Who do you think will be starting at First Kick?
Good question. This needs a huge "At the time of writing" asterisk as I hope to god, there's more players and new signings on the way. As it stands, going by players who are actually signed and in camp, this is the best we've got to fill out Aron Winter's preferred 4-3-3 formation.
In goal, Stefan Frei. One of the few unproblematic positions, Frei is a solid MLS calibre goalie, though his distribution skills will be tested with TFC's renewed emphasis on keeping possession.
In Defense, Adrian Cann and Nana Attakora were a very good center back partnership last year, and should be starters again. Unfortunately 2010 MVP Cann is currently sitting out in a contract dispute, so I'll put Home Grown player Doneil Henry with Attakora in the middle. The full back positions are where there's real question marks, hopefully some trialists, draft picks or academy kids will stake a claim, but for now, it's probably Ty Harden and Dan Gargan, which is less than ideal.
In Midfield, Julian De Guzman should fit well into Winter's new system and he'll be joined by Dwayne De Rosario as the attacking midfielder. Those two are definites, the third spot, probably another deep lying player, is up for grabs though Nick LaBrocca is getting an extended look in pre-season.
Up front, Maicon Santos will be the central striker and he showed enough last year to suggest he could be very good. Again though there are question marks out wide, Jacob Peterson will take one of the spots and for the other I'll have to go with someone who isn't even signed yet, Dutch winger Javier Martina who's been given a lot of playing time in pre-season. The side has a strong spine with Frei, Attakora, De Guzman, De Rosario and Santos, but the other positions are in serious need of an upgrade, so hopefully reinforcements are on the way.
Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?
What's Dutch for "to be announced"? A lot of last year's squad were let go, and the replacements so far are less than convincing. Nathan Sturgis could be a dependable squad player, but will never be described as an impact player, and hasn't impressed Winter so far in pre-season. Javier Martina, a young Dutch winger who still hasn't been officially announced as signed has looked exciting in pre-season, but has "mercurial and frustratingly inconsistent winger" written all over him. I'm seriously going to go with TBA, as there's got to be someone better coming soon, there has to be.
Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?
Chad Barrett. Most of the players let go from last year's squad will not be missed at all. Barrett's not a superstar by any means, but he will be missed. He's always had a great work rate and done all the extra stuff well, and last season he added an improved strike rate to that to become one of the most important players on the team, it's no coincidence that things went seriously wrong with Preki's team last year when Barrett was injured. For a team that's always struggled to score goals, getting Barrett's replacement right will be a huge factor.
At what point is this season considered success?
TFC are basically an expansion club again, and seem to be thinking a bit more long term than they have before, so my expectations for this season are appropriately low. Making the playoffs would be a huge success, what would be satisfactory? For me, I'd say whatever's considered good enough for the new management group to retain the confidence of supporters and management so we don't have to start all over again, again. To give some realistic targets, I'll say any 2 of reaching 40 points (probably not good enough for even the new easy playoffs), finishing above Vancouver, or retaining the Voyageurs cup and then making the Champions League group stage would be considered successful.
Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?
As proven over the last couple of years, a good or even great year for Dwayne De Rosario doesn't automatically translate to a good year for TFC, so I'll go with Julian de Guzman. So far he's been a disappointment with TFC not seeing the form he's previously showed for Canada and Deportivo La Coruna in Spain, but his ability to find space and make himself available as an outlet for the defence, and then move the ball on quickly is going to be a crucial factor in making Winter's more patient possession based system work. Also, with three up front, TFC could often find itself out-manned in the middle so his positioning and ability to break down opponent's attacks will be just as important. Should a DM be a DP? Maybe not, but for better or worse he is, and for TFC to be successful, he'll have to play much better than he did last year and really earn it.
Does the Emperor actually have clothes? (Or, Is Aron Winter the new Ruud Gullit?)
Aron Winter was certainly a crowd pleasing big name to bring in as Technical Director and head coach, and since arriving in January, he's definitely talked a good game. After Preki's more pragmatic and defensive approach last year, talk of attractive attacking football was like catnip to TFC fans, and he seems very confident that he can compete quickly and be successful within his initial three-year contract. I have plenty of confidence that his long term impact will be very good, setting in place a system and philosophy that can be shared all the way from the first team down through to the youngest academy teams, which will pay dividends for years to come, even after his departure. Short term though, when it gets down to the day to day managing of an MLS squad, with all the limitations that imposes, I definitely have doubts. Though he was a great player, and Ajax is a great place to learn as an assistant, he's untested as a head coach, and the trialists he's brought in have been distinctly underwhelming so far. Will he be as successful as he thinks, and more importantly will he be able to make the adjustments and compromises that will be needed, or will the limitations of MLS, the salary cap, the overall talent level and the more physical style of play frustrate and defeat him before we even get to see the long term benefits?
Can TFC win anything with kids?
Alan Hansen famously said you never win anything with kids, but TFC will be hoping that he's wrong as it looks like we're in for a serious youth movement in Toronto. A lot of emphasis and investment continues to be made in TFC's academy, with hopes that Aron Winter and fellow Dutch coach Bob de Klerk can translate their experience at Ajax into success here and provide the new players for Toronto and Canada for years to come. Most supporters were probably thinking that all this would be in the future, but given the lack of experienced players currently in the squad, it seems like the kids will have a big part to play this year. So far in pre-season, 2011 Super Draft picks Demetrious Omphroy and Joao Plata have played a lot, as have academy players Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson, Oscar Cordon and Kevin Aleman who starred with Canada's under 17 team at the recent world cup qualifying tournament. Given the current bare bones squad size, I'd expect quite a few of those players to be signed up to the first team and be challenging for starting positions, throw in young Dutch winger and Ajax academy graduate Javier Martina who looks to have won a starting place on the left wing, and TFC could have a very young squad. The experience should help the kids contribute in the future, which is the real goal here, but if a few of them can't step up and play well this year, 2011 is going to be a long season.
- Report by Duncan Fletcher of Waking the Red (soon to launch Toronto FC blog)