Toronto FC could do no wrong last year. It was Team Teflon.
In its debut season, the Major League Soccer club finished last in the standings. Unperturbed, more than 20,000 screaming fanatics filled BMO Stadium for each home game.
The Reds were winless from July 7 to Sept. 22. No worry. Fans sang. Screams and streamers flooded the field. The team went nine consecutive games without scoring. Instead of the traditional paper bags worn by shamed Maple Leafs fans during times such as this, Toronto's soccer fans showed up with smiling, painted faces ready to paint the town, well, red.
It was a match made in heaven as Toronto attracted 301,947 fans, third in the league behind only L.A. and Washington.
BEST AND WORST
For team captain Jim Brennan, it was the best of times -- and worst of times. Great atmosphere. Great expectations. The birth of a new era in Toronto sports. But the team gave up a league-most 49 goals, enough to make a former national team defender cringe.
"Any expansion team will experience what we went through, where you don't have the depth or the quality that you'd like," Brennan said yesterday. "That's part of growing a team and we've got the first year under our belt. It's a fresh start for us."
This year, the organization's Midas Touch is going to have to extend beyond the boardrooms and stands and on to the field. The honeymoon is over.
"I'm sure it is. These fans deserve something back," said Brennan. Anything short of a playoff spot will be a failure. "A reasonable expectation is for us to make the playoffs. We got a taste of what might have been last year, but didn't finish where we'd like to. This year, we've got more players who can come off the bench and do a job for us."
Last year, the Reds were a novelty. This year, just having a team might not be enough to continue to stir the passion of fans, 3,000 of whom are taking the long bus trip to Columbus this Saturday for the season opener. This year, there will be expectations.
"Our fans will be there because they are loyal. But they need us to make the playoffs," Brennan said.
"If I was sitting in the stands, I'd want us to make the playoffs. They have ambitions, we have ambitions. They're going to be on us to win.
"But we're ready to produce and keep them smiling."
Last season, the lineup was in constant flux. Mo Johnston was trying to coach and manage and didn't have enough time to do either. The team brought in John Carver from Luton and Newcastle to be head coach.
"He has come in with new ideas. He's worked in Europe with the best. He's got his own training techniques and it's working well," Brennan said.
"It's enjoyable. Everyone has been looking forward to the season, whereas last season it was hard for Mo because he had to do everything on the pitch and off the pitch. Tactically, we're going to be a lot more organized."
Paul Winsper, who has worked with Kevin Shearer and Michael Owen and spent a decade with Newcastle United, joined the team as strength and conditioning coach, with the hope that he can keep the starting lineup on the field instead of on the disabled list.
"The club seems more stable after just one year," Carver said. "Now it's time to progress -- team improving, individuals improving, climbing up the league, maintaining consistency. The club is building. We have a few dollars in the bank to spend on players. Mo can get on with dealing with the agents, deal with finances, the phones, the rules and regulations and I love being on the training field. There's a good balance."
THREE ON ROAD
The Reds open the season with three road games -- including matches in Washington and L.A. -- before their April 19 home opener. An 0-3 start isn't beyond the realm of probability.
But, that is beyond thinking for Brennan and Carver.
"It's very important to get off to a fast start," Carver said. "I don't like to talk about what happened in the past, (but) I don't think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out we need more firepower."
A healthy Danny Dichio will be helpful there. And, a return to the form that saw Jeff Cunningham lead MLS in goals with 16 in 2006 wouldn't go unwelcomed.
Bigger contributions from Maurice Edu, Colin Samuel and newly acquired midfielder Kevin Harmse also will be needed to prevent another 0-6-3 goalless nightmare.
"It wasn't from lack of trying last year," Brennan said. "We created chances but it wouldn't go in the back of the net for us. It's important we score quickly because you feed off the momentum."