By: Mike Newell
As this season began Toronto FC’s expectations were high. The club set three major goals with new head coach Preki, 1) Retain the Nutrilite Canadian championship 2) Qualify for the group stages of CONCACAF Champions League and 3) Make the playoffs for the first time in club history. After a sluggish pre-season filled with poor play and roster issue it seemed the team would have been hard pressed to attain those goals. It looked even bleaker after the first two games of the regular season in which they lost at a combined score of 6-1. After the first four games TFC were 1-3 with only 3 goals scored and 9 against.
Through out the that time Preki and GM Mo Johnston preached clam, noting that the players were getting the know each other and the new managers style of play. There were only 7 players that returned from the 09 squad, with many of the new faces joining the club just before or right after the start of the regular season. Shortly after being outclassed at the Rio Tinto by Real Salt Lake in early May, the players held a closed door meeting the air out the issues and get on track with club expectations. The next game, a home win against Chicago would start the club on a club record 11 match unbeaten streak.[picappgallerysingle id=”9533210″]
Within that streak the club captured it’s second Canadian championship and a preliminary round date with Motauga of Honduras. With the added success the club faced a new problem, a congested fixture list with a lot of travel and little rest or training time.
TFC’s success in defeating Motagua in the preliminary round and advancing to the group stage of the champions league (Check two in the list of club goals if you’re keeping track) is so far the club’s biggest achievement in it’s 4 year history. However many TFC supporters are wondering what cost will the CCL group stages take on the team’s main goal, making the playoffs.
By no means are the Reds the lone MLS team that will have to deal with 6 extra games, as Seattle, Columbus and Real Salt Lake will also play group stage games. However what those teams have that Toronto lacks is true squad depth. Aside from new acquisitions like Mista, and Maicon Santos, the squad it fairly thin especially in the midfield. If the priority in the playoffs, Preki will have to make tough choices around who plays and who rests for crucial league games. One wouldn’t be surprised if Preki chose to field some of the academy players against Cruz Azul on Tuesday. He showed his willingness to do so in the second leg against Motagua in Tegucigalpa playing academy stand out Doneil Henry at right back.
Preki may have to start making these decisions quickly, as the team looked flat out exhausted in the second half of their loss to the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night. He also now has to deal with preferred starting striker Chad Barret sidelined with a hamstring problem after he hobbled off only 30 minutes in. Barret’s injury is one in a growing list of concerns facing TFC as we head towards the business end of the season.
Toronto currently hold the 8th and final playoff spot with San Jose just 3 points behind, but with a crucial 2 games in hand on TFC. The club is also heading into the toughest part of their schedule in which they still have to play Real twice, Columbus, Chicago and Houston all on the road where they have a 1-9 record this season. In between those games TFC have mid week group league games which will take them as far as Panama within a three day turn around.The long used mental gut check cliche will be an ever present for the Reds.
However this is what club management wanted, this is the price for relative success.
Preki will have to become a master of man management in order to pull this off. He will need to get captain Dewayne De Rosario and DP Julian De Guzman rest, get the back four in order and get Mista match fit. He also has to avoid injury to key members as he does not have much to choose from in replacements. He also must not crumble under the immense pressure club supporters are putting on him to win, and although Club owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will not come out a directly say it, they want TFC in the MLS Cup final on home soil as it would be a cash bonanza for MLSE.
TFC have craved success since its inception and now that it has some of it, tough choices need to be made before the relative champions league dream season turns into potential playoff disappointment.
It all begins Tuesday night against Cruz Azul at BMO Field.