Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An Interview with Pat Phelan

Pat Phelan is new to Toronto, the rookie was drafted by TFC in the first round of the 2008 MLS Superdraft by Mo Johnston, 10th overall. Pat was kind enough to speak to Come On You Reds about what his experience has been like so far in Toronto, and many other topics in this interview.

I read somewhere that you received offers to play in Europe before the draft. Is this true? And if so, what made you choose the MLS instead?

-I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go over to Europe after the draft to see what it could offer me. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t too great because the transfer window for most teams closed at the end of January. I was only able to trial with a Danish First Division club. The situation there wasn’t a good fit for me and I figured that Toronto would be a great place to begin my professional career so I came back to MLS.

You've now been in Toronto for a while, what have you learned about the city that you didn't know when you were drafted?

-I didn’t know much about Toronto at all before I came here. I visited here when I was younger but didn’t remember much, except that it was very cold. I knew that the city closely resembled many European cities and that it was an ethnically diverse city. I didn’t realize how expensive it was but I know now. I had heard about the fans and the passion they have for the club but it’s something you really have to experience in person. The atmosphere is the best in MLS by far.

You were named the Gatorade High School player of the year in 2003, how did this award impact you as a player?

-It’s always nice to win awards but for me, that award was special because it not only acknowledged my athletic achievements but also recognized my work in the community and my academic accomplishments. It let me know that I was on the right track not only as a player but as a person too. One of the perks of winning the award was a trip to the ESPY awards in Hollywood where I got to meet former FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah which was an honor to say the least.

You played at Wake Forest where you had a very successful college career, how do you feel the NCAA compares to other development leagues and systems, and do you feel it prepared you for the MLS?

-It’s tough to gauge the NCAA to other development leagues and systems since I wasn’t really a part of any others but I felt that the NCAA did a good job in preparing me to be a professional. Wake Forest is very difficult academically so I really have to balance my time between athletics and academics. It helped a lot with time management and prioritizing. It’s very nice not to have to worry about school anymore; now I can focus completely on becoming a better player. I also felt like I was very lucky to have played under such a great coach in Jay Vidovich. In the past couple years he has helped produce a number of players in MLS like Michael Parkhurst, Will Hesmer, Scott Sealy, and Brian Carroll (to name a few). The program he has built was a perfect environment for me and my development.

What is your preferred position as a player?

-I would have to say I’m most comfortable at center back, although I’m becoming more and more comfortable as a holding midfielder. I spent some time at right back in college and in training here in Toronto. At this point I’m just trying to become a complete player since we will be losing a lot of guys for the Olympics and other international duties. I want to be able to step in wherever I’m needed.

Many players have complained to me about field turf, what are your feelings when it comes to playing on it?

-To be honest I’ve never really liked it. I’m still pretty young so I don’t feel the soreness as much like a lot of older players do. It’s nice that the surface never really gets worn down or damaged like a grass field can. It does, however, produce some unexpected bounces and I feel like striking the ball on turf takes a different kind of technique as opposed to grass. I’ve also had some trouble with the ball sticking to my feet on turf but I don’t want to blame that on the surface. It is what it is, we just have to deal with it and try and play.

You have yet to step on the field in a game for Toronto FC. How do you deal with the change from the NCAA, where you were a integral part to your team, to the MLS where you are a rookie waiting his turn on a contender?

-It’s obviously a bit frustrating but it’s the nature of the professional game. Although I’ve never been on a team where I haven’t been a consistent starter, I realize that I will have to pay my dues and work hard to prove that I deserve to be on the field. Experience is crucial in the professional ranks so I understand that the older and more experienced players will most likely play more than I will. Having said that, it’s my job to make sure that the players who are playing in front of me deserve to be out there and I will do my best to make it very difficult for them to keep their spots.

Is there a player that takes the role of leader in the locker room, and lets the team know when they need to perform better?

-Obviously Jim Brennan is our captain and the vocal leader of the team. He isn’t the only one though; we have several veterans (like Tyrone Marshall, Carl Robinson, Danny Dichio, and Greg Sutton) who know when it is time to speak up and let the team know when things need to get better.

John Carver was hired at the beginning of this season and I have personally received nothing but great reviews from players about him. How has he impacted you as a player?

