Saturday, January 26, 2008

Will Toronto Find Scoring Up Front?

When Danny Dichio turned at the top of the box, his right foot swinging towards the south end, and struck a perfect chip into the back of the net, bedlam ensued. The timing was perfect, 92 minutes had dragged on in Toronto's season finale, and it had looked like the fans would again go home unhappy. Going home unhappy was nothing new for Toronto FC fans, as their team, which had burst onto the Toronto sports scene with packed stadiums and crazy fans, had just been through a depressing and long expansion season on the field. Dichio's goal was special, because well, it was just that, a goal. Goals were hard to come by in 2007, with the Reds scoring only 25 goals throughout the season. Fans continually went home from BMO Field, or from the pubs, after watching their beloved team struggle to register a single tally. Toronto was bad up front, and that may be an understatement, and with the 2008 season creeping up on TFC, the biggest question mark remains on our strikers, and what they will be able to do, if anything, this season.

Jeff Cunningham and Danny Dichio are expected to be Toronto's strike force up front again this season, with no rumoured moves on the horizon. Mo Johnston obviously believes that this pair, dubbed Fast and Furious, can get the job done, but there are many reasons to doubt the Scottish coach. Cunningham is coming off a season that can be described as an utter failure, as he struggled to find the back of the net in his 16 appearances for the Reds. Fans will remember Cunningham blowing one on one situations with the goalkeeper, numerous times. The pacey forward is a proven striker in MLS, his name is known league-wide, but if you ask Toronto fans what they think of him, then you may receive mixed responses. Many fans point to the missed chances, the strike rate, and his lack of hustle, and tell you that he should be traded. They see no reason to keep him. Other fans will point to his injuries, which followed him throughout the year, and tell you that he deserves a second chance. Cunningham became famous after doing an interview with OurTFC, where Cunningham revealed that he had an ice pack located on his groin even though he was outside the stadium. He also had undergone surgery during the season, to repair a sports hernia that had been nagging him throughout the season. Both sides make valid arguments, with reasons to side with either. However, if Cunningham is back and healthy this season, there should be no reason why he should not regain his ability to score 16 goals, just like he did in 2006. Injuries are major problems in sports, and there is no doubt that Cunningham's injuries hampered his season. If there is one thing that I have learned watching sports, then it's that you should never give up on someone like Cunningham after a season like last year, when his past is as good as it is.

When you ask fans for their opinions on Danny Dichio, you will be hard pressed to find any hate aimed towards the almost legendary Torotno striker. After arriving from England, Dichio earned the respect of TFC fans after a certain goal was scored. This goal will go down in history, as it was the first goal scored in the teams history. And although Dichio finished the season as the clubs top scorer, Dichio was also injured, playing hurt throughout most of the season. After coming off a large chunk of a season overseas, Dichio started to break down by mid season. When he was healthy, he was a dominant physical force, with defenders having to pull and drag him down to control him. He started to gain respect as the season went along, and the clutching and grabbing subsided as the respect increased. A healthy, rested, and passionate Dichio will do wonders for Toronto this season, and his impact should only grow with the insertion of players like Ronnie O'Brien, who's ability to deliver pinpoint crosses into the box should benefit Dichio significantly. The fact is, that no one can control Dichio, and with a proper team surrounding him, his impact can be huge. There is no reason to believe that Dichio cannot score 10-15 goals in this league, and when you pair his ability with Cunningham's, then you have what can be one of the most dangerous striking partnerships in the league.

The problem with Toronto up front, is their lack of depth off the bench. Toronto does not have that player that can step in and give them goals in 30 minutes. Joe Lapira could be that man, but resting that role on a rookie could be a bad idea, especially when it is unknown whether the Irish international will even play in North America. Andrea Lombardo and Collin Samuel are the two other options off of the bench, with both being unreliable and poor stikers based on last years performances. Samuel should be gone, one of the only mistakes Johnston made and did not correct quickly came in the form of signing Samuel from Scotland. Lombardo is a different case, with the Canadian U-20 striker being thrown to the wolves this season. An immense amount of pressure was put on the former member of Italian side Atalanta, and his performances lacked productivity. Countless opportunities were given to Lombardo, however they were always wasted. I'm on the fence with Lombardo in terms of what I believe he can become. He shows moments, where you sit back and say "this kid can be a solid contributor", and then there are times when you can see why his short lived career ended in Europe, and you wonder whether he can ever gain the ability to find the back of the net. Time will tell if Lombardo can make his presence felt on the field, and time is what he needs. However time is not what Toronto has, and the search for that back up striker continues, outside of the organization.

