Saturday, March 28, 2009

Toronto FC shows road tenacity - 1-1 in Columbus

Saturday's game in Columbus was a classic case of getting something from very little as TFC played a few levels lower than their performance the week before in Kansas City. How could such a dull game played under dull Ohio skies somehow lift all of our spirits and have fans talking the night away about dreams and possibilities? The 09 season is humming along and already TFC have something big to brag about, Toronto FC heads back home undefeated!! Four points from the first two games and two road games at that. This is new territory. Next Saturday's home opener should be off the charts when it comes to energy, especially with Seattle challenging TFC for the title of best supported team in the MLS.
But back to Saturday. TFC and luck are seldom in the same place and today's penalty call against Kevin Harmse is our latest indication of that . My angle and distance on that first half moment was horrible. I thought he twisted away and the ball hit his arm, but the ref was a million miles closer. The subsequent penalty kick was put solidly away by our old friend Schelotto, but it did feel against the run of play. Apart from the goal, Frei had some solid saves in the first half and I am still worried about Sutton taking over in the second half. Did Frei injure himself? If not, it just seems dangerous to play two keepers per game. If your second half guy gets injured who takes to the net then?
Greg Sutton played well, but there were some rusty moments when neither Velez nor the keeper seemed 100% on who was going to play a ball with a Crew player breathing down their necks.
Overall I felt that TFC held the edge in effort and intent, by a small margin, throughout the game. Columbus always seemed more efficient with the ball and more packed in the back. Chad Marshall of the Crew was solid in central defense. Whether shadowing Vitti or contesting for airballs with Dichio, Marshall is always a force to be reckoned with. If he has a clone, I want him wearing red.
The second half was frustrating for TFC fans, all offensive build up and no true opportunities. Then Columbus gifted TFC with the own goal and the joy of a deserved draw was ours.
It was a patchwork midfield today. Kevin Harmse and Sam Cronin are defensive types and they clogged the middle of the field as expected. DeRosario played well, but sometimes looked lost without Guevara and Robinson. It makes sense that Columbus was able to give him less room to work with centrally and he was finding more success out on the right wing in the second half. Rohan Ricketts was ineffective and hard to watch. He created little and seemed to be satisfied with forever feeding the ball to his defensive midfielders Cronin and Harmse, not in very promising areas either. I was happy when he was substituted with Johann Smith. Smith used speed to advantage, stretched those defenders out on the flank and seemed more willing to move or pass forward. No doubt, Smith benefits in my mind from lower expectations. While I am talking about players, like Smith, who were freed from Coach Carver’s bench, Marco Velez was a starter and showed his value. I am still dreaming of a signing to pair with Serioux, but it did seem that Kevin Harmse was nursing an injury at game’s end. This spring could be Velez’s time to shine. His positioning was solid. He used his speed and strength well and took no crap from Schelotto, which is one of TFC’s finest traditions. You still cringe when he has the ball, but having Serioux nearby seems to be the cure for fan anxiety.
Pablo Vitti was a starter and he progressed well. He had a tendency to want the ball early in “back to the net –nowhere land”, as if his magic with the ball was so great he could make things happen from anywhere. He can’t. He seems to feed his fellow strikers well, although Chad Barrett needs to start scoring to deserve such service. I thought that Vitti looked more lively when paired with Dichio late in the game. He ran onto Danny’s touches and flick-ons. He also knew to keep moving when feeding the ball to Dichio because Dichio is going to find a way to get it back to him.
So now it is time to pack up and leave Columbus. I do have to say that the Columbus fans that I spoke to were wonderful. They are outgoing, proud of their team and more than a little impressed that so many of us travel the 8 hours. I am sure that the hotheads and drunks on both sides will get the attention, but the solid, decent fans deserve their shout-out too. Thanks for hosting, now boost your attendance so that you are able to host fewer of us.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Columbus still the target, does TFC have improved aim?