-JC has been a fantastic addition to the club in my opinion. He has a created a very professional atmosphere and really pays attention to detail trying to do things the right way. He is very committed to the development of the younger players and does a good job of making all the players feel like they are part of the team regardless of whether or not they play a lot of minutes. What I like most about him as a coach is that everything he does is done for a reason; everything has a purpose which helps to keep me focused on what I need to do to get better and help the team perform well.

How did the team mentality change once Rohan Ricketts, Laurent Robert and Amado Guevara were added to the team? Did you notice a change in the confidence level of the team?

-There was a 2 week period or so where the team wasn’t really a team. Within a couple weeks we released Boyens, Samuel, and Hemming, and signed Ricketts, Guevara, Robert, and Tebily. It was kind of strange to have so much movement within the team in such a short period of time but once the roster was set and we started to get a feel of everyone the team’s confidence shot through the roof. Although the future of the team was a little uncertain at the beginning of the season things have leveled out considerable. Now we’re very confident and learning to play well together.

Which player has helped you the most while with TFC?

-At this point I would have to say Carl Robinson. He’s a very down to earth individual and always has great advice for the younger players. He’s made my transition into MLS much easier than I thought it would be.

Going forward, what are your personal goals as a player, and how do you see this season shaping out for Toronto FC?

-My personal goals are to keep improving everyday and to be prepared to step into any situation at any given time. As a rookie I know I’m not guaranteed anything so when my opportunity does come I have to be ready. While the season started out on a rough note, the past few games have given the team, and the fans, a lot of confidence. I think it has helped being at home and the new additions to the team have obviously had a significant impact. I think it’s important for the team to avoid becoming complacent with our performance. As JC says all the time, “don’t think we’ve cracked it.” We need to keep working hard each day and try to get better in every training session. I’ve very excited about the future of the team and I think this season will be a dramatic change from last season. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Maurice Edu, where are you?

This was supposed to be the year that Maurice Edu asserted himself as one America’s top young players. With some European clubs circling like vultures, waiting to snatch up the midfielder at the end of last season, it looked like Maurice Edu’s career in North America was going to be short-lived. He had just come off a season capped by a rookie-of-the-year award, a season in which he was a rare bright spot on an otherwise dark Toronto squad. Edu consistently put in solid performances for the Reds, showing his versatility with his defensive and offensive game throughout the season. However, we are now five games into the 2008 season, and I find myself asking one question.

Maurice Edu, where are you?

There’s no denying that Edu has talent, but the Maurice Edu we have seen early on this season is simply not good enough. Yes, we all saw Edu’s fantastic looping header over Zach Wells. It was definitely a touch of excellence from the young American. However, the DC game was lost in the first five minutes, and Edu’s header, which snuck in just before the final whistle, was meaningless. Before that, as in Columbus, Edu was not on his game.

In both Columbus and Washington, Edu was surrounded by an ineffective team that could barely push the ball up the field without losing possession. It was a tough situation for the talented American, who most likely believed he would yet again have the team on his shoulders this season.

In 2007, Edu had carried the team on his shoulders; he was the heart of a Toronto midfield in the absence of Ronnie O’Brien. Edu controlled the middle of the pitch with his ability to track back, and then quickly push up field to become an attacking midfielder, allowing him to score four goals for the club. He was an integral part of both the offensive and defensive sides of TFC’s strategy, and this flexibility was what intrigued so many fans, coaches and clubs, with Edu receiving high praise around the league. A considerable amount of respect came from opposing teams; invitations arrived to train with Aston Villa, he was voted rookie of the year, and a cap with the United States Men’s National Team went in the books. In 2008, this version of Edu has yet to show up on the pitch for Toronto FC, and the rest of the team has clearly improved since the team’s dreadful start, while Edu has not.

In the season opener, Edu looked overwhelmed at times. He was seen by the corner flag, at the top of the box, and by his own goal; he looked lost. With the ball at his feet, he often tried to do too much, and was dispossessed easily. He was no worse than the rest of the squad. However, this was supposed to be Edu’s team, and when the final whistle blew in Columbus, Edu had done little to help Toronto’s cause. In TFC’s third game, on the west coast against Los Angeles, Edu had another average performance. He did nothing detrimental to the team, but the stand-out player we routinely watched last season was no longer there. Again, Edu looked lost at times, unsure of what role he was supposed to play. However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Help, in the form of multiple additions to the midfield, had arrived for Edu. Logically, one would have expected improvement in Edu over the coming weeks.

