MLS ’11 Preview – Is Toronto the League’s Worst Team?
Team: Toronto FC
Coach: Aron Winter
Last Year’s Finish: 9-8-15, 35 points. Eastern Conference: 5th
Toronto’s offseason can be described in one word – tumultuous. The team couldn’t win the media cycle because every time it had a positive offseason development, it took a step back. They brought on Jurgen Klinsmann to serve as an advisor to management, but dragged their feat in hiring a head coach and general manager. They finally hired knowledgeable football people for both roles, then they were shocked to learn their best player was in Scotland trying to get a new contract with a new club. Everything about this team screams rebuilding, and with a vision for the club now in place, the 2011 season looks to be one of transition for the Reds.
New head coach Aron Winter and general manager Paul Mariner both have incredible soccer pedigrees, and they have immediately begun to bolster a club whose depth was decimated in the offseason. Most of their signings and trades have an international flair, no doubt to allow Winter to play a more “Dutch” kind of soccer. However, with the biggest named players engaged in contract disputes and a formerly bloated roster in transition, Toronto could fall out of the playoff race quickly and hope to avoid an early 2012 draft pick with a late season rally.
Key Roster Additions: As we speak, management is adding players, trading yesterday for forward Alan Gordon. The club gave up potential starting midfielder Nick LaBrocca, but midfield is the one area where the team has some depth. Gordon will likely start in a Winter 4-3-3, although he is not exactly an impact player. The Reds’ offseason pickups are primarily young drafted players and European retreads. Maybe the biggest name of the bunch is former Ajax academy player Javier Martina. Martina is another striker signing but one Winter hopes can lead by example with his knowledge of the system Winter hopes to install. Just one problem – Martina has never scored a club goal and has little first team experience.
Although the team was active in the Superdraft, it gave up its first pick to Vancouver for Nathan Sturgis. Although Sturgis has extensive time in the U.S. youth system, he has little actual MLS playing time and may be a depth player more than anything. In the draft, a player to watch is third round pick Joao Plata. The diminutive Ecuadorian impressed scouts at the MLS combine but his size and poor play towards the end saw his stock drop. He may be one of the surprises of the draft.
Key Roster Subtractions: The team unloaded a host of players in the offseason who were underperforming or making too much money for the cap. Recognizable players like Mista, O’Brian White, and Fuad Ibrahim were made available for the expansion draft or outright released. The Reds did make a trade in the past few weeks, sending second-leading goal scorer Chad Barrett to Los Angeles for allocation money. Even with depth lacking in the position, the team decided to go in a different direction.
Projected Starters: Assuming Winter goes with the 4-3-3, he should have a solid core of players that can work within his system. In the back, keeper Stefan Frei is a solid to good goalkeeper, and should be a strength of the defense. The backline is in chaos when it should be more solid. Team MVP Adrian Cann is renegotiating his contract after walking out of camp angry over his salary and possibly inspired by the Dwayne De Rosario tantrum. When he comes back, he will partner with Nana Attakora. The wings will be new faces, either youngsters or international players.
The midfield is the most dynamic part of this team. Stars Julian De Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario return and need to continue playing well for Toronto to make a playoff run. As we saw last year, De Rosario scoring goals will not be enough for the team, De Guzman needs to provide more help on offense. LaBrocca had been playing as a holding midfielder but his trade opens a spot for Sturgis or another player.
Newcomer Javier Martina, as mentioned above, will be relied upon for knowledge, but not experience, as a forward in Winter’s system. The experience will come from returning forward Maicon Santos, who contributed four goals last season and will need to contribute more. The third forward and the other guy out wide could be Jacob Peterson or newcomer Alan Gordon.
Player to Watch: There are two players to keep an eye on, and for very different reasons. Adrian Cann, assuming he signs a new deal and returns to camp, had his bluff called by management. How does he respond to the embarrassment and the status as a higher-paid player? The second player to watch is Maicon Santos. The Reds really need some points from their forwards, and if he is the center forward in the 4-3-3, he should have plenty of opportunities to score.
Predictions: The offseason was simply a nightmare for this team. The fans were mad at management, the players were mad at management, the management went through an entire change, and now Toronto is basically hitting the reset button. This team may be one of the more talented teams in the Eastern Conference, especially if they do sign the rumored EPL-experienced player. But there is so much dysfunction that it will take more than a few months to work it all out and put a quality product on the field. At least they will be exciting – the leadership and brain trust on staff are excellent and will bring an attacking style of soccer to BMO Field. I can see this club acting like some European clubs who, seeing that they would be just wasting money staying in the top flight, go down a division, regroup and refinance, and come back stronger. Toronto will take their lumps this year, but if all goes all planned they may be one of the Eastern Conference favorites in 2012.
Prediction: 8th place Eastern Conference