Friday, March 28, 2008

All For One

I have to admit that -- despite having season tickets -- I am not a very good Toronto FC fan. I've just realized that the MLS season starts this Saturday and I have no idea what's been happening with the team all winter. (Toronto's home opener isn't until April 19th, which is fortunate because there's still snow on the ground here.) Anyway, this seemed like a good time for a little recap -- or a long recap, as the case may be -- of where things stand.

Let’s start with a look back at last year. On the field, it certainly wasn’t the most auspicious debut season. Toronto finished dead last in the league, with a record goalscoring drought along the way. The team had two main problems last year: injuries and their terrible away form. They had an overall record of six wins, seven draws and 17 losses, but only one of those wins came on the road. Basically, away from BMO Field, they were useless, and even when they were at home, they just weren’t consistent enough.

Injuries were a big part of that; I don’t think Mo Johnston got to field his first-choice XI for more than maybe one game all season. They’ve reportedly hired a full-time strength and conditioning coach, which should help this year, and will also be hoping not to have to deal with some of the freak injuries they had last season (like the concussion for goalkeeper Greg Sutton). But there are still questions about the effect of playing on turf at BMO – I’ve heard it suggested that a big part of Ronnie O’Brien’s chronic knee problems were because of training on the turf day in, day out – and that’s not something that’s just going to go away.

Things on the field may not have been great, but off the pitch the club – and the league – should be pretty happy. There isn’t a lot of financial information publicly available, but the Toronto Star did feature an article about allegedly leaked financial statements for MLSE, the club’s owners. It doesn’t break out the details for TFC, but the fact that they sold an average of 5,500 more tickets per game than they'd forecast suggests the team should be making a profit. And BMO Field itself reportedly realized a profit of $900,000 during its eight months of operations in 2007, to be split 50/50 between MLSE and the City of Toronto.

Most of that is from season ticket sales, which are up again for next season. In 2007, the club capped season tickets at 14,000; they’ve upped that to 16,000 for this year, and sold them all, including about 13,000 renewals – despite prices going up an average of 13% – and the waiting list is still as long as your arm. The stadium only holds about 20,000, so it looks like most of the games are going to be sell-outs.

That’s caused a bit of controversy, actually, related to the number of seats that the club allocates for away supporters. It’s a tough call: obviously the owners would prefer to have guaranteed seat sales rather than potential ones, and with only 4,000 seats available for single-game sales (probably not even that much, because I think they were also selling partial season packages), there's not a lot of wiggle room. On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t hurt them to set aside a larger block for away supporters and then release the unsold tickets for walk-up sales on game day. There’s enough demand that chances are they’d still sell out if it was publicized enough. And developing rivalries with other teams is an important part of the atmosphere at the games.

I also think the club will be looking into expanding the stadium in the not-too-distant future. The timing is going to depend on how long it takes them to earn enough to finance that, and to develop enough of a guaranteed fan base to fill the expanded space. There’s been no evidence so far of a drop-off in support, but who knows how long that will last if the team doesn’t improve.

But the fans are unquestionably the main factor that made last season a success overall. A number of supporters’ groups had been established even before the team took the field – the Red Patch Boys, U-Sector, Tribal Rhythm Nation, the Northend Elite. I’m not a part of any of those groups, but it seems to me that the club did a pretty decent job of connecting with and encouraging those fans, while also still appealing to more casual supporters. It’s not always an easy balance – is that family going to be upset, say, if there’s a rowdy group swearing at the ref right behind them? I’m interested to see how things will develop this year. But there are already more than 2,500 TFC fans planning to make the trip down to Columbus tomorrow, so that’s a good sign.

