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TFC looks to boost scoring numbers
March 12, 2009, 7:17 AM
Filed under: Toronto FC

The offseason shopping list for Toronto FC was pretty straightforward. Given that TFC finished second-to-last in goals scored (34) in 2008 and were victimized by 13 goals allowed in the final 15 minutes of matches, the team needed both playmaking ability up front and some added strength on the back line, particularly at center back.

As it turned out, the Reds were able to fill both needs with players with familiar addresses. The addition of Toronto natives Dwayne De Rosario and Adrian Serioux (not to mention some other key arrivals) has many fans, pundits and team personnel feeling that TFC will be playoff-bound in 2009.

“We have some new faces, which is good and was needed,” said goalkeeper Greg Sutton. “We’ve added some depth which is a key thing in this league. The rosters are so limited that you need quality all the way through the roster and I think we have that now. We have some guys who have come back home like Dwayne and Adrian, so we’re keeping that Canadian content in line as well, which is cool. We’re all very optimistic about this season and looking forward to getting it started.”

The Reds finished with 35 points in 2008, just four points behind New York for the final spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs. The fact that New York ended up in the MLS Cup Final made TFC’s close finish even more bittersweet for the team, though it also provided confidence that if Toronto can just get its foot in the postseason door, anything can happen.

This attitude is echoed by De Rosario, who has more MLS playoff experience than the rest of the Toronto roster combined. The 30-year-old midfielder has won four MLS Cups in his career (two each with San Jose and Houston) and was named the MLS Cup MVP in both 2001 and 2007. Though he’s going from the perennially contending Dynamo to a team that has never been to the playoffs before, De Rosario isn’t prepared to begin settling.

“My mentality hasn’t changed, no matter who I play with,” De Rosario said. “I want to win a championship first and foremost, and obviously making the playoffs is the first step. Our expectation has to be to make the playoffs and win a championship or else you’re in the wrong field.”

The De Rosario trade (which sent second-year defender Julius James and an allocation fee to Houston) was the most high-profile move of a busy winter for the Reds. TFC also picked up striker Pablo Vitti on a loan deal from Independiente of Argentina’s Primera Division, and sent a 2010 MLS SuperDraft first round pick and allocation money to FC Dallas in exchange for Serioux on Feb. 24.

Between those newcomers, Gambian defenders Emmanuel Gomez and Amadou Sanyang, and highly-regarded 2009 SuperDraft prospects Sam Cronin (No. 2 overall), O’Brien White (No. 4) and Stefan Frei (No. 13), the Toronto roster has had more arrivals than departures as the team heads into 2009.

The more players the better, as far as head coach John Carver is concerned. TFC went into several games last season missing key players who were away on international duty, and Carver said that it was crucial to find solid backups to fill those spots was crucial.

“That’s why we’ve had to add the strength in depth,” Carver said. “With one or two of the additions who have come in, certainly the draft guys, they could step up to it no problem. … The good news is, we only really get hurt [this season] when the Gold Cup comes around [in July]. Not everyone has qualified for the World Cup, so we only lose two or three players then.”

The Reds hope to be involved in an international competition of their own — the 2009-2010 CONCACAF Champions League. Toronto were beaten out for the Canadian Championship by the USL-1 Montreal Impact for the inaugural Canadian entry into the 2008-09 tournament, and then had to watch as the Impact made it all the way to the Champions League quarterfinals.

The highlight of the Impact’s Cinderella run was their home-leg quarter-final tie on Feb. 25 that drew 55,571 fans to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. TFC captain Jim Brennan said that game got the Reds, particularly the Canadians on the roster, excited about drawing a similar crowd in Toronto next February.

“We were all saying that wouldn’t it be something special if we could actually play in the Rogers Centre in front of 60,000 people,” Brennan said. “That would be a dream come true, playing for Toronto in front of that many people in the Champions League. That’s a competition we’re going to take ever so seriously this year.

“We got a taste of it last year and obviously we were disappointed that we didn’t go as far as we wanted to go. I’m really looking forward to it, I know Dwayne, Adrian, Harmsey [Kevin Harmse] and the other guys coming in know about it and they know how big a deal it is. It’s going to be tough because we have the league as well, but we do have depth so we have guys who can come in and do a job all over the park.”