In TFC’s first two games at home, Edu has continued to be average. It’s possible to forget he’s playing, as he disappears for large chunks of the game. He will, at times, provide a pin-point cross, or make a winding run towards goal, but these moments are infrequent. It’s difficult to understand exactly why this happens with Edu. He is surrounded by one of the best, if not the best, midfields in the league. He has a plethora of space down the middle, which when combined with this ability on the ball and overall skill level, should equal solid performances game-in and game-out. Unfortunately, this just has not been the case for Edu, as the momentary flashes of brilliance are quickly forgotten when Edu again becomes the invisible man. Against Kansas City, Edu put in a poor performance, rarely making a contribution to the team. He seems to have trouble linking with his teammates, and he looks lost roaming the middle of the pitch. Edu seems stuck between the two roles he played last season, trying to make a contribution at both ends of the pitch, but not succeeding at either. It’s tough to watch.

So why has Edu struggled in the early part of this season? Were we expecting far too much from the midfielder, still in only his second season? Or has Edu fallen into the ever deadly sophomore slump, which has trapped so many athletes before? It’s hard to say. Edu has not been horrible, let’s make that clear. However, I think we can all agree that Maurice Edu has not been himself. The reigning rookie-of-the-year still has a great future ahead of him, but at this point Edu looks far from the type of player expected to abandon ship for a career overseas. We’re all expecting more, and given his talent, our expectations are not unreasonable, but when will we see the return of the Maurice Edu that we know and love?

Wonderful Welshman
Edu’s partner, Carl Robinson, put in an absolutely fantastic performance against Kansas City yesterday. The Welshman, who will finally not be played out of position, has been fantastic since Mo Johnston added to the midfield. As a defensive midfielder, Robinson has done an incredible job in almost every aspect of his game, controlling the play from the back. His distribution was topnotch against KC, acting as a bridge between the back line and the midfield, while his tackling was done with precision. He never wandered up front like he so often had early on in the season, thanks to the fact that Robinson can play his favoured position. He has been nothing short of extraordinary recently, and these quality performances will go a long way in sending TFC straight into the playoffs.

Match Ratings – Starting XI
Greg Sutton – 10 – If you have a clean sheet, you get a 10 from me.

Marvell Wynne – 9 – Wynne was fantastic yesterday, tracking back and making multiple incredible tackles, while also making a significant impact offensively with his pace.

Tyrone Marshall – 8.5 – When a defender is invisible for most of the game, he’s done a good job. He was solid yet again for TFC

Marco Velez – 7 - The passionate defender is improving every game while he adjusts to the level of play in this league. He made a couple of mistakes at the back, but he played a solid game for the Reds at the back.

Jimmy Brennan – 8 - I thought he did a good job on the left side, while also collapsing into the middle when support was needed. It was a smart and clean game from Brennan.

Laurent Robert – 7 – People have to understand that Robert is not going to make winding runs like Ricketts of Guevara. His contribution will come through controlling the pace of play, off set pieces, and delivering accurate crosses into the box. He was okay against Kansas City.

Maurice Edu – 6 - I barely noticed him

Rohan Ricketts – 8 – delivered a few beautiful balls in, and was very dangerous for much of the game. His ability to run at defenders and switch feet (as he said before when I talked to him) gives him an extra string on the ball, making him a handful for defenders.

Amado Guevara – 9 – Fantastic performance scoring two goals for TFC, very dangerous with the ball at his feet.

Carl Robinson – 9.5 – My man of the match, fantastic performance.

