The Tweet and Lowdown:
Is 2011 the year of Dutch Dreams for Toronto FC or will the increasingly restless fan base grow cold to Winter's plans?
Setting the Scene:
There is perhaps no team in MLS with more question marks heading into the season as Toronto FC. By luring Aron Winter, Paul Mariner and Bob de Klerk from Europe, the Reds have signaled a radical departure in philosophy from the Mo Johnston years, with the club openly talking about building from the academy and taking a long-term outlook. And, with players like recent CONCACAF U-17 stand-out Keven Aleman and 2010 Winthrop University MVP Matt Stinson in the fold, there is reason for hope.
However, Winter was clear that his re-build would not happen overnight and there would be growing pains in the short term. Certainly the preseason has demonstrated that, with Toronto struggling to score goals in both the Disney Pro Soccer Classic and the Carolina Challenge Cup tournaments.
[inline_node:325614]What Winter could not have predicted was the off-field drama that has befuddled the club. It started with Dwayne De Rosario’s controversial training trip to Scotland, which dominated the headlines for much of the winter. However, DeRo — who publicly demanded a re-negotiation of his contract last season — says he’s happy now.
There is no doubt about what defender Adrian Cann is thinking as he left the TFC training camp over a dispute with his contract. Then there is the injury to Designated Player Julian de Guzman, who has yet to see the pitch in 2011. For the Reds to be successful in Winter’s 4-3-3 possession-oriented formation, a strong season from the former La Liga standout is needed.
Players In: Joao Plata (LDU Quito via draft), Nick Soolsma (VV Young Boys, Netherlands), Nathan Sturgis (Seattle via trade with Vancouver)
Players Out: Chad Barrett (LA), Jon Conway (Chicago), Gabe Gala (waived), Nick Garcia (option declined), Emmanuel Gomez (waived), Raivis Hscanovics (waived), Fuad Ibrahim (option declined), Mista (waived), Joseph Nane (Colorado), Amadou Sanyang (option declined), Martin Saric (waived), Maxim Usanov (waived), O'Brian White (Expansion Draft)
Star Attraction: Dwayne De Rosario
One of the most creative and gifted MLS players in the history of the league, De Rosario seems to get better with age. On an otherwise struggling Reds, he had the best offensive year of his career in 2010.
Winter said no to a request by Celtic to extend De Rosario’s time with the Scottish club because he understood how important DeRo’s contribution would be to Toronto. Although insecurities surrounding the veteran’s attitude remain, no one questions the hometown hero's skills.
Unsung Hero: Nana Attakora
It’s sometimes hard to believe that Attakora, the last remaining player from the 2007 expansion Reds, is just 21 years old. Although not widely known outside of Toronto, the defender’s role with TFC has become crucial. He’s versatile, with an ability to play at either fullback position or as a center back. He’ll likely line up in the middle of the defense in 2011 and be expected to jump up into the attack, particularly on set pieces where he is one of Toronto’s most dangerous weapons.
Ready for Primetime: Julian de Guzman
[inline_node:326786]On the surface, it may seem odd to characterize a Designated Player as being “Ready for Primetime,” but the feeling around the team is that de Guzman has never been used properly since moving to the Reds midway through the 2009 season. The player himself noted that last year was a disappointment, with a knee injury holding him back.
Offseason surgery has fixed the knee, and it’s hoped that the aforementioned change in tactics to a 4-3-3 will suit de Guzman’s game. The pressure will be on JDG, as the Canadian international started to hear the boo-birds from some Toronto fans near the end of last season.
Storylines to Watch:
The hiring of Winter, de Klerk and Mariner bought TFC some time with the fan base, but the pressure to turn around the club is strong. With the coaching staff trying to implement a new style of play, a congested early-season fixture list and reinforcements not likely until at least the summer transfer window, things might get uglier before they start to get better. However, all will be forgiven if the Reds can make a late push towards an MLS Cup Playoffs spot and if the fans can see evidence of a long-term vision – something that many have struggled to find with TFC previously.
What He Said:
“We’re not just being yelled at. There is a lot of coaching going on. [Winter and de Klerk] are very encouraging, they are always praising what we do well, while helping to correct the things we need to work on.”
– Midfielder Jacob Peterson on the change of attitude around TFC, compared to 2010
If Everything Goes Right:
The club will find a way to remain competitive through the first half of the season and grow in confidence as Winter’s Dutch system is implemented. The Nutrilite Canadian Championship will provide the Reds with an opportunity to appease frustrated fans early in the year while they try to get things on track – a Voyageurs Cup win is expected and anything less would be viewed as an abject failure.
Everyone around the club insists that the postseason is a reasonable goal and, with 10 teams making the grade in 2011, they’re right. However the most important thing Toronto can accomplish this season is to establish a consistent long-range plan. If fans see evidence of that, they’ll be better able to take the losses – and there will be some as the team finds its bearings – in stride.