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    Gold Cup-date

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Looking at the quarterfinal draw for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, I wonder if there’s a deeper reason why Costa Rica’s finishing was so notably ineffective in the second half of last Friday’s 2-2 draw with Canada?
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    The Canucks were playing their usual grind-and-hope Gold Cup style, which ended up serving them well enough to earn top spot in the competition’s toughest grouping.
    But all through the second half, the Ticos were creating chances, pumping the ball to open attackers – who wonked the ball all over South Florida, never coming close to scoring the go-ahead goal.
    And look where the teams are now. Canada, by earning the draw and clinching the group, gets a tough quarterfinal with Honduras, leading to a semi against almost certainly the United States, who need only breeze by Panama.
    Costa Rica, on the other hand, because they did not beat Canada, are playing Guadeloupe for the right to take on the winner of Mexico-Haiti.
    With the Mexicans unraveling and self-destructing, that ain’t a bad draw at all. I can’t speak to anyone’s motives, and I sure can’t say CR was playing for no result, but the rewards for not scoring in that second half seem – considerable.
    On the other hand, this is the Gold Cup, where past form gets shredded, and no one really knows what’s going to happen next.
    If I had to bet, I think the U.S. is looking good to win it all. But if you really pressed me to say who’s actually going to come up aces here, my best answer would probably be “not Haiti.”
    Costa Rica won’t have an easy time with Guadeloupe. As an official non-nation under a French flag, the tiny island is free to import journeyman French veterans from all over everywhere. This is a team that – if they ever got the chance – could make Major League Soccer very, very uncomfortable.
    But all eyes up here are squarely on Saturday, and Canada’s renewal with hotly hated Honduras. You want a steel-cage soccer game? This rivalry has been headed that way since 2004. It’s huge for Canada, because the impossible road to World Cup qualifying holds three automatic spots for CONCACAF – which routinely go to Mexico, the Americans – and either Costa Rica or Honduras.
    In other words, this is a measuring-stick game for Canada.
    In recent times, Honduras has proved tougher, craftier and sneakier. Canada can play them even for most of any match, but there’s either that special bit of skill that gets Honduras a very nice goal, or that cold-blooded capacity to theatrically carve crippling calls from compliant CONCACAF refs.
    Honduras is that little bit better – and bolder. Gauging the exact size of that gulf has been driving Canadian soccer fans nuts for most of the decade.
    Up and down press row most nights, you can find experts who’ll tell you Canada has no chance, and others who think any Honduras game would be a coin toss if the referees called it down the middle.
    To me, the truth lies somewhere in between. There’s a special spark that let the Hondurans craft two multi-player, on-the-ground goals against Canada on the shredded, clumping nightmare turf of Montreal’s Stade Saputo last September.
    But that night, Dale Mitchell coached Canada like a man trying to bail out a sinking ocean liner while already in the lifeboat. Say what you will about new coach Stephen Hart in the larger global context, but these Canadian players respond to him, and go out there to make things happen.
    Comes down to skill, then? Advantage Honduras, honestly. But skill alone never gets it done in this part of the soccer world.
    The games are going to get tougher now – chippier. That will put more pressure on the refs. And while they haven’t done badly for the most part this time, this is not a group of officials known for ice-cool calm under boiling pressure.
    Mexico is going to hammer Haiti, and the Americans will sail past Panama. After that, though, it’s all up for grabs. Let’s just hope it all gets settled cleanly on the field, with a minimum of diving, and no bar-destroying botch calls from the refs and their assistants.
    And if the furious flying Frenchmen of Guadeloupe take down everyone and nab the Gold Cup for their giddy, gleeful selves? Well, at least we won’t have to throw any more effort at trying to figure out what this odd and entertaining little tournament actually means on the larger, global stage.
    Canada! What the heck? Canada! Why not?
    (Feel free to chant that Saturday. I’m sure you’ll know when.)
    Onward!

