TFC prepares for change

PAT MARTIN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 1:17 PM ET

When Toronto FC entered Major League Soccer as a 2007 expansion franchise, the support for the league's first Canadian club was unprecedented.

Through its first three seasons, TFC sold out virtually every home game - averaging over 20,000 spectators - while its rabid fan base also traveled in great numbers to most away fixtures. Even more impressive, these fans showed their support despite the team putting up a dismal 25-41-24 record in that span.

In 2010, the Reds fell apart mid-season, going 9-13-8 while missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, leading to fan unrest not seen in Toronto since the NHL's Maple Leafs traded two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to the Boston Bruins for enigmatic young forward Phil Kessel a year earlier.

Last year's collapse cost Mo Johnston, who had been in a management role since TFC's inaugural season, his job. Head coach Preki was also let go, even though he had been on the job in Toronto for less than a full season.

Now, TFC enters its fifth season in MLS with its sixth head coach. Retired Dutch midfielder Aron Winter takes on that role as well as that of technical director after three years as an assistant at Eredivisie side Ajax. Winter brought Bob de Klerk from Ajax to be his top assistant on the field, hoping to revamp the team's playing style and development system.

"We want to play attractive soccer," Winter told The Sports Network. "We want to dominate and play well because soccer has to be an entertainment. You have to play attractive but also with results. We are working with a salary cap, so you have to be creative. You can't buy all good players. You have to be creative, and you have to develop them."

Not only was former long-time New England Revolution assistant Paul Mariner brought in at the same time as Winter to serve as the club's director of player development, but under the consultation of former Germany coach and player Juergen Klinsmann, TFC plans to build from its youth academy, taking on a long-term direction.

This type of strategy wasn't seen under Johnston, who earned the nickname "Trader Joe" after shipping players in and out of Toronto with great regularity during his tenure.

"We have to adapt the whole system," Winter said. "You need months to get everybody so far that they at least understand how we want to play, how we want to build, how we want to defend. We need time. ... It's all a part of it, how we are looking for our identity, the way we are going to play before everyone is adapted to the system."

Clearly, it will take time, as Winter has repeatedly stated. The question is, will TFC's restless fan base turn on or embrace the direction the team is headed?

"The fans are great, and they also understand if you want to play attractive and you want to dominate, you need time," Winter said. "Everyone is looking for their own identity. You have to understand, when you change things you need time. The fans are our 12th man on the pitch, and they have to support us always and support the team. To change things you need time."

TFC will open the 2011 season at the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps - the league's second Canadian team - on Saturday. How embarrassing would it be for the Toronto brass to see Vancouver become Canada's top team this season?

"Toronto set the stage for successful expansion in our league, and Vancouver is going to take that perhaps to a higher level," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.

There will also be pressure coming from Montreal in 2012 when the Impact join the league as an expansion team.

Regardless, patience will be key to Toronto's long-term success. How well Winter and De Klerk can get TFC's current roster to adapt to his system, as well as how quickly Mariner and company can develop and sign the types of players needed to excel at it, will determine if the right plan is in place.

"Quite simply after each game, the mistakes we are making, we try to better them the next game by teaching the guys," Winter said. "In the future, how will we resolve all those things? You have to start at the beginning, and slowly, you are getting a team and the way you are going to play like I want.

"But it isn't only the system that has to change, it's the whole soccer mentality and soccer environment."

A welcome change in Toronto, but the clock is ticking.

Pacific Northwest power

Along with the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Portland Timbers will join MLS in 2011. The league envisions those expansion clubs combining with Seattle Sounders FC to create a trio of teams in the Pacific Northwest that becomes a unique rivalry at the MLS level.

The league can only hope the two newcomers live up to Seattle's lofty standard, earning two playoff appearances in two seasons in MLS while averaging over 36,000 fans for home games.

"We've got an exciting thing going on up there," Garber said. "It's a trifecta, if you will, of three great teams. One that is very deeply established, the Seattle Sounders, joined by the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, both who have shown great success off the field leading up to this season."

Garber was referring to Portland already reaching its capped limit of 12,500 seasons tickets sold, while Vancouver is well on it's way to its limit of 16,500 sold.

"Both are making lots of progress off the field as it relates to their ticket sales," Garber said.

Vancouver also has a chance to take it one step further, with record revenues in its sights, as it relates to sponsorship dollars, according to Garber.

Expansion explosion

MLS has added eight teams since 2005, bringing its total to 18 for the 2011 season. With Montreal coming in next season as the 19th and a still yet-to-be- determined 20th team shortly after that, when will it end?

Not even Garber is sure, but he stated that he foresees the league having well over 20 teams when it's all said and done, despite FIFA wanting to limit top- flight leagues to no more than 20 teams.

"We are a much larger country than just about any soccer or football country in the world," Garber said. "We cross three time zones, we have teams in Canada [and the U.S.] and we don't have promotion or relegation in our league.

"I believe we will be larger than 20 teams. I can't say when that will be, but I can't imagine that when this league is fully expanded that we don't have teams in the Southeast, that we don't have another team in the Midwest, that we aren't expanded into the southern part of California."

Expanded rosters

Because of the increased participation by MLS teams in international and domestic tournaments, MLS has expanded its rosters to 30 spots this season, an increase of five from 2010.

"It's our largest roster size that we've had in our league history, giving us the necessary depth over a very long season," Garber said.

With roster expansion also comes the return of the reserve division after a two-year hiatus.

"That's going to give some of these guys that are on the lower end of the roster an opportunity to play very competitive matches throughout the year," Garber said.

The diversity of the league also continues this season, with MLS teams adding 44 new players to their rosters from 22 different countries, including 16 from South America, 17 from Europe and nine from the CONCACAF region.

The kids are alright

Like Toronto, a number of MLS teams are putting an emphasis on developing players from their academies, with 33 home grown players currently being signed to first-team contracts.

"Our clubs are investing anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per club," Garber said. "If you look at that across 18 teams, that's a massive amount of money being invested in trying to improve the quality of play and the quality of young talent in our league."

Key points of emphasis

MLS had meetings with its officials to emphasize how it wants certain rules to be called, including offsides. According to Garber, referees and linesman are being instructed to only call offsides if the player is clearly off, eliminating the close calls that take goal scoring opportunities away.

The referees were also instructed to make more consistent and harsh calls on studs-up tackles.

"We believe that the man on the ball needs to be protected a lot more than they have in the past," Garber said. "We are trying to discourage studs-up challenges and must have those tackles appropriately punished."

Other rule clarifications that were relayed to the officials deal with persistent infringement and holding in the penalty area on free kicks, which the league wants called more often.

"We want penalty kicks called," Garber said.

To help police officials and keep the league and referees on the same page, the U.S. soccer officiating group has also moved into the MLS offices in New York, with three or four full-time employees monitoring the games from a "command center."

On the docket

With the season slated to begin this week, the league will shortly be announcing the MLS All-Stars' opponent for the game at Red Bull Arena on July 27, with the opponent being a major international team.

The league will also be announcing a major international club tournament to take place this summer between MLS clubs and clubs from Europe, Mexico and potentially South America at the end of March.


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