The question remains to be seen if Toronto’s added depth will be enough to let the team avoid the midseason swoon that has doomed them in each of the club’s first two seasons. In 2007, it was an MLS-record goalless drought of 824 minutes. Last season it was a 3-1/2-month stretch from mid-June to early October when the team collected just one victory.

Carver believes a big reason for the team’s struggles last season were the constant roster shuffles that kept the team from establishing a solid starting XI until very late in the year. For 2009, however, most of the team’s core players were able to participate in preseason training camp, which Carver believes is perhaps the key factor in molding a team.

“Last year all of the preseason was [spent] working on the fitness. Very little time was spent working on the shape of the team or any set plays,” Carver said. “This time I’ve had the chance since I’ve had my team from the start and there’s a stable squad there. So I’ve been able to do work that I couldn’t do last year, so to be honest I think we’re further ahead than we were last year at this time. […] At this point last year I didn’t have [Rohan] Ricketts, [Amado] Guevara, [Chad] Barrett, Vitti, Cronin … the good thing is I’ve got those guys from the start now because preseason is a very important time.

“I’ll use Chad Barrett as an example. Chad came to us [in July 2008] and he was playing catch-up all along but we couldn’t work on his fitness and give him extra fitness work because he had to play in games. Whereas with this season he’s been with us from day one of the preseason so his condition in particular is better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Barrett scored four goals in 13 starts for TFC after joining the team in a midseason deal with Chicago, and the U.S. striker will be expected to play an even bigger role as the leader of a strike force that includes Vitti and fan favorite Danny Dichio.

The attack will be further buoyed by Guevara and De Rosario as attacking midfielders, with Ricketts providing support on the wings and both Carl Robinson and possibly rookie Cronin providing defensive back-up as a holding midfielder.

As for the back line, Brennan and U.S. international Marvell Wynne return as the fullbacks, but a question mark still remains in the middle. Serioux replaces Tyrone Marshall, who was dealt to Seattle, at one of the center back slots, but it remains to be seen who will get the most minutes in the other position. The contenders include Harmse, Marco Velez, a possible new acquisition that Carver said might still be on the way, or a young player like Gomez or 19-year-old Nana Attakora-Gyan.

Carver noted that Attakora-Gyan, in particular, had “caught his eye,” though the coach said that he gauges any young player’s playing time by their physical maturity.

“[Attakora-Gyan] has gotten bigger, stronger, fitter and he’ll be looking to put people under pressure,” Carver said. “The most important thing is can he handle it physically. … The one thing about our league that we play in is that it’s physically demanding. Players need to able to cope with that, and Nana is one certainly, as he already showed against Colorado [on Aug. 9, 2008], who can come in and make that step up.”

As for the last line of defense, Sutton will return as the incumbent starter ahead of Brian Edwards and Frei, who many pundits feel was the steal of the draft from the No. 13 position. Though Sutton has no intention of losing his role as the starter, he said he has been more than happy to aid in Frei’s development.

“As an older veteran guy you have to be a bit of a role model for [rookies] and help them make that adjustment from the college game to the pro game because it’s a big jump,” Sutton said. “There’s going to be times where the guys are going to struggle and you have to be able to help them pick themselves up. … Anytime I can do something to help them out I’m willing to do that. We’re in a great position goalkeeping-wise, we have some depth and talent there.”

With additions at every position, Toronto would appear to be on pace to make its first appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Sutton noted that after two years as a developing expansion club, the team was ready to adopt a “playoffs-or-bust” mentality in 2009.

Carver, for now, is more focused on the development of his team towards that postseason destination rather than the destination itself.

“The first goal is to stop conceding goals late in games, to win more games on the road. I think our home performances and results were very good, that needs to continue,” Carver said. “But then individuals have individual goals as well, and we’ll set team goals as the season goes on. We’ll set a point total that we need to achieve by a certain point in time and that’ll be split into thirds; the first part of the season, the middle and the end.”

“From the first season to the second season there was a 10-point improvement. … Everybody is talking about playoffs, but if I get the same progress as last year then that’ll take care of itself. We’re not through building yet. I can say the club is getting stronger behind the scenes, I’ve got the staff that I want, we’re stronger on the pitch, we have stronger depth and all in all, the signs are right.”

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