Gareth Wheeler, TSN.CA

Gareth Wheeler
TORONTO FC has asked the soccer experts what fans can expect from Canada's MLS franchises in 2012. Coverage continues today with a preview of Toronto FC by TSN Radio 1050's Gareth Wheeler. Will the team be able to turn the corner in its sixth season and finally reach the post-season? Will Torsten Frings be enough to push the team into the top half of the league? Read on for Gareth's take and be sure to check back out's 2012 previews for the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Consistency breeds success. That's the hope for Head Coach Aron Winter and Toronto FC entering the club's sixth season in Major League Soccer. The five previous seasons were marked by regular wholesale changes to the roster and coaching staff. And the infamous record of being the only team in MLS history failing to qualify for the playoffs in their first five years is ugly proof of previous dysfunction.

Change of a different kind took place at the club this off-season: very few changes of any significance were made to the team at all. And it's this newfound stability that gives reason to believe brighter days are on the horizon.

Winter enters his second year in charge at TFC. His first season at the helm was one of education and experiment. The process was progressive, but the results were often not pretty. Toronto FC conceded the most goals (59), scored the second fewest (36), and ended with the worst goal differential (-23) in MLS. But the numbers only tell part of the story.

Winter's arrival last January gave him very little time to prepare and with the cupboards rather bare, the Dutchman - along with Director of Player Personnel Paul Mariner - rebuilt the team on the fly. By mid-season, the squad had been re-invented through multiple trades and the signing of two new Designated Players, striker Danny Koevermans and former German International midfielder, Torsten Frings.

With the injection of pedigree came professionalism to the roster, short on experience and years. Positive results followed suit. Toronto FC ended the season on a five-match unbeaten streak, including unexpectedly advancing through the CONCACAF Champions League group stage.

Winter's squad is not yet a complete package but his side does have a proper mix of youth and veteran experience, with requisite attacking flair. While questions remain at the back, the team made enough progress over the last 14 months under Winter to expect Toronto FC to be a part of the playoff equation: MLS Eastern Conference is wide-open. The door is open for Toronto FC to take advantage.

2011 Finish: Eighth in Eastern Conference (6-13-15). Did not qualify for Playoffs.

Key additions: D Jeremy Hall (trade with Dallas), M Reggie Lambe (Int'l signing), D Miguel Aceval (Int'l signing).

Key subtractions: M Nathan Sturgis (trade with Houston), D Kyle Davies (waived), M Matt Gold (waived), M Leandre Griffit (waived), F Javier Martina (waived), D Demitrius Omphroy (waived), D Eddy Viator (waived), M Gianluca Zavarise (waived), D Danleigh Borman (MLS Re-Entry Draft), F Mikael Yourassowsky (waived), D Andy Iro (option declined), F Peri Marosevic (option declined), M Elbekay Bouchiba (waived).

SuperDraft: M Luis Silva (1-4), D Aaron Maund (1-12).

Goal: Milos Kocic
Defence: Adrian Cann, Jeremy Hall,
Doneil Henry, Aaron Maund
Midfield: Oscar Cordon, Terry Dunfield,
Luis Silva, Matt Stinson
Forwards: Reggie Lambe, Nick Soolsma

Plan of Attack: Winter's tactics were a great unknown coming to MLS. The much talked about Dutch Revolution and the influence of 'total soccer' was often tough to evaluate with an ever-changing roster and many players not suited to play a more brave, possession game out of the back.

Fan favourite, the diminutive Joao Plata and Jamaican winger Ryan Johnson flourished towards the end of the season. Both are fit, pacey, and cause all kinds of problems down the wings. Johnson has particularly looked bright in the pre-season, also having scored Internationally for Jamaica last week. Plata will have to learn to adapt his game, improving his distribution to become a more complete player.

Winter's superior tactical wherewithal saw his team surprisingly start matches in a heavily attack-minded 3-4-3 at times. Three at the back was hardly preferable, but with few capable defenders fit, Winter played to his team's strength and earned Toronto FC points in games they were clearly out-matched on paper.