    Guest

    Review: The Beckham Experiment

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    David Beckham.
    David blessed Beckham.
    David blessed Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer in the United States of America.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Here’s the quote – direct from Milan, back in the spring, where Beckham famously stayed to play in Serie A rather than rejoin the Galaxy for training camp:
    “I’m committed to the Galaxy and my teammates there,” Beckham said. “But at the moment, I need to play my football here.”
    The quote comes late in “The Beckham Experiment,” the all-new inside-out expose of Beckham’s MLS flirtation, ably chronicled by Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl.
    It is a tale of commercial success – and catastrophic on-field failure.
    And while there are many fingers that can be pointed (and flipped) over the awful crumbling ruination of a once-proud and successful MLS cornerstone franchise, the book makes – and dutifully backs up – several serious charges:
    - Beckham quit on his teammates.
    - Beckham failed as a captain.
    - Beckham and his handlers were solely responsible for the disastrous 2008 hiring of Ruud Gullit as Galaxy coach.
    - MLS, in its present strait-jacket of salary and roster restrictions, is no fit place for a global soccer superstar to ply his trade.
    Much has been made, in the run-in to publication, about Galaxy striker Landon Donovan, and the public criticisms he lays on Beckham in the book. Bad attitude, lack of commitment, last to arrive, first to leave – Donovan runs through a battery of condemnation … over a lovely lunch of lamb, cheese and wine at a swanky Greek bistro in La-La Land.
    But by the time we get there, Wahl has already made all those points – and more – down to the finest details. Donovan’s comments not only seem reasonable, they effectively summarize everything we’ve read up to that point.
    Man, I am not in the habit of feeling sorry for Landon Donovan. He’s just a little too Disney-Corp and “We’re Number One” for me to ever take seriously. But when he talks about teammates making less than $20,000 (U.S.) needing an inspiring word from Captain Beckham, and getting only silence and frustrated arm gestures instead, I can certainly sympathize.
    To summarize, Beckham in America was dreamed up largely by Simon Fuller, Becks’ top handler and the man who gave us all American Idol. As an exercise in jersey selling, ticket hawking and making the world aware of MLS, it’s actually gone pretty well. The Galaxy are a whimpering disaster on the field, but their bankers and backers are not complaining.
    What we didn’t know: After L.A. missed the playoffs in 2007 – Becks’ first MLS season – Fuller’s entertainment conglomerate took over the team in a silent, unpublicized coup. G.M. and president Alexi Lalas (another guy I’m not in the habit of shedding tears for) was reduced to a figurehead, but still allowed to take the blame for what happened next.
    That would be – the hiring of Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit as Galaxy coach. Gullit wanted nothing to do with MLS roster restrictions, disbelievingly butting up against them time after time. The most incredible charge? In the two months he had to prepare L.A. for what turned out to be a horrendous 2008 campaign, Gullit never once drilled the team on free kicks.
    Think about that. You’ve got a roster made up largely of fringe pros and raw rookies – and one of the all-time greatest dead-ball specialists the sport has ever seen. Wouldn’t it make sense to let those well-meaning journeymen and kids see what bending it like Beckham actually looks like? Wouldn’t it make sense to let Becks kick a hundred balls at them, so the great man himself could get a read on how his teammates would respond to the actual ball in the air?
    No. And everyone blamed Lalas, even though he had opposed the hiring from the start. Gullit was actually brought in by … David Beckham’s best friend.
    There’s a lot in this book, folks, but it is a little slow getting started. The opening chapters read like People magazine pablum, and the soccer fan in me was wondering if the game itself was ever going to matter.
    No worries. Wahl’s soccer writing is deep, and incisive. He takes apart game after game, going into quite satisfying detail as the Galaxy pancake painfully on runway after runway after runway.
    In the end, “The Beckham Experiment” is a useful handbook in how to make lots of money in American soccer – and utterly gut and destroy a cornerstone franchise.
    In just three days – on Thursday night – Beckham returns to the Galaxy, in a much-hyped Jersey Swamp match with New York Energy Drink (speaking of gutted and destroyed cornerstone franchises). It’s the third year of his five-year deal with L.A., and the man himself has already made it clear his only real focus is making England’s roster for the 2010 World Cup.
    Major League Soccer, for all its naivety and strangeness, would be far better served if this whole mess ended now. David Beckham has proven he lacks the emotional commitment to endure the odd and chronic backwardness of Our Little League.
    I think we’d all be better served if Galaxy coach Bruce Arena – who was hired by the team, not by Beckham’s entourage – invited Becks to watch as many MLS games as he’d ever care to … in a suit, on the Galaxy bench.
    In this matter, the league has far more pride than the player. It would be lovely if MLS showed it.
    Onward!

