Try this picture on for size, and as an MLS fan, let me know what thoughts run through your head (with all due apologies to Pierre van Hooijdonk, who – despite a fantastic name and a great career – has no ties to my knowledge with the league) when you look at this picture.
If you’re like me, Ruud Gullit and the 2008 Los Angeles Galaxy, sadly.
Aron Winter must have had contact with Gullit before making the move to North America last season. After all, Gullit was only three years removed from one of the biggest disasters in MLS history, a man that had no idea with North American soccer was about, and more importantly – never really cared to learn.
(And I’m not saying our system is better, or the single-entity system is ideal, but it’s just different than Europe, as most of you know).
Gullit’s Galaxy gave up an alarming amount of goals, only Gullit never heard it, and was gone by August, probably the most ignominious reign in league history.
Enter Winter before last season in Toronto, coming directly from Ajax, preaching about how his team was going to do things “the right way”, and then his system would eventually show MLS the real way to play soccer.
Winter began his tenure by doing things like trying to ban the media from his locker room, which obviously ingratiated him with everyone quickly. It wasn’t Ruud Gullit 2.0, but it was certainly leaning in that direction as TFC couldn’t get the ball, couldn’t keep the ball out of their net, and sat near the bottom of the standings.
And in late June, Winter – like Gullit – was gone, remarkably in even quicker fashion. But he wasn’t. It was just a rumor. The real story was that TFC was adding Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings. Over the course of the second half of the season, Winter’s team – now with more talent in key positions, thrived, Winter seemed to back off some from his rigidity, and here were are.
Yes, Koevermans and Frings are getting toward the end of their careers. Yes, the back still needs a little to be desired. And, yes, Joao Plata is still about 5-foot-1. But none of those things will keep Toronto from finally making their first appearance in the MLS playoffs:
2011 standing: 6-13-15 (33 pts., 8th in East, 16th of 18 overall)
Coach: Aron Winter (2nd season)
Attendance: 20,267 (4th of 18)
Best new signing:
Luis Silva – The SuperDraft is increasingly becoming a secondary way, rather than a primary one, to pick up players in MLS, but there is a lot of hype around Silva, this year’s fourth pick out of UCSB. In Winter’s attacking style and with Koevermans, Frings, and Plata to work with, it’s a good place for someone with some individual skill, and he may be a guy you want to keep an eye on as the season begins next week.
Danleigh Borman – Not a huge name, but he made 18 starts for TFC, most of them toward the end of the season when Toronto’s backline looked a lot better than it did early. Guys like young Home Grown talent Ashtone Morgan will step in, but Borman – while not spectacular – was steady, and may be a bigger loss than he looks on the surface.
Julian de Guzman – After spending much of his first two-and-a-half seasons with TFC in the discussion as the most overpaid player in the history of MLS, de Guzman showed some signs of life last season, even if it wasn’t quite the form that TFC had hoped for when he came over from La Liga. But with some talent, particularly Frings, around him, de Guzman should feel more at home. He’s only 30, and should obviously now be used to the league. There’s not quite as much pressure on him, not as much expected out of him, and that may be the time he steps up to do his best work with the club.
Random fact (s):
Koevermans played in only 10 games, yet still managed to lead Toronto with eight goals, two ahead of Maicon Santos, with none of them coming from the penalty spot. Koevermans also tied Plata for the team lead in shots on goal with 17. TFC still finished second to last in the league in goals scored with 36 (one ahead of Vancouver).
It’s still hard to be totally convinced with what TFC has in the back, although Frings and de Guzman obviously help those guys. Morgan just turned 21 and made only nine starts last season. Doneil Henry is another young Canadian who has shown potential, but also had some shocking games in his young career. Chilean Miguel Aceval may play a role and Richard Eckersley will almost certainly start in the center of the defense. There are a lot of options for Winter, but he’d like to get a set back four sooner rather than later. They also need their veterans: Koevermans, Frings, de Guzman, goalkeeper Stefan Frei, among others, to stay healthy.
Those who didn’t see how good Koevermans was at the end of the season probably just weren’t watching, which is understandable given TFC’s spot in the standings. But teamed with Plata, now Silva, and Ryan Johnson, and it’s hard to see Toronto struggling to score goals the way they did last season. Behind them are Frings and de Guzman, who – with apologies to Larentowicz and Mastroeni in Colorado – could be the most defensively talented center of the midfield in MLS. Frei has been one of the best goalkeepers in MLS when healthy, and might even see a little less action this season, which is a good thing.
I don’t know if it’s a complete transformation for Winter, obviously the improvement in the talent he had to work with helped, but Toronto – as it was playing at the end of last season – was a playoff team. That doesn’t necessarily transfer over from one season to the next, but they’ve kept Koevermans, Frings, and Plata together, added a couple of pieces to it, and still have Frings and de Guzman to patrol the midfield. There are questions, but in a league like this, everyone has questions.
The key will be keeping form in what is a long and draining MLS campaign. Toronto will be playing in the Champions League quarterfinals next week, and will have to deal with plenty of fixtures between now and November. How does Winter handle that with guys like Koevermans, Frings, and de Guzman. Luckily, he likely won’t have to deal with the added burden of international duty among the first two, but de Guzman and a few other Canadians will likely have to play some games for Canada starting in the summer as well.
If Winter can stay patient, not be afraid to rotate his guys, and use what should be a massive home-field advantage to his benefit, TFC – finally – will be in the postseason, and I believe they will.