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.

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