Thoughts from a displaced Torontonian
Last year, I moved from Toronto to Vancouver, and Saturday’s opening game between the two cities’ Major League Soccer franchises was a rare opportunity for me to see my hometown team in action. The Whitecaps hosted Toronto FC at BC Place to kick off the 2013 MLS season with a rematch between last year’s Canadian Championship finalists.
Expectations weren’t high among the Toronto supporters, with a slew of players signed just a day before the game. The Whitecaps, meanwhile, finished in a wild card spot last season and reinforced their lineup with some shrewd off-season acquisitions. Most of them were given time to adjust to their new surroundings, while Toronto’s late additions like Robert Earnshaw weren’t even sure they’d be registered in time for kick-off until a few hours before the game.
As usual, it’s hard to know precisely where the blame lies for Toronto’s organizational problems. New GM Kevin Payne joined the club in late November and oversaw the hiring of head coach Ryan Nelsen earlier this year. For a club needing defensive stability it seemed a strange move recruiting an active player in England with Queens Park Rangers, and stranger still that he was earning Man of the Match plaudits against Manchester City after the appointment but planning to focus only on coaching in Toronto. Payne, who led operations at D.C. United when Ryan Nelsen was winning an MLS Cup there in 2004, has said he has better leadership qualities than any professional athlete he’s worked with. This was scant consolation to Toronto fans expecting another season of disappointment, with their patience already worn thin from 6 years of mismanagement before Nelsen admitted he would’ve liked 5 more weeks to build the team.
Really engenders optimism for the travelling faithful, doesn’t it? While my own trip to BC Place was barely 30 minutes, I felt for the Toronto fans I met outside who had flown in from Buffalo for a sports-themed weekend. My tickets were in a small pocket of Toronto fans, but the crowd banter was light-hearted, punctuated by handshakes and smiles when the final whistle cemented the home side’s win in the battle of North America’s nicest cities.
As the first half progressed, it looked like Nelsen had imparted his take-no-prisoners defensive attitude to his charges on the field. Toronto have flirted with different styles over the years in between rebooting the franchise, from Preki’s overwrought fitness regime to Aron Winter’s pie-in-the-sky passing game, and it looks like Nelsen may be bringing in the best of both worlds. Success in MLS likely needs a combination of the two.
Reggie “Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Etc.” Lambe is a holdover from Paul Mariner’s penchant for Bermudan journeymen and may be one of the first to be relegated to the bench when more reinforcements arrive. British imports “Hollywood Hulk” Hogan Ephraim and Earnshaw looked promising but a yard or two off the pace of the game, which is to be expected from two guys who haven’t seen much first-team football lately. In the absence of any decent cover, Earnshaw started and played 85 minutes, looking largely isolated up top. The Whitecaps made their third substitution just as Toronto made their first, bringing in Taylor Morgan and finally Emery Welshman. Another draft pick, Kyle Bekker, showed signs of potential and could be a star for Toronto; frankly, though, the team shouldn’t be in a position where it has to rely on a recent college grad to be the creative outlet and main set-piece taker. Nelsen declined to make a third substitution, with a lack of depth meaning he couldn’t force a last-gasp tactical change to focus on attack. The match was arguably lost on this inability to change the game, and Toronto’s performance was tempered by the realization that a proper pre-season and a full bench could’ve made the difference.
In Danny Califf and Darren O’Dea, Toronto has a centre-back pairing that looked solid, if slightly culpable of not keeping up with Vancouver’s quick passing on Gershon Koffie’s goal. I would’ve liked to have seen Gale Agbossoumonde see the field, especially with the third substitution going unused. The American defender and local boy Doneil Henry, who was recently injured on Canada U-20 duty, will hopefully rotate in and challenge for Califf’s spot in defense, starting next week at home to Sporting Kansas City.
On the home side, Vancouver’s new signings will take some time to gel themselves, but at least had the benefit of a few practice sessions together in pre-season. It was a member of the old guard who looked especially shaky, with designated player Kenny Miller passing the ball to an opposing player at every available opportunity. I’ve been an apologist for the veteran striker in the past, mostly thanks to his goals for Scotland over the last decade, but on Saturday’s evidence he is no longer worth DP money and can barely cut it in this league. I’d like to be proved wrong, but after yesterday I’d be surprised if the fans will tolerate his contract for the rest of the season.
Perhaps most worryingly for both sides, the other Canadian MLS team Montreal Impact played a blinder just over the border in Seattle. In a game broadcast on local television that I was able to catch in Vancouver, captain Davy Arnaud scored the winner as the Impact held on for a 1-0 win to silence the famous Sounders crowd. Back in January, head coach Marco Schällibaum was announced as head coach at the same time as Nelsen, but has had the benefit of being around his team since that time while Nelsen finished up his playing duties in England.
All in all, promising signs for Toronto ahead of next week’s home opener at the Rogers Centre. Anything but a point against Kansas City could see the goodwill gained from the Vancouver performance lost and the fans turn on club management for seemingly sitting on their hands for much of pre-season. Thankfully, though, Nelsen looks like the type of coach who won’t allow that to happen.
Agree or disagree with Scott’s take on the season opener? Comment below.