'Keeper of the faith

DEAN McNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

When Greg Sutton was playing minor soccer in Hamilton as a nine-year-old, he didn't allow himself to even dream that one day he could be the starting goalkeeper of a professional team just down the Queen Elizabeth Way in Toronto.

After all, he told himself, Canada was about hockey and while just about every kid on his team loved soccer they knew that the road to professional sports glory in his neighbourhood went through the hockey rink, not the local soccer pitch.

It is those kinds of memories that will go through Sutton's mind today when he takes his medical along with other hopefuls as Toronto FC kicks off its inaugural Major League Soccer season with indoor training sessions at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan.

"To be honest, I never really thought about playing professionally near home when I was a kid," the 6-foot-6 'keeper said. "You have to remember that 20 years ago soccer was not a popular sport in Canada."

A lot has happened since those days on the unmarked soccer pitches for Sutton, who will be starting his ninth season as a professional when he dons the cleats today.

He spent four on-again, off-again seasons in Major League Soccer with Chicago and Dallas before transferring to the Montreal Impact of the United Soccer Leagues, where he was a first-team all- star the past two seasons.

"I never thought that I would see the day that soccer would be the No. 1 youth sport in Canada," said Sutton, who now makes his home in Bethel, Conn. "That makes it even more exiting having a professional team of Toronto FC's magnitude ready to play."

The prospect of being on the ground floor of a new franchise is a mixed blessing because while early failure will be excused as growing pains, continued poor play quickly can turn fans into foes.

But Sutton sees the positives as Toronto gets ready for the 2007 season.

"Being a new team presents its challenges," he said. "I think it's going to be important to develop a feeling of being a success right from the first day of training camp. Being a brand new team playing in a brand new stadium and convincing fans we will be entertaining will be a real motivating factor for us."

Sutton said it also will be important not to let fan frustration become a part of the team's focus early in the season.

"We'll just have to help one another get through it," he said. "But it is also important that we do it for ourselves and our teammates as well. We know we have a good squad."

PRESSURE

As for any extra pressure he may feel being a homegrown talent on the team, Sutton said it's that kind of pressure on which he thrives.

"There is always pressure as a professional to perform to a certain level and that won't be any different in Toronto," he said. "But part of me thrives on being put in a position like this."

He knows as well that he won't be alone in that situation.

Sutton will have a bunch of Canadian-bred players in camp that will be feeling the same emotions.

He will be joined by Marco Reda of Woodbridge, Newmarket's Jim Brennan and Aurora's Chris Pozniak, among others.

"I have played with or against all of them at some point," Sutton said.

Just being a Canadian with professional experience may not be enough to get an automatic ticket to the starting lineup when the MLS season opens in April, however.

Toronto coach Mo Johnston told Canadian Press this week there are no guaranteed spots on the team.

"A lot of people, they think they've made the team and really sometimes it doesn't happen that way," he said. "Because certain guys can get traded in pre-season, certain guys want to be traded and certain guys, obviously, you're looking at picking up."

One of those pickups will be Welsh midfielder Carl Robinson, who will be signed today. It was reported in England yesterday that Robinson, 30, had been given permission by Norwich City to sign with the new MLS side.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

NAME: CHRIS POZNIAK

POSITION: DEFENDER

HEIGHT: 5-FOOT-11

BIRTHDATE: JAN. 10, 1981

HOMETOWN: AURORA

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: 2004-2006, FK HAUGESUND (NORWEGIAN FIRST DIVISION); 2001-2004, OREBRO SK (SWEDISH PREMIER); 1999-2001, TORONTO LYNX (A-LEAGUE)

NAME: GREG SUTTON

POSITION: GOALKEEPER

HEIGHT: 6-FOOT-6

BIRTHDATE: APRIL 19, 1977

HOMETOWN: HAMILTON

PRO EXPERIENCE: 2002-2006, MONTREAL (USL); 2002, FC DALLAS (MLS); 1999-2002, CHICAGO (MLS)

NAME: RONNIE O'BRIEN POSITION: MIDFIELDER

HEIGHT: 5-FOOT-10

BIRTHDATE: JAN. 5, 1979

HOMETOWN: BRAY, IRELAND

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: 2000-2006, FC DALLAS (MLS)

NAME: MARCO REDA

POSITION: DEFENDER

HEIGHT: 6-FOOT-2

BIRTHDATE: JUNE 22, 1977

HOMETOWN: WOODBRIDGE

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: 2006, SOGNDAL FOTBALL CLUB (NORWAY); 2004-05, AALBORG (DANISH SUPERLIGA); 2002-04, SOGNDAL; 1998-2002, TORONTO LYNX (A-LEAGUE)


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