    Guest
    It was exactly what Toronto FC needed, coming off the only real rest they’re going to get till the entire 2009 grind is over: a winnable game on the road.
    And they got it – 3-1 over hopeless San Jose – thanks to two wobbly strikers who absolutely know their playing time is on the line right now.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Chad Barrett entered the match with two MLS goals this season, Pablo Vitti with one. And they both doubled their totals for the year.
    With hot prospect O’Brian White almost back from knee surgery, and new man Ali Gerba reporting as soon as Canada’s Gold Cup run ends, there are no guarantees that under-achieving strikers with apparent aversions to ruffling fish net are going to be with the team at all come October.
    So, it was now – or not likely.
    Barrett started very well. Not evening out of the opening minutes when Dwayne DeRosario knocked a loopy back-bouncer straight into his path. Barrett didn’t have any time to think about it – which is usually when he dekes his demons and actually nets one. He blasted it past SJ netkeep Joe Cannon on the run, and Toronto had a rare lead away from BMO Field.
    The Earthquakes had tied it by halftime – Darren Huckerby, with time, to the off-post – and the ever-familiar TFC story of uncashed chances looked poised for yet another unwanted rewrite.
    But then Vitti stretched an impressive and considerable distance in the air to get just enough of his head on yet another wonky cross, and Toronto took the lead.
    It then fell to Barrett to put the game away on 69 minutes.
    He actually got some odd help on this one. Taking the ball on the full run with lots of open field ahead of him, Barrett was perfectly lined up for a hard tackle by SJ defender Aaron Pitchkolan. But then – incredibly – Pitchkolan grimaced horribly, and timbered to the turf with an agonizingly obvious lower-abdominal muscle tear. A live, real-time, televised hernia explosion? Sure looked like it.
    That left Barrett alone against a veteran goalie – which has been a consistent recipe for not scoring this year. But darned if the embattled geezer didn’t chip the ball nicely past his obstacle, leaving himself able to trot to the ball, and tap it easily home.
    Yeah, it’s a different play if Pitchkolan doesn’t explode. But two fine finishes in one night from Chad Barrett is certainly worth being pleased about.
    The other interesting twist on the night was Toronto coach Chris Cummins’ decision to run a 4-5-1, with captain Jim Brennan moving up from fullback to left wing, and creative middie Amado Guevara dropping back to join Carl Robinson in the holding midfield role.
    Brennan zipped decent crosses in all night – something that has always been missing from TFC’s attack – and Guevara offered poise and options from the back that San Jose was consistently unequipped to answer.
    Very unlikely that works next weekend, at home against a very strong – if undermanned – Houston Dynamo. But it worked just fine last night, and Toronto flies home this morning tied for first place in MLS East – with a couple of struggling strikers who must certainly be feeling better about things now.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Holding out for a draw

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Okay, this is really cool, but it’s a bit of a brain-bender.
    You ready?
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    With their 1-0 win over El Salvador, Canada has a perfect six points out of six to lead their group in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
    But they have not yet clinched a quarterfinal spot.
    That’s because, if El Salvador beats Jamaica on Friday night, and Canada gets pasted by Costa Rica, our plucky Canucks could still finish third in Group A.
    That’s far from fatal, as two of the three third-place teams still qualify, and six points will be hard to beat.
    However …
    As of closing time Tuesday, both of the other groups could still produce third-place teams with six points. And if they both wind up with better goal-differences than Canada, it’s lights out for the Great Red North.
    So: Canada needs one – and only one – third-place team to have fewer than six points.
    Here’s where it gets cute. The six-point third-place scenario is impossible in any group where any one game ends in a draw. Just not enough points left to make it happen.
    Still with me?
    Therefore:
    If any game, in any group, ends in a draw from here on out – Canada clinches a spot in the quarterfinals.
    Doesn’t matter who; doesn’t matter where. If Guadeloupe and Nicaragua play a draw in Group C, their third-place team won’t have six points, and Canada’s in. If the Haiti-Grenada game in Group B comes up all even, same scenario applies and the good ship Canada sails on.
    It’s silly, but it’s true.
    Of course, Canada can do the deed themselves with a result against Costa Rica. That, of course, would be ideal. But when any other game in any group at all can put Canada over the top, you’d have to think their chances of moving on are … excellent.
    Anyone want to start a “which game ends in a draw” betting pool?
    Onward!

