Mo of the same for TFC

Toronto FC coach John Carver (left) looks back at former coach Mo Johnson during practice at BMO...

Toronto FC coach John Carver (left) looks back at former coach Mo Johnson during practice at BMO Field this week. SUN MEDIA/Dave Abel

DEAN MCNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

The outlook for Toronto FC as the team enters its sophomore season in Major League Soccer is at best cloudy and at worst stormy.

The local side did a lot of tinkering in the off-season, but newly crowned director of soccer operations and manager Mo Johnston still hasn't pulled off the big signing that many expected to start the 2008 MLS season.

He did, however, bring in coach John Carver to take over on-pitch strategy for the team.

That move could turn out to be the best of the year because even Johnston admits that he was forced to spend as much time on his ever-present BlackBerry searching out players as he did instructing his lads on the finer points of soccer last season.

Johnston cautions not to read too much into what has happened so far this spring and reminds anyone willing to listen that he has a healthy war chest, courtesy of team owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

Johnston also was able to clear some significant salary cap room with the deal that sent popular midfielder Ronnie O'Brien to San Jose.

But those legions of Reds supporters who made TFC the talk of the MLS last season will be watching closely to see if the on-field product will come close to being a worthy recipient of their ear-splitting passion again this year.

On the front end, little has changed for TFC except that strikers Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham both are healthy and rested, which is no small change from a rookie season in which both were sidelined for extended periods.

They will be joined by Colin Samuel, who failed to live up to his billing as a sniper in 2007, but who has shown in pre-season workouts that he appears to be back with the form that made him an attractive addition for Johnston in the first place.

Andrea Lombardo, who got lots of minutes late last season after his stint with the Canada under-20 squad, will come off the bench at forward along with 24-year-old newcomer Jarrod Smith.

What that points to more than anything is that Johnston still has work to do in developing any kind of depth in key skilled positions.

The midfield surely will miss O'Brien's touch, even if the Irish international did spend a majority of last season on the bench nursing two separate knee problems.

His ability to distribute the ball, though, was the glue that held the front end together and it showed when he was off -- TFC simply stopped scoring for a league-record 824 minutes.

The solid work of Welsh veteran Carl Robinson will be needed to make up that void in the middle. He also will be asked to continue his work as coach/mentor to rising star Maurice Edu, who is TFC's most electric player on offence.

The 21-year-old Californian was TFC's first pick in the 2007 SuperDraft and is drawing rave reviews whenever and wherever he plays, which is both a good and a bad for Johnston.

Edu's education in Toronto probably won't last long beyond this season. Several top British and European sides already are vying for the chance to scoop him up.

And Edu also will be absent from the team for most of August, when he will be representing the U.S. in Beijing at the Olympic Games

Canadian Kevin Harmse, obtained in an off-season deal with L.A. Galaxy, will be expected to step when that happens. The 23-year-old was born in South Africa, but his family moved to Vancouver when he was just a child.

He comes with a reputation of being a dependable player in the middle.

It's more than likely that Samuel will land in the middle as well.

Johnston has hinted that the team is in serious talks to bring in a pair of midfielders -- 22-year-old Ross Wallace and 27-year-old Liam Miller -- who have been deemed expendable by Sunderland in the English premiership.

That move certainly would go a long way in adding reinforcements to the team in the middle of the pitch with just untested rookie Pat Phelan and Canadian under-23 player Tyler Hemming coming off the bench.

If the TFC deficiencies up front and in the middle are seen as problematic, then the back end could be described as in a situation of crisis.

Only the solid game-in, game-out performance of Canadian international Jim Brennan prevented TFC from failing completely in 2007.

Marvell Wynne, who did give the defender position a speed threat from the right side, often forgot that his primary job was to prevent goals.

Wynne will join Edu in Beijing with the U.S. Olympic side and most likely Carver will take advantage of his speed and move him up to the middle.

Tyrone Marshall and Todd Dunivant are back, but Johnston could use either or both as trade bait in an effort to fortify the back end.

The team does have a diamond in the rough in SuperDraft first-round pick Julius James.

The 23-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago came to the pre-season workouts determined to prove he was worth his high draft position -- and he did.

Johnston believes James will be an impact player before too long.

In the key goalkeeper position TFC welcomes the return of Canadian international Greg Sutton, who missed most of last season recovering from a concussion suffered when he was with the national team.

But the big question mark remains the same for the whole TFC roster: Is there enough depth to sustain the team if a round of injuries to key players such as Dichio, Cunningham, Edu or Sutton hits again?

With just a day to go before the team takes to the pitch against the Columbus Crew for its MLS season-opening match the answer is: Not yet.


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