Toronto FC enters the season nowhere near the MLS roster limit of 24 players, and will be scrambling to have a lineup sheet that has 11 starters and five on the subs bench for the opener in Columbus on Saturday.
Hamstrung by salary-cap issues and undergoing a radical but painful transformation under new coach Preki, this promises to be a season of, ahem, growing pains. Here are 10 things TFC needs to happen in 2010:
Toronto FC got itself on to the radar of MLS headquarters in New York during the pre-season thanks to a series of red cards. Four players -- all of them members of the squad that broke camp, not trialists -- were sent off for a variety of incidents. Had Julian de Guzman unleashed his leg-breaker of a tackle on New York star Juan Pablo Angel in the regular season, he'd be looking at a lengthy suspension. With a thin roster, the Reds can't afford to lose players to cards and suspensions. They need to keep their heads down.
9. GET USED TO GRASS
Everyone, from players to fans, is excited that the FieldTurf at BMO Field is only an unfortunate memory. But, it the wobbly, bobbly turf, which made passing on the ground difficult, was TFC's greatest advantage. Last year, New England coach Steve Nicol, whose own team plays on plastic grass, said he had to adjust game plans because the ball didn't run true in Toronto. TFC players were used to idiosyncrasies of their field. In its MLS history, TFC has won just four games on grass.
8. ROAD WOES
TFC is debuting a new all-white road kit, but it needs better results on the road. In the past, this team has been dramatically under-prepared for the altitude of Denver and Salt Lake City, or the stifling Texas heat. Winning on the road in MLS is tougher than any other league, and that brings me to the next point...
7. NEGATIVE TACTICS
It pains me to write this. I am still a devotee of the Hungarian 4-2-4 system, which promoted scores such as 6-4 and 8-3. But, TFC is going to need some results on the road, and that means getting some draws. Look for TFC to place 10 men behind the ball and try to play games where the only concern is to keep the other guys from scoring.
6. TAKE THE HEAT
Preki is moving dangerously close to John Carver territory. That is, he's already blasting the Toronto media for being negative about the team. Sorry, writing about TFC's marketing awards isn't going to interest anybody. So, it's wins and losses.
5. PRAY FOR THE DP
MLS commissioner Don Garber said a change to the designated player rule is coming soon, and the word is a second DP will be allocated to each team in the league. If TFC can take the cap hit a second DP would provide, then bringing in a star player may settle down the impatient fans. Rumours continue that New York would use its second spot on Thierry Henry, while aging stars such as Raul and David Trezeguet continue to be linked to MLS.
Luckily in MLS, teams can trade anything that is not nailed down. Toronto may be a lot better off sending that second DP to another team for some kind of allocation money. Heck, let New York have three DPs, if that's what the new rule would allow. If not, and the season starts poorly, another painful route would be to ask Dwayne De Rosario if he'd like to go back to a winner, and try to clear that salary space for three or four players.
3. BE BETTER ON SET PLAYS
Last season, the Reds were awful defending corners and free kicks, and were not effective using set plays in the offensive end. Nana Attakora will need to continue his growth. The young defender started getting up in the attack late in the season as he tried to finish crosses.
2. CANADIAN CROWN
Toronto FC needed a miracle against a Montreal team that threw in the towel to win the Canadian championship last season. TFC needs to flex its MLS muscle and win the Canadian title, and then actually win its preliminary round matchup to get into the CONCACAF Champions League group stage. A high-profile game against a major Mexican side would help soothe the fan base.
1. THE FINAL 15
Toronto blew a ridiculous number of leads in the final 15 minutes of games last season. Had the Reds held on in games in which they were leading or tied after the 75-minute mark, they would have finished first overall. Preki's biggest task will be addressing this team's mental toughness -- and fitness.