Saturday, March 19, 2011

*Toronto FC Enters Awkward Adolescence


The kid's gloves are off for the rabid supporters of Toronto FC. They may have graduated from "new kids on the block", but there is still a period of growth and self-discovery they must go through before they're truly ready to take on the grown-up world. Smells like teen spirit so to speak.

    Through the first four years of their existence (the so-called "childhood" of the franchise) we watched with wide-eyed adoration as the team stumbled around, learning how to crawl (five scoreless games to start their inaugural season), then walk (winning the nearly meaningless Nutrilite Canadian Championship), learning the difference between good and bad (mostly by being bad), and eventually learning how to talk and question the world around them (hometown star Dwayne DeRosario demanding more money).

     Now entering their fifth season there is a sense of new beginnings. They've had a bit of coming of age, as they played decently through the first half of the 2010 season, only to fall apart down the stretch, and the fans are now clamouring for improvement. Welcome to the awkwardness of adolescence.

    Dutchman Aron Winter has taken over as technical director and head coach (the sixth head coach the team has seen as they enter their fifth season), and he has promised to instill a Dutch style "total football" approach, which should bode well for a team short on scoring punch. What it means is that any player on the pitch can play any position on the pitch, filling in for a team mate who gets pulled out of position, thus maintaining the team's organizational structure. It should be an improvement on last year's ketamine-laced, defence-first style.

    Defence shouldn't be a big problem, with Toronto's blue-chip goaltender Stefan Frei returning to trounce teams trying to tickle the twine. Frei was a top draft pick of TFC back in '09 and has quickly become one of the most reliable 'keepers in the MLS, and that development should continue to progress this year.

    Sticking with the theme of defence being one of the team's stronger suits, Toronto's reigning player of the year, and hometown boy, Adrian Cann is returning, along with fellow Canadian international Nana Attakora, and they should steady the centre of the defensive unit. There are still some question marks, as there are throughout the roster, with the team's response to the new system still yet to be seen, but the defensive end of Toronto's game should be one of the steadier aspects.

    The midfield has some real talent as well with American international Nathan Sturgis, and designated player Julian de Guzman being steady defensive-style midfielders, but the defense isn't going to be the issue with this team.

    The real red flag for the Reds is with scoring, and as any idiot will tell you, the point of the game is to score more goals than the other team. The loss of Chad Barrett and the disappointing Mista will only serve to hurt Toronto's attack, unless there are some pleasant surprises from some of the team's young strikers. Sometimes addition by subtraction is a winning formula. Not often, but sometimes. Maicon Santos will be asked to play a bigger role this year, and how he responds will have a ripple effect on the team's record.

    The biggest story of this season lies with the team's biggest name. Scarborough native, and team captain Dwayne DeRosario has been at odds with management since late last season. DeRo makes the (extremely valid) case that he's worth much more than the $770,000 he made last season, and believes he should be given designated player status like de Guzman, to put him in the same pay scale (in the million and a half range). Although doubling a player's pay is not that common in sports, take into account that DeRo scored thirteen of the team's 30 total goals last season, and with a far less-seasoned forward unit on the 2011 edition, you can count on that percentage rising. DeRosario is the face of the franchise, the heart of the team, and the hands-down fan favorite.

    It's no secret that Toronto FC has one of the most loyal and enthusiastic fan bases in the league, and it is safe to assume that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the team's owner, isn't exactly hard-pressed for cash. It's vital that management recognizes DeRo's importance to this squad, and to this city. Cut the crap and write the guy a cheque. This team can not afford to have it's star distracted in a year when the fans are raging for the playoffs.
    Realistic expectation dictates that the team will struggle yet again, as they are at the beginning of a rebuild, but the fans also want something to cheer for in the short-term. It's not completely out of the question to think this team can be a playoff threat. Toronto is in the midst of sports puberty, and it may take a while for their voice to drop, but with the youth on their roster, and solid leadership now at the helm, they could graduate into full-fledged adulthood sooner than later. Just expect some teenage melodrama in the meantime.

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