Stability at the back is mandatory for success in 2012. Without a traditional leader at the back, Toronto FC relies on system on the ability of the wingbacks to get forward to change shape. Bringing right-back Richard Eckersley to the club on a permanent deal was the most important business of the off-season and the future is now for Ashtone Morgan, with Canadian U-20 Player of the Year winning the position on the left-flank.

If the back-four struggles early, Winter will be tempted to deploy his star player Frings at centre-back, much like he did last season. The team Captain prefers to sit in front of the defenders in the city of the park, where he has a greater influence on proceedings.

Frings, alongside fellow Designated Player, Julian de Guzman combine to make for one of the most effective defensive midfields in MLS. The Canadian International stepped up his game late in the season with better talent around him and a more defined role. De Guzman will miss Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League match against the LA Galaxy through suspension. Winter has plenty of cover in the middle of the park (Dunfield, Stinson, Avila); easily Toronto FC's greatest position of depth.

Up front, Danny Koevermans will be expected to do the heavy lifting for a team looking for secondary scoring. Outside of Koevermans eight goals, no member of the current squad scored more than three. Winter is hoping rookie Luis Silva takes some pressure of Koevermans, making a smooth transition into the traditional 'number 10' role as facilitator and goal scorer.

Home and Away: Two players for Toronto FC fans to watch this season - one home grown and one imported from overseas.

No squad player benefitted more from opportunity afforded by the youth movement last season than Canadian left-back Ashtone Morgan. A product of Toronto FC's Academy, the 21-year old made 14 MLS appearances in 2011, as well as appearing in all 8 CONCACAF Champions League matches. Morgan was rewarded for his efforts with a call-up to the Canadian Men's National team and was named U-20 Player of the Year.

Technically gifted attacking down the flank, Morgan's challenge is develop defensive consistency while filling out his frame. If he continues to progress, Morgan will be in the discussion for a call-up for Canada's World Cup qualifiers this June.

The single-most important player for Toronto FC this season will be striker Danny Koevermans. The former Dutch International notched eight goals in 10 matches after arriving at the club in July, showing requisite physicality in front of goal, complemented by a deft scoring touch.

The 33-year old DP is the only traditional out-and-out centre forward on the roster. Staying healthy will be of the utmost priority for club and player, with Koevermans already leaving a pre-season match early as a precaution for hamstring tightness. The schedule and travel in MLS make staying fully fit a uphill battle. Any lengthy lay-off for Koevermans without proper back up at centre forward could be problematic for a thin front-line. With an additional International roster spot at their disposal, finding coverage for Koevermans may turn into Toronto FC's top priority as the season progresses.

Ashtone Morgan Home and Away Danny Koevermans




Supporters' Shield: Which Toronto FC player is destined to become a fan-favourite in 2012?

Toronto is a city that loves its blue-collar players. The city gets the best of both worlds – grit and quality – in team Captain Torsten Frings. Quality like Frings' does not go unnoticed in the soccer-savvy city. And Frings could very well replace incumbent Joao Plata as fan favourite if his inspirational performance lead Toronto FC up the standings in 2012.

The 35-year old answered any critics questioning his motive and commitment in joining Toronto FC with standout performances and unmatched on-field leadership. No player was more important to the team's late season turn-around, even deputizing centre-back when called upon.

It's cliché, but Frings essentially serves as another coach on the field. Toronto FC's Captain has seen it all as a World Cup runner-up and 15-year veteran of the Bundesliga. Some may be wary of his age, but Frings hasn't shown signs of slowing down. He's still a key contributor on set pieces and his experience as a ball winning centre-midfielder is an asset the team will rely on to turn around a porous away record from a year ago.

Strength of Schedule: While an opening date against the league's second-best regular season squad from last season (Seattle) is less than desirable for the Reds, four of the team's next five matches are within the friendly confines of BMO Field. The only road game in that stretch comes against the expansion Montreal Impact. If the team can right the ship early in the year it could provide a huge confidence boost as the summer schedule beckons.

Canadian Match-Ups

Saturday, April 7 @ Montreal
Wednesday, June 27 @ Montreal
Wednesday, July 11 vs. Vancouver
Saturday, October 20 vs. Montreal

Photos courtesy of: Abelimages/Getty Images


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