Friday, July 04, 2008

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Now that the Euro fun and games are over, I'm trying to catch up on all of the stuff I've missed in the past few weeks.

Toronto FC
Toronto continued their quest for a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League with a 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps at BMO Field on Tuesday. Vancouver's goal came on a 36th-minute penalty after Jim Brennan was called for holding Vancouver's Jim Clarke in the 18-yard box. It was a very lackluster first half from TFC, and John Carver made three changes at halftime in an attempt to recharge the attack. Toronto dominated the second half, and Jeff Cunningham appeared to score in the 80th minute, but it was ruled out for offside.

All in all, a disappointing result for Toronto -- their first home loss of the season. But they should be a bit encouraged by the fan support, as the stadium was almost full despite the fact that the game wasn't included in the season ticket package.

The rematch between TFC and the Whitecaps will be July 9th in Vancouver. Before that, they play a friendly against Pachuca at BMO Field on July 5, followed by an away game against the Chicago Fire on July 12 and another friendly against Independiente on July 15.

Toronto may have lost to the Whitecaps, but their MLS home record is still without a defeat. They beat the Colorado Rapids 3-1 back on June 14, despite missing several key players due to international duty. That was followed by a scoreless draw with Kansas City on June 21.

I was at that game, and although Toronto didn't lose, I thought it was a mediocre performance -- it kind of reminded me of a lot of their games last year. Maybe it was because they were still fielding a lot of second-string players, despite having everyone back from internationals. Maybe they're all just tired; I don't know. But their awful road form continued -- Toronto is now 1-5-0 away from BMO Field this season -- with a 2-1 defeat to the New England Revolution on June 28. They really have to sort that out if they want to be genuine playoff contenders this year.

A few other odds and ends

  • Toronto have signed 16-year-old striker Abdus Ibee Ibrahim from FC Dallas, in exchange for a conditional draft pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.

  • Mo Johnston is in talks with Paul Dickov (just released by Manchester City) and Darren Huckerby (most recently of Norwich City). Both players apparently watched the Toronto-Vancouver game this week, and Dickov trained with the team yesterday. I don't know much about Huckerby, but I can tell you that Dickov has a very punchable face.

  • Amado Guevara, Greg Sutton and Maurice Edu have made it into the list of the top 10 players in fan voting for the All-Star Game, which makes up 25% of the total vote for the all-star team (the rest comes from coaches, players and the media). The team will be revealed next Thursday, July 10.

  • The All-Star Game is apparently going to be part of a three-day Soccer Jam, whatever the hell that is. According to their press release, it will involve "plenty of fun, interactive soccer and music and activities that will appeal to soccer fans of all ages." It all sounds kind of horrifying, frankly, but then again I've never been much of a keener for stuff like that. Anyway, the whole shebang will be bookended by Toronto v. Montreal on July 22 and the All-Star Game against West Ham on July 24.

  • The draw for the preliminary round and group stage has been done. Assuming that Toronto beats out Vancouver and Montreal for the one Canadian spot, they'd face the Nicaraguan champions in the preliminary round. If they win that, they'll be put into Group C along with Atlante (Mexico), OlĂ­mpia or Marathon (Honduras), and Joe Public (Trinidad & Tobago) or New England Revolution (USA).

  • Ottawa has joined the list of potential sites for an MLS expansion team, as Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is reportedly exploring bringing a soccer team to the city. Vancouver is another possibility -- and a more likely one, in my opinion -- with NBA star Steve Nash interested in helping to get an MLS team in his hometown. The league has already granted franchises to Seattle for 2009 and 2010, bringing the total to 16 teams, and is likely to cap expansion at 18 teams a couple years after that, so the competition could be intense.

  • In other expansion news, MLSE is looking into the possibility of expanding BMO Field from its current capacity of 20,000 to about 30,000 seats. The club has sold out every league game this year, including 16,000 season ticket holders, which suggests that the demand is there. The sticking point, though, is likely to be who'll pay for the project, with the City of Toronto insisting that it won't contribute any more than the $9.8 million it put into the initial construction.

  • On a related note, take a look at BMO Field's financial results for the first quarter of 2008. They reportedly lost money in the quarter -- more than they'd hoped -- but expect to be able to make it up over the rest of the year.

Canada men's national team
Canada opened their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign with a 3-0 away victory over St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and then followed that up with a 4-1 win in the return leg in Montreal. In the next round, Canada will be facing Jamaica, Honduras and Mexico in Stage III of the CONCACAF qualifiers, which run from August to November. Canada’s three home matches are August 20 against Jamaica in Toronto, September 6 against Honduras in Montreal and October 15 against Mexico in Edmonton. Canada needs to finish as one of the top two teams in the group to advance to the next stage.

It's not all smooth sailing for the team, though: as usual, they're not happy with the CSA, and this time it's about which stadium should be their home field. The CSA wants to spread their games around the country -- and on top of that, they have a deal with the City of Toronto and MLSE to play at least six national team-related games at BMO Field each year. (These don't necessarily have to be senior men's team games, though.) The players, on the other hand, much prefer the natural surface at Montreal's Saputo Stadium.

I wonder, too, how much of their preference for Montreal is due to the crowd support they get there. Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton is a natural grass surface, but it's a huge venue to fill (60,000+ seats); Toronto is the right size, but it's a turf field and the away teams tend to get as much support as the Canadians do -- or more. Saputo Stadium is maybe too small -- only about 13,000 seats, but in addition to a much better playing surface, I suspect there's also less chance that the fans will be cheering for the other guys. But I'm with the Globe and Mail's Ben Knight in hoping that this will change in Toronto in the future.

Actually, combining this issue with the possibility of expanding BMO Field, you know what I'd really like to see? A whole soccer complex on the CNE grounds. A main pitch with a natural grass surface and expanded stands, for Toronto FC and (the majority of) national team games. Plus a couple of turf fields -- with a bubble over them in the winter -- for use in training and by community soccer leagues. I know it'd take a fairly significant injection of cash, but how awesome would that be?

Canada women's national team
The Canadian women's team finished second overall in the eight-team Peace Queen Cup in South Korea from June 14 to June 21. Canada opened the tournament with a 5-0 win over Argentina, followed by a 3-1 victory over their Korean hosts. A 2-0 win over New Zealand meant that they finished top of their group. Unfortunately, they lost 1-0 to the USA in the final, after Angela Hucles scored off a free kick in the 90th minute.

The team is now in a residency camp in Vancouver to prepare for the Olympics in August. They'll warm up for the Olympics with a friendly against Brazil at BMO Field on July 10. (Which reminds me that I should try to round up some people from my women's team to go and watch them. Or any of my teams, really; I shouldn't be assuming that only the women would want to go.)

The womens' U20 team, meanwhile, has just won the 2008 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship in Mexico. Canada won all three of its group games, beating Nicaragua, Jamaica and Costa Rica, and beating Mexico 2-1 in the semi-final. The Canadian team went on to defeat the USA 1-0 in the final, with a goal from Karla Schacher just before halftime. The result means that Canada, along with the USA and Mexico, has booked a spot at the Under-20 World Cup in Chile this November.

Phew. My typing fingers hurt now.

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