Danny Dichio – 6.5 – I thought it did a poor job of controlling the play up front, and had trouble linking up with Guevara. Toronto needs to sit Dichio, and bring in a player with pace up front. There were multiple opportunities where a quick footed player would have capitalized on balls that were sent up front.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Toronto FC entered the league with a bang, and took the league by storm; off the field. The sell-out crowds were well documented; it was something that was seldom seen in North America. People spoke of a passionate crowd that may not have invoked fear in opponents, but certainly rattled many away teams as they entered the field. The fans stood behind their team no matter what, win lose or draw. It was something commonly seen across Europe, a place where the beautiful game features prominently in the lives of a large portion of the population. Europe is a place where the adrenaline rushes, not only because of the on-field product, but because of the atmosphere that surrounds a field that is dwarfed by tens of thousands of supporters. For 90 minutes, nothing mattered to the fans at BMO Field except how their beloved team performed. Now, after a long and tumultuous first season where Toronto FC finished at the bottom of the table, along with an off-season that may have been the cause of random acts of violence across Toronto, the fans of Toronto FC are ready to pack the stands of BMO Field yet again. This time, however, they might actually have reason to sing right into the playoffs.

Patience seems to be something that many people lack in their lives. The saying that “good things come to those who wait” is often pushed under the rug in life, as well as in the sporting world. Rebuilding phases are avoided by many franchises, as the “win now” mentality has spread from the fans right into the front offices of many teams. This was no doubt the case, when it comes to the fans, this summer in Toronto. The lack of quality additions to an already poor team brought about calls for Mo Johnston’s head, as Toronto FC was torn apart in the media and by the fans. Multiple trialists came through; they were hastily let in and then thrown out almost as quickly. It drove fans crazy. The first game was slowly approaching, and some people jumped to conclusions, while others took a more logical approach, and saw that help would in fact be on the way. They knew that it would be just a matter of time.

The season started off disappointingly, as 2500+ fans traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to watch the season opener. The expectations were low; however the fans were still out in full voice. “To see 2500 fans travel down to Columbus for the opener...that was fantastic. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed,” said Todd Dunivant.

When the final whistle blew, a massive sigh of displeasure could be heard across Crew Stadium. Toronto FC had lost, 2-0, and with no new additions in sight, the Reds were in trouble. More fuel had been added to the fire, and the optimists were becoming harder to find.

Toronto then traveled to Washington DC, along with a few hardcore fans, only to get destroyed by DC United. The 4-1 loss was one of the worst displays in the short history of the club. Hardly any positives could be taken from this thrashing, except for one thing. The addition of Frenchman Laurent Robert, whose quality was evident throughout the entire first half, in the form of multiple pin-point crosses and dangerous runs. Nevertheless, Toronto fans remained relatively reserved. The excitement over the club’s biggest-ever signing brought about joy within the fan-base, but they knew that more help would have to arrive, and soon.

Well, Toronto FC will play their home opener this Saturday, and most people will agree that support has indeed arrived.

The signings of Rohan Ricketts, Amado Guevara and the previously mentioned Laurent Robert have given Toronto one of the better midfields in the league. Two of Toronto’s newest faces were on the pitch last weekend, when the Reds clawed their way to a 3-2 win over the LA Galaxy. It was a match played in harsh conditions, as an almost unbearable heat had swept over Los Angeles. The well-trained Reds from Toronto were clearly fit, which is a testament to Paul Winsper, Toronto FC’s fitness guru, and coach John Carver. When the season reaches its conclusion, the fans may look back at the 2008 season and agree that Carver may have indeed been the most significant addition to the team.

Defender Todd Dunivant speaks very highly of Carver, and was happy to comment on how Carver has influenced the team this season. “JC has been great for us...he's instilled a work ethic in the team that will pay dividends, game in, game out. He wants us to press and make the other team uncomfortable. Our passing has improved. We work on that every day. He's as fair a coach as I've ever had. He gives you plenty of credit when it's due, and he lays down the hammer when he needs to. He won't let you get away with laziness or taking even a single play off. That type of mentality will be huge for us, and it will translate into a lot of success.”

Carver has helped change Toronto FC in a considerable way since that depressing March day in Columbus. What was then a team that struggled to move the ball forward is now a team that plays a new brand of football. The win in Los Angeles was evidence of this.

“I think the biggest difference in the LA game was how we approached it. We went in there looking for a result and played accordingly. On the road, it takes a different mentality and mindset to come away with points, and we had that against LA,” said Dunivant. “We defended as a team and were opportunistic with our chances. That's a winning formula on the road.”