With the Chicago Fire having depth up front, Toronto could try to pry away Chris Rolfe or Chad Barrett from the Fire in exchange for picks or allocation money. Another option for Toronto could be to trade their DP spot to the Fire, who are known to be looking for one. The addition of Justin Maap to a deal involving Barrett, would be a no doubter in my opinion. If a deal could not be worked out with Chicago, Toronto could look elsewhere for that much needed spark off the bench.

Toronto is in good shape up front, and should crush the the memories of last season. However this sense of comfort will only become certain with the addition of another striker, the last piece to an important part of Toronto FC's puzzle. A reliance on Samuel and Lombardo will not do, but Mo knows that, and he will address this issue in my opinion. When he makes this addition, Toronto fans should go into next season oozing with confidence. Hopefully moments like Dichio's magical last minute strike will be the norm next season, and Toronto will become a force to be reckoned with. A sense of uncertainty may still be associated with our strikers in many peoples eyes, but I am confident that that uncertainty will be gone as the season begins. Toronto will find scoring up front, and in bunches.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In Mo We Trust

After one season as Toronto FC's coach, Mo Johnston has received a great deal of criticism throughout Toronto's large fan base. After guiding the expansion side to a last place finish, fans called for Johnston's head, and demanded he be fired. However if you are in this group, I ask that you rethink your feelings, or at least give some thought to changing your mind.

When the season started, Mo Johnston was already at a disadvantage. Johnston had to fill out his roster with mediocre Canadian players, and not by choice. The players who we would criticize, like Adam Braz, Marco Reda and Miguel Canizalez, are prime examples of Canadian players who probably would not have been on this team, had Johnston's hand not been forced. The one thing that Toronto FC lacked last season was depth on the bench, and it was these bench spots that were filled by the mediocre Canadian players. If Johnston were given an American team, he would have been able to fill those positions with proven MLS players, because the majority of the league is American. With very few Canadian MLS players available, and the MLS not being the most attractive league in the world. Johnston was forced to look in Scandinavia, Montreal, and the lower levels of German football. It is not Johnston's fault that European based players do not want to play in this league, and it is not his fault that he must "help improve the Canadian game", by inserting players who will never develop into impact players for our national team. Johnston is not responsible for Braz, Reda and Canizalez being on our team, the MLS is. With the league loosening its roster restrictions, we will hopefully see more quality on this team.

When it came to building this team with non-Canadian players, Johnston did a very good job. His first major move came with the drafting of Maurice Edu, a player who's impact was larger than anyone expected. Edu stepped into the first team and never looked back, displaying his quality game after game for the Reds. With his next pick, Johnston drafted Andrew Boyens, a player who is often overlooked by fans. As a rookie, Boyens did an admirable job. His performances may not have been stellar, as he made many rookie mistakes, but he showed flashes of a solid defender who can start in this league. Patience needs to be a part of the game when developing players, and not everyone can step in right away and make an impact. Johnston also grabbed Tyler Hemming with the 40th pick in the draft. By the end of the season, Hemming had become and important bench player for TFC, and his solid play earned him praise from fans and management. A player like Hemming is an integral part to a team, and Mo found a very good player in the late rounds of the draft. Not much talent is usually found with the 40th pick, but Hemming looks like a keeper.

Johnston was also able to fill out the rest of his roster with quality players, and was able to get rid of players before problems arose. Conor Casey, Alecko Eskandarian, Jose Cancela and Richard Mulrooney were all brought in, but quickly shipped out. None of these players had a large impact with their next team, and Johnston did well to let them go quickly.

