TFC looking to the future

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

Toronto FC manager Mo Johnston was trying his level best yesterday to put a positive spin on the outcome of today's Major League Soccer matchup with the Columbus Crew at BMO Field.

He talked about how everyone was pulling in the same direction and how in spite of being nine points back of the final playoff spot with six games left they weren't out of the post-season picture.

While Johnston may be a lot of things, stupid isn't one of them.

He knows a loss today ends any hope of advancing beyond the regular season in the team's rookie MLS year. The real question may well be: Where did these unrealistic expectations for TFC come from?

Johnston has been adamant from the first day of training camp that as an expansion club -- and a Canadian one at that -- TFC had everything stacked against it.

Perhaps even he, however, was caught up in the best sports story of the year that resulted from playing before sellout after sellout of rabid fans that boosted the team from a curiosity to the talk of the town.

These fans, clad in red and singing made-up-on-the-run anthems, have adopted TFC like no other professional team in these parts since the Blue Jays made their World Series runs more than a decade ago.

For a short period in the middle of the season with a healthy Danny Dichio, Ronnie O'Brien and Jeff Cunningham bringing 20,000 adoring fans to their feet, it almost looked as though the unrealistic could happen. It took just two back-to-back games, though, to end that daydream.

Two months ago today, TFC went into Columbus with all of its big guns locked and loaded and came away with a 2-0 loss. O'Brien, Dichio and Cunningham came out of that game with nagging injuries that might not have mattered except the team played again three days later against English Premiership's Aston Villa in a friendly at BMO.

With no rest, all three aggravated those injuries and gutted the team of its offensive heart.

Johnston acknowledged as much yesterday when he talked about his team's chances this year and next.

"I've been working on next season for the past couple of months, actually," he said. "Ever since we started to get hit with all of those injuries."

It is hard for Johnston to admit the team has been playing for next season, especially because he genuinely likes every player on his roster, and would be the last one to say anything that would reflect badly on their efforts.

"Look, we have a great bunch of guys here," he said. "They are upbeat. We just have to add to the depth."

Johnston said his bosses at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. have given him the backing to take more than $1 million on his planned scouting trip to Europe and South America at the season's end to get the players he wants.

Next season, however, will present another challenge for Johnston that will again test his ability to juggle a lineup that will have holes not of his making. With 2008 being an Olympic year, he is certain to lose first-round picks Marvell Wynne and Maurice Edu to their national sides as well as Jim Brennan, Adam Bras and possibly Andrea Lombardo to the Canadian squad.

Johnston has had feelers from several English Premiership teams to get both Edu and Wynne on loan at the end of the MLS season.

Certainly it's one way of improving the skill level of both players but it's a double-edged sword as should one or both impress at that level, you can be sure they would be snapped up by the big clubs.

"You don't want to lose a Marvell or Maurice, but you do want them to get more experience," Johnston said.

With the team's future now being planned it's understandable that ending TFC's 822-minute goalless streak isn't No. 1 on Johnston's list of priorities.


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