern Conference final should serve as a stark reminder that a wounded animal must be killed off when the opportunity presents itself.
Otherwise the portents are positive. The Impact has proved beyond a reasonable doubt it has a roster capable of delving deep into the playoffs, and a head coach who is more than just an ex-player who is close friends with the franchise owner.
Mauro Biello has shown he is very much his own man. To his immense credit he dealt with the Didier Drogba controversy and still managed to produce a winning team. That distraction is no longer a factor and Biello and his staff can now focus on players who want to be in Montreal.
Continuity, with the right group, is almost always one of the core ingredients of success. Impact MVP Ignacio Piatti quickly developed an understanding with Matteo Mancuso in the latter half of 2016 and if the pair can pick up where they left off in the playoffs the goals will flow.
Professional sport affords little room for sentiment. That's a role for the fans, and in Montreal they know the clock is ticking for one of their own. Patrice Bernier will retire at the end of 2017, completing a journey that began in his hometown at the turn of the century. The North Star bell will ring in his honour and few would begrudge him the chance to exit on a winning note.
'Caps must hit the reset button
It has to be a source of concern when, entering a new season, there are more questions than answers. What happened to Vancouver in 2016? Will the new recruits be able to stop the rot? And how long will the coach be given to turn the ship around?
It is little more than a year since the Whitecaps were Canadian champions and runners-up in the MLS Western Conference. But its best season was followed by its worst since expansion. While Toronto and Montreal were fighting for a place in the MLS Cup, Canada's only Western franchise was licking its wounds.
Head Coach Carl Robinson knows things need to change, and probably quickly. After cutting ties with captain and top goal scorer Pedro Morales, he's brought in Freddy Montero, a proven goal scorer, and U.S. international Brek Shea, who can provide the ammunition. The return of Mauro Rosales adds quality in midfield, but at 36 the Argentine's influence can only be a short-term remedy.
It is imperative the Whitecaps get away to a good start. That will build confidence on and off the field. The players need to get into good habits and the fans need to be encouraged by what they're paying to watch. The initial objective must be to calm the nerves and not allow supporters' anxiety to spill over from last season.
If the Whitecaps can start enjoying their football again, the game will suddenly become a lot easier. And that means the coach will be able to sleep at night.