Ronnie O'Brien came into Toronto with big expectations. The Irishman was hailed as the best right sided player in the MLS by Johnston, and he did not disappoint. O'Brien put in fantastic performances for the team, until he went down with injuries. A healthy O'Brien gave Toronto an amazing right sided player, who could set up the attack with his fantastic crosses, pace, and dribbling ability. Having him out of the lineup left a huge whole on the right hand side, and his presence was severely missed. O'Brien is our all star, and when you loose your star your team's quality will deteriorate. O'Brien's presence next season will give Toronto a huge boost, and Toronto fans will finally be able to give praise to Ronnie with a proper chant.

Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham were two strikers brought in to play up front for Toronto FC. Dichio came in, and lets face it, people had no idea who this guy was. However, Mo knew exactly what he was getting. A leader on and off the pitch, who gave it his all game in and game out. He also brought toughness and skill, displaying both in memorable moments throughout the season. Johnston found a gem in Dichio, who was also injured throughout most of the season. When he was healthy, defenders could not control the huge target man. Dichio also lost important service in the form of O'Brien, who should help add to Dichio's already legendary status in Toronto when he is healthy for an entire season. Cunningham was stolen from Salt Lake, however something followed him too. Injuries. One of MLS' all time leading goal scorers,Cunningham was walking around with ice on his crotch off the field, and went through significant pain and surgery with Toronto. His performance was severely hindered because of injuries, and a healthy Cunningham should do wonders for Toronto's attack next season.

Mo also brought in two solid defenders, for very little. Marvell Wynne and Todd Dunivant are polar opposites when it comes to playing style, but are similar when it comes to quality. Both were brought into Toronto and made immediate impacts, with Wynne gaining attention from the USMNT and Dunivant turning in solid performance after solid performance. Johnston knows how to spot talent, and he did in Dunivant and Wynne.

Tyron Marshall may not be my, our your favourite player, but his addition was needed last season. Edson Buddle wanted out, and was playing poorly. Johnston needed defensive depth, and picked the physical defender. Marshall may not have been the best pick up, but his impact can be viewed as the same as Buddle. Toronto was trading for positions, and added where they needed help. They needed help in the first place, because of the restrictions that were forced on the team's roster.

Two mistakes, that must be admitted, are Andy Welsh and Collin Samuel. Welsh was not cut out for this league, but Mo got rid of him quickly, and he is no longer a part of our team. Samuel was not as much of a failure, but he still did a very poor job when he entered lineup. A terrible strike rate goes along with a questionable work ethic, and you have to admit that Mo made a mistake. There are some who say that Samuel can bounce back, I don't buy it, but if he were to, it would only add to the argument in favour of Mo. Managers are going to make mistakes, and he made two. One was let go, and the other has stayed. We'll see what becomes of Samuel.

Jim Brennan and Carl Robinson were two key pickups that Johnston made. Brennan was brought in, and became MVP of the team. Very good choice by Mo. Robinson came in, and in my mind was meant to step in as the midfield general. However, Edu grew as a player, and Robinson took a backseat to the rookie. Robbo still turned in sold performances in almost every single game, with only his salary hanging over him as criticism. His role and impact would have fit his salary, had Edu not been so damn good, and please raise your hand if you thought Edu would be as good as he was.

Also, don't forget the fact that we were an expansion team. If you are not familiar with the success of expansion teams throughout history, then check the record books. You're going to find something very similar about their first seasons.

