TFC Preview: Nowhere to go but up

Miguel Aceval, from Chile, is one of the off-season acqusitions that TFC fans hope will catapult...

Miguel Aceval, from Chile, is one of the off-season acqusitions that TFC fans hope will catapult the team to its first playoff berth. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency Files)

Kurtis Larson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:16 AM ET

Toronto FC enters its sixth season hosting the most anticipated soccer match in this city’s history.

When the MLS Cup-champion L.A. Galaxy travels to the Rogers Centre for the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League knockout phase Wednesday night, it will be an opportunity for the club to showcase what head coach Aron Winter has said is an improved side that should compete from first kick.

Following Wednesday’s match, Toronto will wait a week for its return leg against the Galaxy and a chance to advance farther than any Canadian team has in the continental tournament. Three days later, the Reds open regular-season play with the daunting task of playing in front of what should be a capacity crowd in Seattle.

Despite opening 2012 with three matches against what will be a pair of MLS Cup contenders, Toronto’s early-season league schedule is favourable. If TFC’s off-season acquisitions do in fact help the club turn the corner, the Reds could be in good shape if they take advantage of a weak April schedule.

Furthermore, early-season point totals will prove crucial when TFC enters the Canadian Championship in May, a competition that will force it to weigh the importance of league play over qualifying for a fourth-straight CONCACAF Champions League.

And the Canadian Soccer Association hasn’t done them any favours.

Despite winning last year’s Cup, the Reds will face the fourth-seeded Montreal Impact in the first round of the tournament after the CSA decided FC Edmonton was worthy of the three seed — a small detail that will force Toronto to use more first-team players than they’d like.

Shoring up the back four with multiple offseason acquisitions should help Toronto contain an out of control goals against average in 2011, but an up-and-down pre-season has left many questions unanswered.

Early-season, league-wide consensus is that the Reds have the talent to make a run at their first playoff appearance in team history, but it will depend on a number of factors the club is said to have addressed over the past three months.

HELLO, GOODBYE

Toronto’s failure to make the 2011 playoffs rests heavily on the shoulders of not only the staff and players, but the front office itself.

Hiring head coach Aron Winter two days before the 2011 MLS Combine was a recipe for disaster. But with more than a year to assemble a group of players to call his own, all eyes are on the Dutchman after he assured TFC supporters he’d attract the players the club desperately needed.

“We are on the right track,” Winter said at the end of last season. “If you are watching back, we have done a decent job. But it’s not good enough, we have to be better.”

And on paper, he has.

While the upgrades are noticeable, questions remain. Although some quality individual performances were encouraging during pre-season camp, it’s too early to say whether it will be enough to climb out of the East cellar. Here’s a list of farewells and acquisitions for the 2012 season:

IN:

-- D Miguel Aceval (Chile, Universidad de Concepcion): A left-footed central defender that adds stability, composure and attacking prowess to a back-line that hasn’t seen a quality central pairing yet. Has the ability to start an attack from the defensive third.

-- D Geovanny Caicedo (Ecuador, LDU Quito): A towering presence who’s more of a ball-winner than a distributor. Suffered a setback during his first pre-season appearance and failed to impress in Orlando.

-- M Luis Silva (U.S., UC Santa Barbara): It took the 23-year-old just three matches to prove he was worth the fourth pick in this year’s draft. Not many NCAA signings are capable of changing a game right out of college. Silva might be.

-- D Aaron Maund (U.S., University of Notre Dame): Draft selection was okay during Toronto’s pre-season tournament in Orlando, but it’s difficult to place him in any starting lineup. He’ll provide cover until Adrian Cann returns from injury.

-- M Reggie Lambe (Bermuda, Ipswich Town): Has yet to perform up to standards in three pre-season matches but is someone Winter rates high. Think Plata 2.0 — a very capable winger in the open field who’s trying to meet the physical demands of a hard league.

-- D Jeremy Hall (U.S., FC Dallas): A question mark after the Reds acquired him early in the off-season when Richard Eckersley’s status was up in the air. Spent the entire pre-season injured and will likely struggle to find a place in the team.

Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams are recovering from knee injuries in 2011.

OUT:

M/F Peri Marosevic D Andy Iro M/D Mikael Yourassowsky D Kyle Davies M Matt Gold M Leandre Griffit F Javier Martina M Nathan Sturgis D Danleigh Borman M Gianluca Zavarise D Eddy Viator

D Demitrius Omphroy M Elbekay Bouchiba

REDS MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF ...

...

they figure out how to win on the road

Had the Reds picked up just five wins from 17 road games last season, they would have competed for the final playoff spot. Instead, Toronto went 1-9-7 away from BMO Field. The Reds need 15-18 points on the road to have a say come September. Toronto has won just 10 times away from the Big Smoke in five seasons.

...

they take advantage of critical conference play

This year’s MLS schedule enhances the magnitude of certain fixtures — Eastern Conference contests. This year’s unbalanced schedule will see Toronto play everyone in the East three times and taking six points from three matches against in-conference foes will go a long way in helping Toronto secure a top-five standing.

