[MLS]Toronto FC posted a much better record in 2008 than it did in its expansion season, and judging by the enthusiasm of coaches and players, another quantum leap is not out of the question.
No team gets into the playoffs just by doing the math, yet the 6-17-7 expansion doormat (25 points) posted a 9-13-8 mark (35 points) that left it four points short of a playoff spot. And that a team with 39 points, Red Bull New York, went all the way to MLS Cup.
TFC has retained its top players, added a few significant upgrades, and can again bank on boisterous backing from the colorful, rowdy BMO Field fanatics. Now, though, comes the greatest pressure this young franchise has yet to face: meeting expectations, i.e., reaching the postseason.
"We've got to kick on now," said Coach John Carver, referring to hitting the finish line in contention, not back in the pack. "We saw a huge improvement last season. We got close to it, got close to the playoffs, with a lot of obstacles thrown in our way, with guys going away for international games.
"I'm not going to say we're going to go out and win it, but the same kind of improvement I think is good enough to get us into the playoffs. And as New York showed, once you get there, anything can happen."
Former Houston attacker Dwayne De Rosario is the most obvious addition and doubtless he'll again torment opponents with his amazing dribbles, clever chips and dinks, and powerful shots. Yet also retained, either by contract renewal or new deals, are forwards Chad Barrett and Daniel Dichio, winger Rohan Ricketts, and midfielder Carl Robinson.
Right away, a midfield of Robinson, Ricketts, DeRosario and Amado Guevara can be ranked amongst the best in the league, assuming Carver can find a place for all of them and manage De Rosario's unique personality. A move to center back for Robinson is a possibility, especially if rookie midfielder Sam Cronin progresses rapidly. Ricketts and Guevara each had four goals and four assists, and should increase their production with DeRo on the prowl.
Barrett scored four goals in 13 games after arriving from Chicago in the Brian McBride deal, and Dichio re-upped after leading the team with five goals at age 34. A striker from South America is on director of soccer Mo Johnston's shopping list.
"Every year in preseason it becomes tougher and tougher," says Carver of a rugged, experienced player like Dichio tuning up for a long battle. "That's fact. But we look after him. Some players don't train every day, you just maintain them and get the best of them.
"I think it was a relatively easy decision for him to stay with us. He's been here, he knows what we're trying to do. Now we have him, so let's see what happens."
The back line may need shoring up; TFC conceded 43 goals last year, nine more than it scored. Still, left back and captain Jim Brennan, experienced center back Tyrone Marshall, and U.S. international right backMarvell Wynne is a pretty good group.
Cronin, forward O'Brian White, and goalkeeper Stefan Frei were taken in the SuperDraft first round. White won't be ready for full training until the end of March because of knee surgery; by then, TFC will have taken two preseason trips to Florida, played in the Carolina Challenge Cup, and opened the regular season to great fanfare. TFC also picked Mike Grella out of Duke, but he signed with English third division Leeds United.
"Toronto is a team that is on the up, they're improving and getting close to the playoffs," says Cronin, a NCAA Division I champion with Wake Forest in 2007. "To be with a club that's striving for the playoffs, I'm excited about that."