Now we get down to tactics, where Mo is often hit the hardest. I strongly believe that Mo should move up into the press box, and run the team as a general manager. His talent evaluating skills are very good, and his skills would best be suited up top. However, some of the criticism that Mo faces is unfair, as his formations and tactics were messed with once injuries started to pile up. When Mo had a healthy lineup to work with, the team worked pretty damn well. We displayed that with the team that Mo wanted on the pitch, we were very solid. These are the games that we should look at when evaluating Mo. Injuries are a part of the game, but what we had to deal with was extreme and heavily influenced by factors outside of Johnston's control. When you compare the good, to the bad, the good clearly comes out on top. I for one, feel very comfortable with him running our team, which is why I have no fear in saying. In Mo We Trust.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Toronto FC adds 5 new players

It took long enough, but Toronto FC finally acquired five new players this week through the MLS Superdraft, after months of absolutely nothing. The selection of Julius James came as the biggest surprise to fans and Mo Johnston, as the three time Big East defender of the year was projected to be a top 3 pick throughout the months leading up to the draft. James, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is known to be an athletic freak, with the jumping ability of a basketball player, and is also known as a leader at the back. The impact of James should be felt immediately, as he may have been the most polished player in the draft, with the ability to step into the first team right away. However teams seemed to pass over James in favour of Generation Adidas players, who don't count against the salary cap. When teams look back on this day, they may wish they had chosen James, who now has something to prove to the eight teams that passed over him.

Patrick Phelan, who was Toronto's 10th pick in the Superdraft, comes to Toronto with less hype, but that doesn't mean that his impact will not be felt. The first team All American, who is blessed with a great soccer mind, could end up being another steal for the Reds. Throughout his NCAA career, Phelan was considered one of the top defenders in the country, with his solid play game after game for Wake Forest. Many scouts praised him for his work rate and ability to read the game like no other player in the draft. If you believe what some scouts say, Phelan could end up being better than James, and that is some pretty high praise for the 23 year old defender.

With their next selection, Toronto selected Brian Edwards, a GK from Wake Forest. Edwards, who made first-team All-ACC, came into the draft as one of the better goalkeepers on offer, after posting 13 shutouts, and a solid 0.50 GAA with the Deamon Deacons. Johnston went into the draft knowing that their depth at the GK position was thin, with Kenny Stamatopoulos back in Norway. In an interview before the draft, Johnston stated that the Reds were close to adding one more goalkeeper, with Josh Wagaaner being the rumoured addition. However with the addition of Edwards, one has to wonder what will become of Toronto's GK situation next year, as many scouts felt that Edwards would have the ability to see action this year.

Joseph Lapira and Mike Zaher were Johnston's final two selections on draft day, with Lapira catching the most attention. The 2006 Hermann Trophy winner came into the draft as one of the most highly touted players, but after showing an interest in Europe, teams were scared away. Johnston has taken a chance that he can lure Lapira back to Toronto, where his ability to find the back of the net would be welcomed. The Notre Dame star finished 2006 with 22 goals, and was considered one of the most dangerous players in the country. Standing at 5'8, there were scouts who say he doesn't have the physical ability to become a force up front, but you will be hard pressed to find anyone complaining in Toronto if Johnston can use his connections, and bring in Lapira for the 2008 season. Zaher, who was UCLA's second leading scorer last season, plays right back and was a two time first-team All-Pac 10 player. Roster restrictions could push him out of the picture, but he could also be deemed valuable by Johnston, who may keep him for depth when players like Marvell Wynne are away on international duty.

Now that the draft is over, Johnston will turn his focus to adding more players to his roster via trades and signings. It is hard to know what Ginger-Mo will actually add to this team, but after the draft it is clear that the Reds defensive depth has improved significantly. An attacking midfielder will probably be high on Johnston's list, along with players to play on either flank. However the hole that was open on the left, may now have been filled by Jim Brennan. James and Phelan are two players who can step in and play CB next season, which could mean that Brennan will move to add some respectability to a side of BMO that was tarnished last season by Andy Welsh. Brennan was a left sided midfielder throughout his career, and has a wicked left foot. This would give Toronto two points of delivery into the box, where the ever dangerous target man Danny Dichio would be waiting to pounce on any opportunity.

The team is slowly coming together, and as March 29th approaches the excitement is starting to build. With the additions of James and Phelan, Toronto has added two players who will most likely receive chants within a couple games, because their impact will be noticed almost immediately. However if Mo Johnston wants Toronto fans to be signing into the playoffs, Toronto will need to add more quality to this team, especially up front. It's been a long winter, and we are still waiting Mo.