The off-season has been kind of frustrating for the fans, with not a whole lot happening. Occasionally you’d get a bit of news about players being invited for trials or whatever, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. Most of the news, in fact, seemed to be about players leaving the club. The biggest blow was probably playmaker Ronnie O’Brien moving to the San Jose Earthquakes in exchange for a 2009 draft pick, and Chris Pozniak was also picked up by the Earthquakes in the expansion draft. Goalkeeper Kenny Stamatopoulos has returned to Tromso in Norway after his loan term ended, and the team has released a whole list of players: Adam Braz, Miguel Canizalez, Srdjan Djekanovic, Jeffrey Gonsalves, David Guzman, Stephen Lumley, Christian Nunez and Marco Reda.

Meanwhile, Mo Johnston picked up a handful of players in the MLS draft: defenders Julius James and Mike Zaher, defender/midfielder Pat Phelan, goalkeeper Brian Edwards and striker Joseph Lapira. Toronto also acquired midfielder Kevin Harmse from the LA Galaxy in exchange for a draft pick and defender Marco Velez on a free transfer from the USL’s Puerto Rico Islanders. Finally, they’ve signed midfielder Tyler Rosenlund and striker Jarrod Smith as free agents. And that’s it.

The club is clearly trying to fill in some of the gaps that became obvious last season – strengthening the back line, bringing in some backup in net. The problem is that there were just so many places where they needed better players, or more depth. One area that I still think is a problem is the lack of firepower up front, especially considering how hard it sometimes was for Toronto to score goals last year. They have to consider the salary cap, of course, but as far as I know they’ve still got room to manouevre there. They should also be helped by the changes to the roster requirements, which allows Toronto a couple more international players to compensate for the relatively smaller pool of talent in Canada.

The other issue is a designated player – or the lack thereof. And I don’t think this is a big deal, actually. The team could probably afford one, but they clearly don’t need a big name just to get people through the turnstiles. What they do need is a talented player who can add the missing spark to the team. But that’s not much use if you don’t have a solid enough squad built around him. My point is that there’s no point having a DP just for the sake of having one. Better to wait until the right player – and the right fit for the team – comes along. I couldn’t begin to tell you who that might be, but when he does, they’d better grab him.

And TFC does need some good news, because their pre-season has been kind of up and down. They started back in February with a training camp in Florida, where they faced off against a few other MLS teams (DC United, Kansas City Wizards, Chicago Fire), plus Danish club Odense and the U.S. U-17s, and finished with a record of two wins, three draws and one loss. Then it was off to Texas at the beginning of March for a four-team mini-tournament with Chivas USA, DC United and the Houston Dynamo, where Toronto finished third overall, winning one game and losing two. They finished up with the Carolina Challenge Cup in South Carolina, drawing with New York Red Bulls and losing to both the San Jose Earthquakes and the Charleston Battery. It’s not a great record; you can excuse some of that due to the problems of testing out players on trial and integrating new signings, but it still would’ve been nice to see more concrete signs of improvement before the season starts.

Still, the club continues to look towards the future. There’s been a change to the managerial structure, with Mo Honston moving upstairs to become Director of Soccer, while John Carver, formerly the caretaker manager at Leeds United and assistant manager at Newcastle and Luton Town, has joined as the new head coach. They’ve started an academy program to develop young players, which will include U-18 and U-16 teams for its first season. The club should also get a boost from the opportunity to participate in the CONCACAF Champions League, with TFC competing with the USL’s Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact for a chance to represent Canada in the tournament.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league will be looking at Toronto as a barometer for how other expansion teams might fare. The San Jose Earthquakes will be returning to MLS for the 2008 season, bringing the league up to 14 teams, and there are plans to expand to 18 teams by 2012. MLS has already announced that Seattle will join in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2010. There’s been no word yet about the 17th and 18th spots, but St. Louis is reportedly a frontrunner, and George Gillett (owner of Liverpool and the Montreal Canadiens) has teamed up with the Montreal Impact to bid for a franchise. Other possibilities include Atlanta, Detroit, Portland, Vancouver, a return to Miami, and a second team in New York.

Wow, that was a lot longer than I meant it to be. Kudos if you made it this far; as a reward, you get a commemorative seat cushion thrown at your head.

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