The new additions to the team have given Toronto a giant boost, especially Amado Guevara, who played with Dunivant in New York. “Amado was phenomenal in his first game. He met us in LA, practiced with the team on Saturday, and played on Sunday. So there wasn't much time to prepare, but with a player like Amado he calms things down on the field and does a great job of keeping possession for us. He is that attacking player that we've been looking for.”

As a fan, you look at what Todd Dunivant has said, and wonder. What might Amado Guevara be able to do when he gets comfortable with the team that surrounds him? Excuse me while I attempt to wipe the enormous smile off of my face. I think he might do well, very well.

Laurent Robert also made a significant impact for the Reds in Los Angeles. He may not be match fit, however his ability to create chances off of set pieces contributed to TFC’s win. “Robert adds a nice little dimension to the team, with his left foot (I'm biased there) and free kicks. You saw that against LA on our second goal,” says Dunivant.

That goal was Jarrod Smith’s first career MLS goal. Smith is one of a handful of rookies who could potentially make an impact with the first team this season, along with Julius James, Pat Phelan and Brian Edwards. According to Todd, “All of the rookies have been exceptional.” Even though Smith impressed in LA, he may not start. Rohan Ricketts is looking to make his debut, in Smith’s place, for the Reds this weekend, now that he finally has his papers sorted out. Ricketts is a player with dynamic pace, and the ability to change a game with his skill on the ball. Link him up with Marvell Wynne, and watch something special happen. We’ll all be watching in anticipation this weekend.

This Saturday will be the beginning of another season at BMO Field, and Todd Dunivant wanted to make sure that we as fans understand how much of a difference we make. When asked whether or not fans matter, Dunivant said “Does fan support matter? It's huge! What player wouldn't want to play in front of a sold out crowd every week. And not only that, it's a knowledgeable crowd. They are loud. They make it uncomfortable for the opposition. And they make it fun for us. Who wouldn't love that!”

I think it’s pretty clear that we do matter.

Toronto’s opponent this Saturday will be Real Salt Lake, a team that has exceeded many people’s expectations early on this season. Thanks to some fantastic performances by team leader Kyle Beckerman, who has scored two goals, RSL is coming north of the border with a 1-1-1 record, most recently defeating DC United 4-0. This will not be a walk in the park for TFC, but I have confidence that a win will be celebrated this weekend. What a difference three weeks makes!

The patience looks to have finally paid off.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rohan Ricketts Signs with TFC

First it was Laurent Robert, then it was Amado Guevara, and now you can add Rohan Ricketts to the list of newly-signed Toronto FC players. The official announcement came down today, but the deal became official on April 9, a day that could soon be remembered as the day that changed the club.

“Yeah, it’s a two-year deal,” said Ricketts, a right-sided midfielder who most recently played for Barnsley in the Coca-Cola Championship. Other terms were not released. This is Ricketts’ first move out of England, where he has spent his entire life. He will join a desperate Toronto squad that was most recently torn apart in the American capital; it’s a game that the club and its fans would soon like to forget. Ricketts, who has been capped for England’s U21’s, has been with six teams in his short career. However, this does not reflect his obvious quality as a player. He was once one of the more highly-touted young players in England, with Sven Goran Eriksson singling him out as one to watch.

Ricketts started out playing football at a young age, and by the time he was 10, he was playing in Arsenal’s youth system, which Rohan himself describes as “the best”. Ricketts would play under Arsenal’s watchful eye for his entire childhood, until he was given the opportunity he had been looking for. “I was eighteen years old, and I had only made one appearance for the first team. It was frustrating because we had such a good youth team, but you couldn’t see any of us getting a chance, a fair chance.” This sparked interest from around England, as there was no doubting Ricketts’ skill, but who would give him the playing time he needed?

“I knew of Tottenham’s interest, through an agent, and then I had to just manifest my way out of Arsenal,” said Ricketts, who would get out of Arsenal just as he had wished. This could be seen as one of the rarest moves in modern-day football, a move between bitter rivals, as Ricketts would join only three other players who had made the move from Arsenal to Tottenham.