It is a fact that Columbus Crew were double champs last season. Sometimes I find it hard to keep this information at the forefront of my little mind. It is so easy to drift back to this time last year. I recall driving down to Columbus in 08 with the view that the first assignment facing TFC on the road to improvement was overtaking the Crew. Columbus had finished ahead of Toronto the year before, but were out of the playoff picture. Remember Columbus had been out of the playoffs for a few years prior.
Well, I guess much of that view holds to this day. Overtaking the Crew is still an important TFC goal and a goal that I think is very attainable.
I still scratch my head at how competitive TFC was with Columbus last year, even when you add in the opening game loss. They caught TFC napping in that game. After that there was a stalemate. The two games at BMO, were draws. Hard fought, not much difference between them style of games.
We know that Toronto have upgraded the roster since then. That game in March 08 was the first MLS game for Coach Carver, Brian Edwards and Marco Velez. The TFC starters included Tyler Hemmings, Jeff Cunningham and Collin Samuel. Need I say more?
Few changes have taken place in Columbus, but a significant one in the departure of Sigi Schmid for Seattle. I argue that the loss of Sigi as coach will have a negative impact on them this year. Schelotto and Moreno have skills aplenty and Rogers and Marshall are quality players, but will everything go right for them again in 09? I do not think they will drop much in the standings. They are a solid squad that will give nothing away, but I feel that TFC has a new energy and momentum. It is just one of those hunches that TFC will find the creative spark to defeat the Crew sometime in 09.
Both teams are going into this weekend's game with players missing. It would be foolish to guess which team will suffer more because of it. I think TFC fans have been fuelled by the win in Kansas City. We dare to dream of success in Ohio, but my pragmatic side would be just as happy with a tie on the road.
Today is the day that I start packing for Columbus. I am driving down early Saturday, aiming to leave home at 4 am. I took the Fort Erie route last year and will do it again. WARNING WARNING - Drive the speed limit or very close to it in Ohio. See you in Columbus.

PS The graphic above is from a facebook group of Crew fans who want to change the team logo. I like this improved version. I will write more on it next week.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Toronto FC road victory in 2009 season opener KC 2 TFC 3

Toronto FC started the 2009 season on a winning note, defeating Kansas City on the road Saturday night. This was an historic result. Toronto had failed in their first two campaigns to gain a point from opening games. Jim Brennan scored the first goal, the only of the first half, on an overlapping run and a powerful shot. DeRo had set the play in motion, when he goes forward with the ball TFC is a sight to behold. The off season hope that DeRo would make an offensive difference for this team was reality early in Kansas City. Chad Barrett had taken a variety of solid shots in the first half, but he did seem to fade in the second half. He was replaced by Danny Dichio in the 87th minute.
Amado Guevara was the TFC story of the second half, scoring two goals. His first was a matter of turning and finding the space to take a superb shot. The second was Guevara benefitting from another great DeRo run. Both Guevara and Cronin had KC keeper Hartmann at their mercy.
Later in the second half KC was called for a hand ball in the box, but DeRo drove the penalty kick just over the crossbar. Kansas City was never completely out of the game. They scored two goals, both were mid range well struck shots. The Wizards were not able to show much beyond those two flashes of potent offense. KC had a lot of passing around the back and flanks, but Stephan Frei was seldom tested and the TFC back four were solid. Serioux and Harmse contributed games where they were positionally strong, efficient without being flashy.
It was too rare that the tv cameras gave us glimpses of the travelling Toronto supporters. One of those in attendance, who calls himself The Traveller, was able to report back to this humble blog on how the night unfolded.

There are four things in the neighbourhood of the stadium and other than that it's miles and miles of mid America nothingness. There is the Kansas Speedway, which is massive; there is a Country Inns hotel, where most of the TFC fans are staying; there's the Legends shopping area, one of those outdoor throwback malls that's quite impressive and the Community America Ballpark, a fairly new park that's home to the reigning Northern League champion something-or-other T-Bones. After a half an hour of play the travelling fans decided to mock the locals with a couple of verses of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

There were about 100 TFC fans in section 228 and everybody was keen to see where DeRosario would play and who would be in goal.

Nobody seemed to think the 1-0 lead was safe at half time. Too many of the road regulars had seen too much too often. Similarly there wasn't a lot of confidence that DeRosario would score his penalty. Everyone remembered last year's miss by Collin Samuel in Columbus.

After the game the visiting fans were detained by security for 10-15 minutes. Apparently it's a new league rule, make sure the away support doesn't get jumped. So they were all led back to the hotel, even through some of them just wanted to go to the Pin-Up Bowling lanes.

I am hopeful that a hotel was as good as a bowling alley for TFC celebrating (although it would be a fitting salute to President Obama to spend some time at the lanes).
It is impossible for a TFC fan to avoid elation with the lofty status that comes with a season opening win. I keep on checking the standings webpage to make sure that those three points are still there.
There is still work to do. The need for a central defender continues. How does Vitti contribute and Barrett become more than a brave shooter? The next game is without Carl Robinson. That next game is in Columbus and it is time for me to prepare to join the TFC travellers. That hardy 100 should be more than a thousand next Saturday in Ohio.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kansas City Mike checks in.