...

a second reliable scorer emerges

In just 17 league appearances, Danny Koevermans led Toronto with eight league goals last season. Of those currently on TFC’s roster, no other player scored more than three. Enough said.

REDS MISS THE PLAYOFFS IF ...

...

Koevermans can’t score consistently

Toronto isn’t loaded with proven goal-scorers. Ryan Johnson bagged 11 while at San Jose in 2009, but hasn’t repeated that kind of production in any of his other four MLS seasons. If Koevermans falls short of double digits in his first full year in the league, the club will find itself on the wrong end of a lot of scorelines.

...

they cannot close the defensive floodgates

In Richard Eckersley, Miguel Aceval and Geovanny Caicedo, the Reds added three defensive pieces that should cut down the terrible 1.73 goals against average in 2011. TFC’s restructured back four will need to improve on that.

...

they have a repeat of last year’s slow start

Toronto secured just eight points from a possible 30 through the first two months of last season. Looking at the front quarter of TFC’s 2012 schedule, other than a difficult opening league match in Seattle, four of Toronto’s next five are at BMO Field against club’s it should beat. Those early-season points at home are vital with the middle portion of the schedule much more difficult.

NEED TO KNOW BASIS

Kurtis asks the key questions

- Would you say this is the best the club has looked since you’ve been in the picture?

Stefan Frei: Yes, absolutely. It gives me relief knowing that we’ve been together and we’ve been able to go through a pre-season together … We’re ready for the season. We know each other mostly. At the same time we know we can expect a bit more from each other.

- Toronto is a very critical market. That criticism has been, at times, on you. Does it ever enter your mind to silence those critics?

Julian de Guzman: (We) are at a club where fans expect a lot. They want to see a successful team … It has been a learning experience and the criticism that comes along with it is something that, as a professional, you have to absorb in a way … It’s your home fans coming at you and it does give me that drive and push to go forward and do better.

- With the defensive acquisitions, do you feel like you have the depth you need at the area of the field?

Aron Winter: Yes. We’ve got that feeling, especially with the centre-left defender and centre-right defender that they’re very good players — (Geovanny) Caicedo and (Miguel) Aceval … Adrian (Cann) is coming back from injury … With Caicedo and Aceval (we’ve) reinforced the defence.

- You were on three MLS Cup teams in New England. What are the differences between those Cup contenders and TFC’s current setup?

Paul Mariner: Some of the stuff we addressed in the second half of (last) season was the core group and the atmosphere in the dressing room — and quality. You need a spine that’s going to not concede goals from set pieces and you need players that can put the ball in the net … I think (Danny Koevermans) has gotten to know the league a little better … He just seems to be one of those strikers … where all of a sudden he’s able to come up with a goal to turn the game for you. We’re not that far away.

PLAYER TO WATCH

LUIS SILVA

Taken 49th overall — six spots from the bottom — in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, Joao Plata shocked supporters with his open field pace and fearlessness in the attacking third, a performance that convinced TFC to purchase the Ecuadorian in the offseason.

In 2012, Luis Silva, 23, looks poised to have an impact after TFC drafted the UC Santa Barbara product fourth overall in January.

In a fight with Eric Avila for the starting role to sit-in beneath Danny Koevermans and dictate play, an impressive pre-season has the Amado Guevara-like lottery pick poised to grab a starting role early this season.

Comfortable on the ball and adding an element supporters haven’t witnessed in years, Toronto may have found its secondary scorer to Koevermans — a big ask for the early-season rookie-of-the-year candidate.

BY THE NUMBERS

238 — The number of goals conceded over five MLS seasons is the most of any of the league's expansion sides -- Chicago, Chivas, Houston, Salt Lake -- over the same period. And while expansion teams typically show improvement, 2011 saw the Reds concede a league-high 59 goals.

166 — The sum of points since 2007. Averaging just over 33 points per season isn't enough to be in the conversation come September. The number is level with Salt Lake's total from 2005-2009, the club previously heralded as the league's worst expansion franchise.

40 — The total number of wins over five MLS seasons. While it's undeniable the Reds made great strides in 2011, last year's team was among the worst in two decades of MLS. Toronto's six wins last year equaled the third lowest league total all-time.

67 — The only number the Reds aren't last in among expansion sides. Although TFC has lost 67 times since 2007, Salt Lake put up 72 losses through its first five years.

0 — Toronto continues to chase its first playoff appearance and winning season. Coming close in 2009, a win on the road at New York would have seen the club earn its first playoff berth. It was also the closest the club has been to a winning season after finishing 10-9-11 that year.

PROBABLE STARTING 11

(F) Ryan Johnson, (F)Danny Koevermans, (F Joao Plata,

(M) Luis Silva, (M) Torsten Frings, (M) Julian de Guzman,

(D) Ashtone Morgan, (D)Miguel Aceval (D), Ty Harden (D), Richard Eckersley, (GK) Stefan Frei

BENCH: (M/F) Reggie Lambe, (M) Eric Avila, (M) Matt Stinson, (M) Terry Dunfield, (D) Aaron Maund, (D) Geovanny Caicedo, (GK) Milos Kocic


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