While with Tottenham, Ricketts would meet Glen Hoddle, a man for whom Ricketts has the utmost respect. Hoddle can now be found speaking highly of Ricketts, wherever he goes. “Massive” is how Ricketts first described Hoddle’s impact on his career. “He helped me get into the actual industry at a certain level (first team). He was the first person to really give me a chance. I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Unfortunately for Ricketts, Hoddle would be sacked six matches into his stay with Spurs and, says Ricketts, “The guy who took over after, we didn’t really get along.” He would stay at Tottenham for two years, where he made 30 appearances. In the final month of Ricketts’ second season, he was loaned to Wolverhampton, where he would be reunited with manager Glen Hoddle. Ricketts would score one goal for Wolves, and play very well under Hoddle yet again. Wolverhampton was quick to show interest in Ricketts, as his contract with Tottenham came up for renewal at the end of his loan. The winger was faced with multiple offers from the Premiership, but would decide to stay where he felt comfortable, with Hoddle influencing his decision quite a bit. “I just knew that Glen liked me and he believed in me.” There is no doubting that Hoddle has had a significant impact on Ricketts’ career, with him telling me that as fans we really don’t understand how much of an impact a manager can actually have on a player’s career.

In 2007, Ricketts would sign with Barnsley, a team that Ricketts was glad to join. “When I got to the club, I was excited. I had had a really good preseason, and I was very optimistic.” Ricketts impressed both fans and coaches with his early play; however a major road block lay ahead for the young Londoner. He would injure himself, and sit for two months, a lay-off that severely altered his chances of returning to the starting eleven.

At first, the team did not play well, and a shake-up ensued. Ricketts would be moved from his familiar spot on the right flank to a more central role. However, the injury bug would again catch up with Ricketts, and he was forced out of the lineup for a considerable amount of time. Barnsley would, in the absence of Ricketts, go on a successful run in which they gained points in almost every match. The starting eleven was set, and Ricketts could not force his way back into the lineup, while attempts to go on loan were shot down as well. Ricketts had become a frustrated man, and who could blame him?

This frustration has, however, been a blessing for Toronto FC and its fans. After the trade of Ronnie O’Brien to San Jose, the Reds were severely in need of a right-sided player to fill the hole that had been left by O’Brien. John Carver and Mo Johnston would approach Ricketts’ agent, and they had found the right man. When he was approached, Ricketts had to think long and hard about the offer, but in the end Ricketts decided, “It may be far, but it’s football.” He was coming to Toronto on a trial.

The formerly disgruntled, but now ecstatic, midfielder had been given a chance to play the game he so dearly loves, football. The MLS intrigued Ricketts, who sees it as one of the fastest growing leagues in the world. When asked if his move to Canada was meant to simply act as a launching pad back to Europe, Ricketts was quick to express his interest in being a part of the growth of the league. He has no plans to jet off for Europe any time soon, and it sounded like he was looking to connect with the fans quite a bit.

The Skittles Man, who is a naturally two-footed player, will be featured on the right side. His versatility, however, should give defenders nightmares. “I can go either way,” said Ricketts, “It gives me an extra string on the ball.”

Ricketts’ ability to attack fullbacks with either his right or left foot, along with his wicked pace, gives him the ability to cause havoc for defenders. Add to that the fact that Ricketts is looking forward to linking up with Marvell Wynne, and you have one of the fastest and most dynamic right sides in the league. The Reds now also boast an impressive midfield that can lay claim to some of the leagues biggest names, thanks to the additions of Ricketts, Robert, and Guevara. It is almost night and day, when comparing the clubs opening day lineup to the one that will now attempt to give the fans their first win of 2008 in Los Angeles this weekend.

There is no doubting that Ricketts is impressed with Toronto. He speaks highly of the city and cannot wait to get out and explore it. He also seems at ease with the club, and in particular he speaks highly of Toronto FC coach John Carver, who was instrumental in bringing him over from England. “John seems like a really, really good coach…It’s been really refreshing, a coach telling me to play football the right way.”

“I’m naturally gifted, I’ve got pace, trickery as well…and I’d like to add some goals and assists as well,” said Ricketts, while sipping on his Gatorade. “I’ve got goals in me, and I’ve always been someone that wants to assist someone.” That to me is refreshing to hear.