Mike is the Kansas City Wizard blogger who writes downthebyline. You have to salute dedicated Wizard fans such as Mike. MLS teams such as KC (and Columbus) represent the legacy of Lamar Hunt, a man who dedicated millions to establishing soccer in the American heartland. We Toronto fans can be justly proud of our contribution to recent success, but we did arrive very late to the party in MLS terms. It is interesting to speculate if we would have been as dependable/passionate if we had been part of the leaner years. Mike was good enough to supply me with the KC view on their home opener versus TFC.
Weather Report
He is unsure as to what style of spring weather Kansas City will provide this weekend. It could be mild, it could be wild. Stay tuned.
Attendance projection
There should be a sell-out, but Mike worries that empty seats will appear on tv." Honestly I'm fully expecting a sell out crowd. There will be open seats that your fans will see "behind home plate" but that reason is because that is a GA (general admission) area like the grass berm because the seats behind home plate are horrible, so most of the people will be sitting on the berm instead."
Progress with the new KC stadium
Mike says "Stadium plans are going well, official renderings still haven't been released yet unfortunately although we keep begging for them. The mall itself should be down in another month or so I believe." For those who have yet to check out his blog the construction of the new stadium involves the dismantling of an existing mall property.
Hopes and Fears
Mike is worried about the increased strength of TFC, particularly the addition of DeRo. (TFC fans shudder when we recall the performance of the team on the fall 08 visit to KC - it might have been an all time low). Kansas City fans are looking forward to the debut of Santiago Hirsig, their new Argentinian midfielder. Remember that the Wizards were a playoff team last year and they were knocked out by the eventual Cup champs, Columbus.
Thanks again Mike for the information. We wish you limited luck in your first game, but would love to be tangling again come playoff time this year !!

Monday, March 16, 2009

today the approaching season seems real...

News of the day (in no particular order)

2009 Season seat packages sent and received by the grateful and winter weary.

Soccer by Ives picks TFC as the 4th best team in MLS in his pre-season rankings. He mentions that this is partially based on the CB that TFC is about to sign. The speculation part of the brain goes into overdrive as a result. Who? When? Who? When? Go to the back of the class if you have to ask why?

Carl Robinson called up to play for Wales this coming weekend which will mean missing the road opener in Kansas City. Between international duty and red card shifts, when will we first see Robbo in a settled midfield for TFC ?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

TFC says goodbye to South Carolina - TFC 1 Real Salt Lake 2

Today the 2009 pre-season of TFC ended with the playing of their last game in the Charleston, South Carolina Challenge. TFC played Real Salt Lake, losing 2-1, in a game that supplied us with a little action and a lot of questions.
It could have been a more entertaining game as it was the match-up of two undefeated teams, but TFC let the suspense escape before we knew what hit us.
Salt Lake started the game with a relentless attack. The first goal came as a result of their third clear break at the keeper Frei in the early going. The second goal was RSL running unfettered in the Toronto goal mouth.
The two goal deficit was made steeper shortly after as Kevin Harmse picked up his second yellow and was ejected. Toronto managed to stay in the game with DeRo scoring just before half time. It was nice to have a little ray of optimism shining while you went to the fridge for refreshments.
Optimism was in short supply as the game wore on. Toronto had some well played stretches and it was possible to forget that TFC were playing a man down. A lucky bounce could have gone their way and on the one good chance, a free kick that skipped into Real Salt Lake’s net,Toronto was called back for offside. RSL would have won the tournament on goal difference anyway, had TFC managed to tie.

So back to those many questions (and things are foggy enough right now it's best to keep quiet on answers).
Keeper Did Stefan Frei have a bad game or did his defenders just leave him out to dry? Is he a rookie who will need to come along slowly as he learns the teams in the MLS and the names of his own defenders? Is he the TFC starter with Sutton as the veteran back-up or is Sutton the known quality and has the start in Kansas City?
The back four Is the central pairing of Serioux and Harmse as rocky as this tournament would suggest? Will TFC lead the MLS in red cards? Is there another player in the wings? Can Brennan and Wynne contribute as defenders first and attacking wingers second?
RSL was not just beating the back four with speed, but rather speed and timing. Before the TFC backline had a chance to step forward to spring the offside trap, RSL would have completed the perfect pass to the streaking player. Is this because the defenders have not had enough time together ?
Forwards Is the striker pairing of Barrett and Vitti the right one? Will they learn to complement one another and start taking shots or are they just decoys to keep defenders from swarming the true attacker, Dwayne DeRosario?

