This is TFC's make-or-break season

Toronto FC's Richard Eckersley celebrates after his team defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps to win...

Toronto FC's Richard Eckersley celebrates after his team defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps to win the Canadian Championship final soccer match in Toronto, July 2, 2011. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:07 PM ET

Head coach Aron Winter’s first words were incredibly brief: “Yes,” he responded, when asked if he was satisfied with Toronto’s off-season.

“There’s not a big difference between what we have with the first 11 and the numbers 12 through 20,” he elaborated.

Throughout 2011, the “lack of quality” was often the Dutchman’s post-game phrase of choice, repeatedly let down by the defensive howlers and self-inflicted wounds that constantly disappointed fans.

But after coming to terms with Richard Eckersley and a pair of South American centre-halfs last week, expectations are once again raised to levels they haven’t reached since the club’s inaugural campaign.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Eckersley said. “It’s not going to be an instant change ... But I think obviously it’s going to be a bit more stable now.”

Less than a year after giving up a club and league-high 59 goals, 2012 is setting up to be a make-or-break season for a franchise that’s arguably heading into its biggest year.

‘MANAGE THEM WELL’

Chilean Miguel Aceval will replace Andy Iro in the centre of defence after the lanky Englishman declined an extension last month.

Simply put: “Iro isn’t anymore,” according to Winter.

The Dutchman went on to say he’s comfortable with Ashtone Morgan on the left and that one of the club’s off-season signings — Jeremy Hall — is capable of replacing, or playing instead of, the academy product on the same side.

“The most important thing is that the season is long,” Winter said. “You want to have at each position two good, similar players so you can manage them well.”

With Aceval certain to be a fixture in the heart of defence, based on Winter’s response when questioned about TFC’s back four, expect the Chilean to pair with fellow South American Geovanny Caicedo when possible.

SILVA SETTLING

With winger Reggie Lambe and three experienced defenders signing on, Toronto’s first 11 is beginning to take shape.

But for Winter, the challenge of finding a playmaker to fill the gap between Danny Koevermans and the club’s defensive setup might have been resolved with the fourth selection in last month’s draft.

“They are (all) pieces that can really reinforce the team,” Winter said, when asked about the club’s recent acquisitions. “Especially (Luis) Silva, he’s a good player.”

A player who will likely compete with Eric Avila and Ryan Johnson for time at the point of TFC’s three-player midfield.

“Those guys have been in the league for a while and they know what to do and expect,” Silva said. “I’m always willing to learn from them as well so I’m just going to try my best and try to get that spot.”

It’s one of the few remaining question marks the club has following a drastic roster overhaul that began a year ago. And although still early, management has repeatedly described Silva as having the potential to play as a true No. 10 — something it hasn’t had since the departure of Honduran Amado Guevara.

“It’s just up to the coach and up to me,” Silva said. “I come to practice every single day and try and improve and get better.”

PROSPECTS

Thomas Rongen is confident a number of Toronto’s academy players will receive homegrown contracts following what he called positive performances during the first week of camp.

“Without a doubt,” Rongen said, in response to whether the youngest of the bunch were showing well. “I can’t put a number on which guys will stick, but I think there will be a few that will be part of our first-team roster.”

With four spots to fill between homegrown players and supplemental draft picks, TFC could boast as many as seven academy graduates on their 30-man squad this season.

“I’m very, very pleased with what I’ve seen and the transition our young players have made to the first team,” Rongen said. “They’re holding their own.”

Rongen went on to note the critical dynamic between developing talent and avoiding hindering first-team preparations — something that would seem inevitable.

“They’ve tested well and they’re playing well,” Rongen said. “At the end of the day, it’s important that these kids gain (these) kinds of experiences.”

NOTES

Club officials confirmed to the Sun that both Luis Silva and Aaron Maund are under contract with the Reds, bringing Toronto’s total to 26 active players ... The Seattle Sounders released an update on former TFC

forward O’Brian White. Still hampered by a leg condition that kept him out for most of 2011, White continues to rehab away from the team ... The Vancouver Whitecaps announced Wednesday the club has re-signed its

2011 Player of the Year. Brazilian Camilo Sanvezzo rejoins the Blue and White after scoring 12 goals in 32 appearances a season ago ... Scoring 17 goals with the Galaxy in 2010, former TFC forward Edson Buddle is returning to the Galaxy. After failing to stick with Germany’s Ingolstadt last season, the former U.S. international is another threat the Reds might be dealing with come March.

Kurtis.larson@sunmedia.ca

Blog: http://blogs.canoe.ca/reds/

Twitter: @KurtLarSUN


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