Toronto FC’s newest addition will join Toronto on the flight down to Los Angeles on Friday, and when asked if he would be starting, Ricketts was quick to say, “I assume so, I mean I should be.”

And if he starts, and scores, look for Ricketts to be wearing a particularly personal shirt, one with which many people will be familiar. Welcome to Toronto FC, Rohan!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rohan Ricketts Interview Coming Tomorrow

An interview with Rohan Ricketts will be up tomorrow.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

MLS All-Stars vs West Ham

West Ham United is coming to BMO Field. The press release from Toronto FC has started to circulate around the Internet, making what was suspected for quite a while now official. The London based club, who currently sit 10th in the Barclays Premier League, will take on Major League Soccer's best in the annual All Star Game on July 24th.

There are going to be many questions raised over the next few weeks, as to why West Ham is being brought in. Many fans expected a big name club to be featured, with Chelsea and Celtic being the previous two opponents of the Major League Soccer's best, which is a primary reason for the widespread disappointment. West Ham is a massive step down from the rumoured opponents that were being thrown around early in the off-season, with Liverpool having been made front runners, along with other top European club teams. Fans were looking forward to seeing Steven Gerrard, Franck Ribéry, or Ruud Van Nistelrooy at BMO Field this summer; however they will be watching the likes of Craig Bellamy, Dean Ashton and Fredrik Ljungberg. Still quality players, yes, but nowhere near the quality of those names previously mentioned. West Ham simply does not have the "wow factor" that is associated with other European teams, and that is what has fans disappointed.

You really only have to look at the official press release to see that there were very few positives to write about, with the 4th paragraph saying this "West Ham United features one of soccer’s most recognizable jerseys, with the claret body and sky blue sleeves." Wow, jerseys, nice. Is that going to be one of the major selling points? I guess they had run out of good things to write about, and it was only the 4th paragraph.

One interesting point to look at is this. How can an expansion side, Toronto FC, take on Aston Villa and Benfica in friendlies, yet the league cannot schedule a match with an opponent for the All Stars that is considered better than either Benfica or Aston Villa? This is supposed to be a showcase for the growth and quality of this league, yet it seems to be a step backwards to me. I think we can all agree that Benfica is a more well known team than West Ham, with a larger global fan base, and that Aston Villa are of the same quality or even better than the Hammers.

So why is it West Ham? The league is not trying to purposely screw us over, which means that there are reasons for the choice. Here are a couple problems that may have factored into the lack of quality teams knocking on Major League Soccer's door.

- The turf at BMO Field

The last two venues (Toyota Park and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park) to host the All Star Game have featured natural grass pitches. These were also the two venues that brought in arguably the best opposition in Celtic and Chelsea. Almost everyone has complained about the poor quality of the artificial turf at BMO Field, and it could have easily scared away many top teams from risking their player’s health in a meaningless cash grab.

- Euro 2008

The tournament that will crown Europe's best team, which takes place from June 7th to June 29th, may have played a factor in scaring away better teams. The tournament will only have finished around a month before the All Star Game, and we all know how serious teams have become when it comes to resting their top players for the upcoming season. West Ham can only lay claim to one player, Freddie Ljungberg, who will be playing in the tournament this summer. Luis Boa Morte could also be gone, playing for Portugal, but he is not as sure a bet as Ljungberg. The rest of the squad is, well, pretty much English, which should be no problem, considering the fact that England will be watching the tournament from home this year. Other top club teams with rosters that feature some of Europe’s best players, may have labeled the trip to Toronto as too much of a risk and hassle to deal with.

Who knows if either of those two issues did indeed play a factor in West Ham being named the opponent for the 2008 MLS All Star Game? This is all just speculation from someone who does not have any inside knowledge of the decision making. However both seem like valid reasons why a more prestigious team was not chosen. Maybe we will never know why, but if Don Garber or anyone from MLSE says West Ham was always are first choice, well maybe they were the best option.

Overall, it is hard to not be disappointed with this news. Very few people were sitting in their homes, praying that West Ham would be named the opponent for the 2008 All Star team. However no one can deny the fact that we will still see a very good game, and in the end, isn’t that all that really matters?