Given the choice, I would rather have TFC leaving the South Carolina shindig with these questions on their minds rather than unchecked optimism from a tournament win that will mean little in the months ahead. If TFC is going to go from worst to first, then a ton of work lies ahead and we are all better off knowing it. There was nothing shown today that a great game in Kansas City, followed by the same in Columbus could'nt cure.

TFC did the right thing in webcasting the Charleston games. It is a tradition worth keeping.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TFC in South Carolina 2009 -TFC 2- DC United 1

I have been lucky enough, twice in my life, to spend some time in South Carolina during March. This was before TFC, so it did not involve watching any games, but it is a beautiful time in a wonderful place. So it is icing on the cake that Toronto is adding victories to the southern spring get away of those TFC fans we see on our screens.
Toronto FC continued playing today in the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. They defeated DC United by a score of 2-1 with Toronto goals scored by Chad Barrett and Dwayne DeRosario. It was a webcast on TFCtv , the video portion of the TFC web site. Watching these games continues to be a treat for the average game-starved fan. You know it has been a long winter when you spend some of your viewing time just staring at the green grass.
I don’t want to seem in any way critical of the effort that goes into bringing we fans a televised game, but it is a fuzzy screen that I happily squint at and therefore I could be more of a mess with analysis than usual. Here goes.
Two victories is a great way to start in a three game tournament. Toronto had many scoring chances in the first half and with a little luck could have had a few more in the net. The second half had DC United make plenty of changes to their line-up. The emphasis on speed brought them back into the game. DC had their goal quickly and looked dangerous for a time. The TFC defense managed to slow the game for the most part, although a late shot off the crossbar could have saved DC United’s day.
Adrian Serioux played a more subdued game, no yellow cards and rarely was he beaten. I think that Serioux is a player who appears to have greater vision from the back than we saw from Tyrone Marshall. When Serioux is on the ball he seems just as likely to be looking to supply the strikers with something from distance as he is to just play it out to Marvell Wynne. I look forward to seeing him at BMO.
Brennan and Wynne both contributed down their wings and if caught up were able to recover. Harmse seemed unremarkable, which is a good thing for a central defender.

The midfield operated without Carl Robinson today. This meant Sam Cronin continues with regular playing time. I guess I was anticipating that returning DeRo to the midfield would mean Cronin on the bench. It is wise to give the rookie the time, but I admit I am curious about seeing a DeRo, Ricketts, Robinson and Guevara line-up. Cronin was confident on the ball and had some quality short, quick passes. Maybe it was the fuzzy screen, but Cronin was not supplying the tackles that Robbo comes up with to disrupt the other team. Guevara was his slippery self, providing runs and drawing fouls. Is it just me or does Guevara seem to rarely notice Ricketts? Ricketts will win balls on his own or have passes from the back four, but no gifts from Guevara.
Vitti and Barrett were the starting striker pair and they supplied some exciting moments. They don’t look like guys who just met last month, there was a sense of awareness from time to time. At one point Vitti seemed most upset with a foul from the defender and spent more time arguing his case than pursuing play. He might want to watch TFC games of the past two years, the history is not one of winning a lot of borderline calls. It is fair to think that the more time together, the happier everyone will be.
Sutton was the keeper and played well. It will be interesting to see who Carver chooses to play in the net for the final game of this tourney on Saturday. I have a hunch it will be Frei.

See you Saturday.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

TFC in Carolina -Charleston 1 TFC 2

It is so difficult to be commenting on a game streaming on a webcast, so I will tread carefully. Cheers to TFC for making this show happen, it was a treat to watch the team play after all these cold months.
A few observations.
DeRosario looked great. Clearly he could play striker if need be, but you have to be greedy for the days when he will be bringing the ball forward as a midfielder with striker options ahead of him to exploit. Especially if he is given room to roam. Guevara was able to supply DeRo with balls in hopeful situations all night long. It is hard to make too many long term conclusions on this game as Charleston did play their B team in the second half. My first instinct is to declare that Amado and DeRo showed that they are capable of clicking and working well together.
Stephan Frei looked strong all night, except for diving the wrong way on the pk...
Serioux, picking up a red card, might not have had the most graceful start to a TFC career. DC United had two red carded in the game before, so maybe it was something in the sea air ? I was just not sure of the second foul being yellow worthy, but it was hard to tell. His touch on the ball was impressive in the early going and you can see Wynne getting a lot out of his new sidekick in the new line-up.
Carl Robinson and Jim Brennan both had strong games (although Robinson was more a support part in the second half when he did some time in the backline).
Of course, the video freeze stopped all of us from seeing the Ricketts goal. Overall there had been little shown by Ricketts, Cronin and Barrett. Maybe RR was waiting until the drama was at a peak.
Paul Beirne wrote on the TFC live blog that between 15 -20 TFC games will be on the radio this year. No details of station or staff. This is incredible news. I have often lamented the lack of TFC on the airwaves, especially during the drive home.
Wednesday's game will be against DC United who lost 3-0 to Real Salt Lake in the earlier game. It should be fun.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Columbus 09 - road trip blues

