TORONTO - Itís the middle of March and that can only mean one thing ó another playoff miss for the Maple Leafs.
No, wait, it means two things. Thatís right, another season of the madness that has become Toronto FC soccer. Hopes are high heading into Season 5 for the one-time expansion club, as Red Nation is buzzing with a playoff-or-bust mentality.
Whether though expectations are realistic remains to be seen, with FC management hinting at a ground-up building process involving youth development and a growing core over bought talent.
Either way, the only guarantee is head-hunting from FC fans if the Reds canít stay competitive. With Torontoís MLS season opening Saturday in Vancouver against the Whitecaps, these are some of the stories to watch during the 2011 season.
The Flying Dutchmen
Itís a changing of the guard in FCís front office, with former Dutch standout Aron Winter taking over at the helm for Toronto. Winter becomes the sixth coach in the franchiseís five-year history and needs to provide stability at the revolving door the position has become. Winter, who was an assistant with Amsterdam club Ajax, brings a wealth of European experience and a former colleague in Bob de Klerk. With a new coaching staff in place comes a new style of play, and Winterís possession-oriented 4-3-3 offence is just that. The style should suit players like Julian de Guzman, but whether it catches on with all 11 players on the pitch will be key.
Staying in the Frei
Torontoís defence hinges on keeper Stefan Frei, the clubís first-round pick in the 2009 draft. Freiís stock has risen a great deal since his rookie campaign, with the Swiss standout quickly becoming one of the top backstopís in the league. With a penchant for passing and a voice for the back line, Frei has become a game-changer, exemplified in his 70% save-percentage last season. Frei is a defensive leader for the club, and his continued growth will be key for Reds success.
Mid-dle of the Pack
The last year has been an interesting one for the TFC midfield ó with de Guzman being hit hard by the injury bug last season, forcing him to miss a handful of games for the club.
While de Guzmanís reportedly back to full strength and ready for the season there are still question marks hovering over the middle. Dwayne De Rosario thinks he, too, should be given a designated-player contract along with de Guzman. De Guzman made $1.7-million last season compared to the $440,000 of De Rosario.
With De Rosario unhappy with his current contract ó reportedly threatening to sit out the 2011 MLS season unless changes are made ó itís unclear where his future with the club lies. Toronto tacquired Nathan Sturgis in the off-season for added depth in the midfield.
He Shoots, Who Scores?
With no answer in the De Rosario saga, there are concerns about who will put the ball in the back of the net for the Reds. Forward Chad Barrett, who was traded to the L.A. Galaxy in January, leaves a gaping hole in the Toronto offence. De Rosario and Barrett combined for 20 of FCís 30 goals last season and together were a formidable one-two punch for Toronto. Trading Barrett was a cost-saving move, as the California native was slated for a significant raise heading into this season. Troubling, though, is the fact that there is no clear replacement in the wings for FC. The club will need at least one more player to step up big and become that scoring option in order for team success ó both on the field and in the win-column.
Itís Season 5 for TFC, and supporters are hungrier than ever for a winning campaign ending in a taste of the playoffs. Heading into 2011, the Reds are the only MLS club to be in the league for more than three years and still not have seen the post-season. With a favourable start to the season ó playing five of its first seven at home ó Toronto needs to get into playoff position early in order to keep the momentum going. Toronto is home to some of the most loyal fans in sport, but how much more can they take? If Toronto canít get points early in the schedule thereís no telling just where the side might sit in the standings following a tough road stretch come summer.
Bottom-line: TFC needs to make the playoffs to keep management ó and its fan-base ó happy.