So the regular season's over and Toronto FC missed the playoffs, finishing dead last among MLS' 13 teams. Predictable result for an expansion team, but definitely not the ending folks envisioned in late March, just before the season kicked off.
When the team hired Mo Johnston last August he promised goals and wins, and as the season approached he said TFC was an expansion team in name only. Ten days before the season started I sat down with Dominic Kinnear, head coach of the MLS Cup Champion Houston Dynamo. He looked at Toronto's preseason starting 11 and declared them a playoff calibre team. And that was before Danny Dichio and Marvell Wynne arrived. (Photo: TONY BOCK/TORONTO STAR)
Just wondering: in light of the sky-high preseason expectations, how many of you would call TFC's last place finish a disappointment? Did the team underachieve, or did people just expect too much of them too early? What could they have accomplished without all those injuries?
I admit, I entered my rookie season as a soccer reporter knowing next to nothing about Major League Soccer. The only MLS players I would have reecognized if I'd seen them on the street were Dwayne De Rosario, Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan.
Didn't take me long to learn that parity rules in Major League Soccer. Think about it. Houston won the 2006 MLS Cup even though they won only 11 of 32 regular season games. By June 17, when Toronto defeated first place FC Dallas 4-0, it was clear to me that top eleven vs. top eleven, pretty much all MLS teams are equal. Long term, the difference between teams is depth. This year some teams had it. Toronto didn't. So I don't think TFC's result this season is as much a disappointment as it is a lesson in how to sustain MLS success.
The moves Mo Johnston makes to acquire the depth that leads to long-term success tops my list of four things to watch for before the start of next season.
1. As we said already... Johnston has said repeatedly that he wants to sign two defenders, two midfielders and two strikers this offseason. That's too much to ask, is it? It's only ONE THIRD of your active roster. Bringing in six top-flight players might be a bit of a stretch, but I can respect Johnston's premise. If you have 17 guys good enough to start, you no longer have to worry about the huge talent gap between starters and subs. That means injuries don't have to lead to goal droughts and winless streaks. And that could mean a regular season result that lives up to the preseason hype.
Problem: If you want 17 or 18 guys who are good enough to start, you'll also have 17 or 18 guys who want starter-sized salaries. Not an easy thing to do when dealing with a salary cap. Through trades and drafts Johnston has bought the club plenty of salary cap leeway, but he still faces difficult balancing act.
2. A Desingnated Player: This is where I disagree with my colleague, Star soccer columnist Cathal Kelly. He thinks Toronto needs a DP. I say they don't.
A DP can give you star power, but one man can't give you depth. For the $400,000 of salary cap space a DP would consume, you could sign a couple of solid starters. I'm neither a mathmatician nor a soccer tactician, but I'm pretty sure two good players give you more depth than one very expensive one.
I didn't concoct this theory on my own. Figured it out looking at the MLS standings (or the "table" for you soccer purists). Four teams (Houston, New England, Chivas and DC) finished the season with more than 50 points. None of those teams has a DP. Chivas doesn't even have a DP slot. They traded it to New York for a player they subsequently cut (Amado Guevara), and still finished the season with 53 points, second overall. New York, with two DPs, finished with 43 points.
That's simple math, kids. Chivas spent less and won more. Can't argue with that.
3. The Import Ratio: I won't quote exact numbers here because the MLS rulebook is more complex than the tax code, but I know there's a rule limiting the number of imports on MLS roster. It's similar to the CFL's import ratio, meant to ensure that domestic players (Americans) will always have jobs in the league. The problem for Toronto FC its domestic players are Canadian, while its Americans count as imports. It wouldn't be a problem if Canada's talent pool was as deep at the United States'. But it's not. That means 12 MLS teams have a fairly deep pool of domestic talent to draw from when trading for and signing players. Toronto doesn't have that luxury. Johnston says he'll petition the league to change the rule and allow Toronto to use both Canadians and Americans as "domestic" players. Not sure when the league will make a decision, but I expect them to grant Johnston's wish. In terms of attendance and atmosphere TFC achieved beyond even the league's expecatation, so look for MLS to throw Mo a bone.
* Just reminding you again that this blog is pure speculation, and that I can't be held responsible for any predictions that don't pan out. HOWEVER, I WILL claim credit for any predictions that actually come true. I know it's not fair but it's the rule. So if MLS changes the import ratio for TFC, YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST...
4. Mo Johnston's Accent
I love it. The best accent in sports. What I wouldn't give to hear the pregame conversations between Johnston and New England coach Steve Nicol, a fellow Scot.
He's been in North America since 1996, but that Scottish accent is still thicker than Glasgow fog. When I first started covering him I didn't even bother using my recorder. I would just scribble down what I could understand and keep moving.
Once during the preseaon he rattled of a list of injured players over the phone. There's one name I can't get, so I ask him to repeat it. He does, and I still don't get it.
I let it go, ask him some more questions, then ask him again the injured player's name.
He's hundreds of miles away, but through the fuzzy cell phone connection I can hear him sigh.
"Ah toold yeh three teymes uhl-REH-deh," he said. "Hez neem's Ehbm Behrce!"
At least that's what I think until I check the roster and learn the team has neither an "Evan" nor a "Burns."
Now I know if I call this guy back he'll blow up at me. Normally that wouldn't bother me, but I'm new on the beat and it's too early in the season to be antagonizing folks.
But I need the info.
So I hatch a plan.
I call him and tell him I didn't get the correct spelling of the guy's name.
I hear another groan.
He spells the name, almost spitting each letter at me over the phone.
"A-D-A-M, B-R-A-Z! Ehbm Behrce!"
Yeah, that was rough, but as the season wore on, Johnston became easier to understand. Once I even heard him say "Together" (instead of "tuh-gaih-thah").
But a big part of me doesn't want Johnston to be easy to understand. His accent is as much a part of soccer in Toronto as blood and guts from Danny Dichio and rowdy crowds at BMO Field. I hope one of his off-season scouting trips takes him to Scotland, where he can regain the sharp edges on an accent worn just a little dull after 11 years on this continent.
So Mo, if you're reading this, make all the changes you can between now and April. Change your starting lineup and change your bench. Change the rulebook if it'll help you win games. Change whatever you want, but please don't ever ("Eh-vah") change that accent.
-- Morgan Campbell