You would think that a road trip to Columbus, Ohio would be a simple thing. Buy a ticket. Book a hotel room. Drive for 7 hours. Watch for state troopers on the interstates. Buy a beer and a hot dog. Watch a game. Grab a meal. Sleep in your hotel. Drive home for 7 hours. Done.
As your plan unfolds complications start popping up. I think it is because we fans need training camps too. You're dusty and rusty. Different fans warm up at different rates and it takes a while to develop that team chemistry. I am traveling with a larger group than last year and blending together the veterans and the rookies is both an art and a science.

First the tickets. My TFC rep gave me the name and number of his equivalent in Columbus last year. This Crew contact has been great to me, easy to reach by phone or email. The Columbus front office had some delays with their tickets this year. The fact that their stadium hosted a US-Mexico World Cup qualifier in February was the probable cause. Yet, I was informed of the delay and might even have had my tickets before they were on sale for the general public in Ohio. They are a pleasure to deal with.

Why do I buy direct ? I am a huge fan of the Red Patch Boys and the USector and visit their respective forums on a daily basis. TFC would not be TFC without them, but I prefer to sit apart. When you don't sit with them at home would'nt you feel akin to a gate-crasher if you tried to join the ranks just for a road game? I think it reflects well on the support of Toronto FC that groups large and small are wearing red in Columbus. Besides, those upper deck sideline section seats that are designated for Toronto fans are closer to what I am used to at BMO.

Hotels. A little information can contribute to a lot of second guessing. I delegated the hotel decision to my fellow fan, Trout FC. We had talked about the feedback from my blog post (thanks to those with suggestions) and spent time hunting for hotels online. Trout FC was able to book rooms at the Sheraton Suites for what seemed a good rate. Folks have suggested using either Hotwire or Priceline as ways to bid on hotel rooms. Maybe it is a reflection of the struggling economy, but I am getting daily emails from Hotwire with news of more hotels in the Columbus area willing to offer me a lower price. There are others who swear by Priceline. You don't know until you book what hotel you have, but you do control the star ratings and the area. I have heard of fans getting much better rates at my hotel through Priceline. At the time I was checking out Priceline we did not know how many were traveling with us. When we knew our traveling number I think we were so elated that we had rooms at a better than rate than on their website, we took 'em. Next time Priceline will be the way to go.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Anticipating springtime in Columbus -the game after the season opener 2009

A year later, it seems possible that the anticipation for this year's trip to Columbus has such a rosy glow that it colours memories of 2008. Sure it was a great time, but the result was horrible (TFC losing 2-0) and the team was more question marks and dead ends than future contributors. The memory cells are not what they once were, but starting strikers were Collin Samuel and Jeff Cunningham weren't they ? It was the debut of Marco Velez and Brian Edwards. Did Carl Robinson play or was he away on International duty ?? I recall seeing Brennan, Marshall and Edu, with either Tyler Hemmings or Tyler Rosenlund in the mix.
When the first half penalty shot was missed, you sensed trouble ahead. The view I took on the upcoming season, while driving down the interstates, was that although Crew 2007 had missed the playoffs they had a better record than TFC and therefore they were the team that Toronto had to overtake to demonstrate progress in 08. I am a MLS genius, in a complete backassed way. Overtaking the Crew is certainly a lofty goal for 09, but this is the time of year for optimism.
I do recall that we fans were not happy with the offseason activities (or lack thereof) of Mr. Mo. A few draft picks and a few players brought in on trial that did not make the team. Losing in Columbus sparked many player moves ( Robert, Guevara, Ricketts, Tebily). By game's end on that sunny day in Ohio, TFC had nowhere to go but up.
So I am counting the weeks and days to this rematch. Toronto will have played a game in Kansas City a week before the Columbus game. I salute those who are attending that one, but Columbus will be the first time I lay eyes on TFC 09 in the flesh. See you there.