Toronto FC are set to launch on Saturday night. All of the player moves, press conferences, promises, rumours, speculation are no longer important. Toronto FC, the soccer team, gets put to the test for real at the Home Depot Centre in Los Angeles.
On paper, Sir Mo has delivered the goods. He has brought Toronto some of the biggest names and talents in MLS - as big as you can expect for an expansion side I would suggest. He has made a meal out of the MLS rule book, with some clever transactions, making some existing GM's look like fools in the process (i.e. Real Salt Lake during the expansion draft). Although, Toronto wasn't able to bring home any of the top, starting Canadian national team members, a smattering of good local players are on the roster including Jim Brennan. The young Canadian talent, nearly all local GTA products, is perhaps what excites me the most on a personal level. Toronto also includes an interesting crop of foreign talent that fills in the roster nicely. From a solid core of Americans, to some interesting talent from the United Kingdom, South America, Africa - and even a Kiwi.
The onus for success on the field has been placed squarely on Sir Mo. MLSE Executives Tom Anselmi, Richard Peddie, Bob Hunter, and even TFC's own Paul Beirne, have distanced themselves from the on-field product. All the MLSE guys tend to divert questions about soccer operations to good old Mo (rightfully so, its his job). I will suggest it goes beyond that though. MLSE understand the Toronto sports fan better than anyone else. They understand we can be an extremely demanding bunch of whiners. Mo will be the scapegoat if the on-field product doesn't live up to the expectations of the fan base. At a minimum, TFC has to be competitive, and entertaining in order to satisfy the knowledgeable, and diverse soccer community here.
As a long time observer of MLS, I am excited about Mo's chances of meeting the aforementioned objectives this year. Am I expecting a repeat of the 1998 Chicago Fire? Of course not. Yet a playoff birth should be attainable. In my opinion, success will be determined by how well Toronto FC deals with the following three considerations:
(1) Injuries - Already an issue, Toronto features several delicate players, who have suffered major injuries over the last few years. From Greg Sutton through striker Conor Casey, injuries have been an issue with many of the players on the roster at every position. Hopefully the injuries in pre-season and the recent announcement about Ronnie O'Brien are not an indication of what we should expect for the next 7 months.
(2) Cohesiveness - How long will it take for this team to come together and gel as a unit is a big x factor. Wheeler- dealer Mo, continues to shuffle players, and has said he isn't finished. Mo must bring together many personalities, some that may not fit well. This will naturally take some time. At the end of the day, lets hope he doesn't have the same player management problems he had in New York during his short tenure.
(3) Depth - This goes hand in hand with the injury situation of course. Toronto is a team that will lose players to the Gold Cup, the World Under 20 tournament, European Cup Qualifying, perhaps even Copa America. Will there be enough depth to carry the team through those lean times?
The Chivas Match:
GAME 1: CHIVAS
The most interesting thing about the on field match up, is how familiar the respective coaching staffs are with each other. Preki the Chivas USA coach, one of the greatest talents to ever play in MLS, was coached by TFC assistant Bob Gansler for many years in Kansas City, where Mo Johnston was also a mainstay in the midfield. The links go even further back than the Wizards and MLS. Johnston and Preki were teammates during the 1993-94 season with Everton in the Premiership. Their respective coaching careers have also taken similar paths. Johnston, served as an understudy to Bob Bradley in New York for several years before taking over for Bradley near the end of the 2005 season. Preki also served as an understudy to Bob Bradley, albeit only for the 2006 season with Chivas.
Several Chivas players will also be very familiar to the Toronto FC coaching staff. Jason Hernandez, Ante Razov, David Arvizu, and Amado Guevara played for Johnston in New York, while Romanian defender Alex Zotinica played for Gansler in KC.
Chivas USA is coming off their best season to date in 2006. They will be a team noticeably absent of the quantity of Mexican names it has featured during its first three years of existence.
The most notable players to depart, are high profile Mexican veteran attackers Juan Francisco Palencia, and young gun Juan Pablo Garcia. Defender Tim Regan was a key loss in the back, when he was picked up by Toronto in the expansion draft (since traded to New York). Chivas will also be missing 2006 rookie sensation Jonathan Bornstein, who earned himself a spot on the US National team, and a cap this winter. Bornstein suffered a very serious injury while in the National team camp. High profile American International John O'Brien, a starter for Ajax in Holland for many years, was also a Chivas USA player last year, yet a serious injury and World Cup duty limited him to 15 minutes of action. He was released in the off-season. Losing Head Coach Bob Bradley to the US National team was also a huge loss this off-season.
KEEPERS: American keeper Brad Guzan was thrown into the fire during his rookie year, with the expansion Chivas USA, and has developed into an emerging MLS talent. The idea originally was for Guzan to serve as an understudy to Chivas legend Martin Zuniga- yet an injury ended his career in California early and Guzan has held the reigns ever since.
DEFENDERS: This area is anchored by Mexican legend Claudio Suarez - a player that should be very familiar with most long time Toronto area and Canadian soccer fans. Suarez who will be amongst the oldest players in the league, was respected enough last year to be selected to the Mexican World Cup team in Germany. Another veteran former US International Carlos Llamosa, an American originally from Colombia (he was working at the World Trade Centre when it was attacked in 1993) also brings valuable experience to Chivas - though injuries have slowed his career. Jason Hernandez and recently acquired Romanian Alex Zotinica are solid MLS players as well.
MIDFIELD: On his day, Honduran Amado Guevara is arguably the most talented player in the entire league at his position, bar none. He is joined by Jesse Marsch one of the longest serving MLS veterans, he served as a very important cog in Chivas success last season. Marsch was a mainstay on the Chicago Fire since their inception and has won MLS Championships in both Chicago and DC . Mexican mainstay Francisco Mendoza has emerged as the best of the original lot of the Mexican imports. I really like Mendoza, I think he is a quality player.
FORWARDS: Up top, former US International Ante Razov redeemed himself with a strong 2006. Cuban Maykel Galindo, who might be familiar to local fans of the USL and Lynx, was signed in the off season from Seattle. Galindo brings with him a very good reputation. Draft pick and Youth International, John Cunliffe from England, has been receiving good reviews.
My Prediction: Toronto 2 - Chivas 2
ENJOY THE SEASON FOLKS - WE THE LONG TIME SUFFERING TORONTO SOCCER COMMUNITY SURELY DESERVE IT!!! ENJOY THE RIDE!!!