Loaded up for season

Toronto FC's A.J. Gray -- one of seven Canadians expected to be on the roster -- practices at BMO...

Toronto FC's A.J. Gray -- one of seven Canadians expected to be on the roster -- practices at BMO Field for the first time yesterday. (Sun Media/Michael Peake)

DEAN McNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

The 11 Toronto FC starters and seven alternates who will take to the Home Depot Center field in Los Angeles Saturday against Chivas USA in their inaugural Major League Soccer regular season match will all have one thing in common:

They will be -- for the most part -- a mirror image of their coach, Mo Johnston.

From the moment Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. chief operating officer Tom Anselmi named Johnston head coach of the expansion club on Aug. 22 last year, the bombastic 43-year-old Scot became the face of the franchise.

It must be understood that Johnston is a bit of a square peg in the round hole that is soccer.

In a sport where preventing goals always has been paramount, Johnston reached international acclaim as a player for his ability to score goals.

NATIVE OF SCOTLAND

Johnston scored an astounding 23 goals in his rookie season in the English premiership with Watford, helping the team to an FA Cup final.

Back home in Scotland, Glasgow Celtic came calling and paid a then-record $1-million US transfer fee to sign the native son.

It was after three seasons at Celtic, however, that Johnston's penchant for the dramatic first struck.

Signed by French first division Nantes in 1987, Johnston vowed in a news conference that he "would never play in Scotland again."

Of course, less than two seasons later he was announcing a change of heart by proclaiming: "Celtic is the only club that I want to play for."

Two days after that, however, Johnston signed with hated Celtic rival Glasgow Rangers, touching off a sporting and religious firestorm by becoming the first Roman Catholic to don the blue and red in the Scottish capital.

It was a schism between Johnston and Scottish soccer fans that could never be closed, eventually giving way to his emigration to North America and Major League Soccer.

And Johnston brought his never-back-down, always-attack, philosophy with him.

One of his first signings as new boss in Toronto was to steal Irish striker Ronnie O'Brien -- a protege of Johnston's playing style -- away from FC Dallas in a deal that stunned some experts.

O'Brien, like Johnston, plays the game at full speed every second on the pitch -- always looking for a shot on goal and exhorting teammates to get him the ball -- but he also comes with a reputation for being hot tempered.

In fact, during his final season in Dallas, O'Brien spent more time fighting with coach Colin Clarke on the sidelines than he did celebrating goals.

But Johnston liked his attitude and claimed O'Brien -- who tore a medial collateral ligament in his knee yesterday -- was the best left-footed striker in MLS history.

"I like to attack," O'Brien said during pre-season practice in Florida. "And Mo wants a team that attacks, so we should be a perfect fit."

To that end, Johnston has loaded up on offensively minded players like Welsh national team player Carl Robinson, England's Andy Welsh and Americans Conor Casey, Alecko Eskandarian and Edson Buddle.

Johnston's attraction to scoring phenoms also brought the talented but mercurial Abbe Ibrahim to the team, although the 20-year-old native of Togo, has yet to sign a contract due to visa issues.

"Ideally we would like to beat a team anyway they want to play," Johnston said. "But I like the idea of being loaded up with strikers."

Johnston said that in the eight weeks the team has been together, it has morphed into something that he likes.

"The more we play, the stronger we get," he said, after the team's final pre-season game -- a 3-0 win over the Charleston Battery of the United Soccer League.

Standing on the sidelines, with his flaming red hair spiked just perfectly, Johnston at times seems more like "one of the boys" than a coach and he said part of that is deliberate.

"The biggest challenge of having an expansion team is bringing the players together," he said. "In my mind, it is just as important to have them bond off the pitch as well as on the pitch so I have tried to get them down time together as much as I could during the pre-season."

It was not uncommon to see Johnston grabbing a ball after practices and challenging anyone on the team to beat him in a series of penalty kicks from near midfield.

One was never sure of the purpose of the exercise, but it was evident the players relished any opportunity to best their coach.

How all this translates into performance once the season starts is anyone's guess.


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