    Guest

    Notes on the DeGuzman thing

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Yesterday was a landmark day for “It’s Called Football,” the weekly on-line soccer show I do with Duane Rollins and Ben Rycroft on ThatChannel.com.
    Due to some fine, persistent work, Ben R. was able to land us exclusive interviews with Canada coach Stephen Hart and star midfielder Julian DeGuzman.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Hart generously gave twenty minutes of his time to discussing Canada’s 1-0 win over Jamaica in the Gold Cup opener, and strategic insights for tonight’s pivotal match against El Salvador.
    But the real headlines came right at the end. DeGuzman – soft-spoken, cautious, but generally willing to answer our follow-up questions – confirmed he is mulling over a big offer from Toronto FC.
    Julian, of course, is a more-than-contributing star for Deportivo La Coruna in the Spanish La Liga. He’s been plying his trade in Europe for a dozen years, and is on the hunt for one more long, lucrative foreign deal.
    He’s never hidden the fact he wants to play for TFC – someday. Yesterday, though, you could repeatedly hear in his voice that whatever terms Toronto has offered him, Canada’s lone MLS side has certainly got his attention.
    My own humble digging on the subject has revealed two main plot lines. Insiders tell me DeGuzman has been offered anything from $1-million for the rest of this season, up to $10-million over three years. This, of course, takes advantage of MLS’s “designated player” rule, which allows ownership groups to bust the bank on one player.
    Julian was never specific, but the unanimous impression left with all of us is that TFC’s current offer is shorter – we’re guessing the rest of this year with an option for 2010 – and worth a heck of a lot more than $1-million. Heck, DeGuzman almost gasped at one point. This is a guy who’s no stranger to healthy soccer contracts.
    However …
    It’s also quite clear DeGuzman has more than one offer from Europe, and is very likely to stay there for now. Again, we had to gently guide him a bit, but he did eventually say Toronto is a club he’d love to play for, but it will almost certainly be in the future. The contract after this one, in other words.
    I then got cheeky, and asked if he and his brilliantly skilled brother Jonathan might line up side-by-side for TFC in 2013. He smiled, and said they would both love to finish their careers in Toronto.
    Jonathan’s a bit of a sore point with some fans, of course, because of last year’s decision to play his international football for the Netherlands, instead of Canada. But those fans don’t speak for all the fans. Many – myself included – have no gripe with the younger De Guzman’s decision.
    … But that’s an argument I’ll fight and lose another day.
    Julian DeGuzman signed off, telling us he will make a decision on his next team within a week.
    The story has since roared off across the internet, with Soccer By Ives reporting that TFC veteran fan favourite Carl Robinson is being shopped around the league, and would likely be released if DeGuzman were signed.
    I just want to be clear that part of the story did not come from us. With the transfer window about to open, I’m sure a third of the players in MLS are being shopped in one way or another. I firmly believe DeGuzman is staying in Europe, and there is no reason to start firing trade rumours over Robinson’s bough.
    Barring injury, I feel certain we will one day see DeGuzman – maybe both DeGuzmans! – in Toronto FC red and gray.
    But not now.
    Regardless, it’s certainly good to know TFC owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment are ready to pay out real money for a legitimate international star. That alone ought to quell some of the fan grumbling – much of which was fuelled by a nasty combination of bad results and worse information.
    Enjoy the show.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Decent start

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Well, that wasn’t bad at all.
    Canada put together a determined, opportunistic ninety minutes of soccer, downing Jamaica 1-0 in the opening match of Gold Cup 2009.
    Let’s go little-picture on this one:
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    This was not a strategic masterwork, moving in either direction. Much more a case of “see where it lands and try to put a move together.” A fairly mid-standard CONCACAF match, in other words.
    One-nil always seemed likely, and games like that always come down to the goal you score and the goal they don’t.
    The one Jamaica didn’t came on 64 minutes, when former Toronto FC defender Tyrone Marshall sprang Ricardo Fuller (Stoke City) on a clean breakaway. Canada netkeep Greg Sutton, without a team and looking to make a point, played it perfectly, forcing Fuller to commit, then shutting down the shot.
    This is Sutton’s specialty. His positioning and timing, one-on-one with an enemy striker, are superb. He compacts his lanky, six-foot-five frame into a ball, then dares the attacker to shoot. He then uncoils in whatever direction, and literally absorbs the ball.
    It’s a skill he needed many times playing behind Toronto’s cavernous back one-point-six last year (“back four” would be an unsupportable overstatement). But now he’s out of work, thanks to rookie sensation Stefan Frei and some pretty dreadful MLS roster rules.
    I hope everyone who needs a goalie in this part of the world saw this save. It was doubly important, because Jamaica really seemed to be taking control after halftime.
    As for Canada’s goal – well, there are two Ali Gerbas. There’s the one with marvelously subtle ball-control and first-touch skills, who can rip home a goal every two games with deft touches and a rocket shot. Then there’s the one who can’t hold a job, and bounces from team to team all over the soccer-playing world.
    This was the first Gerba – gorgeously. The ball floats in from behind, and he’s got to decide if the defender half a step behind him can get a head to it. He has to choose whether to force a header, or let the ball bounce and go for the swing-volley.
    Gerba correctly picked the latter, hitting a nasty corkscrewing far-post diagonal which could not be denied.
    The other eye-catcher, for me, was young Josh Simpson subbing on at halftime. He quickly took off on a long, defence-unravelling solo run which won a corner kick, then forced a tough save from Jamaica goalie Donovan Ricketts – all within his first minute on the field.
    Admittedly, this was an opportunistic win. Canadian players came up big here and there to claim it. It wasn’t a case of sustained ball control, overall tactics or superior field-wide talent.
    But you can win that way in this competition. I did think, however, that both Costa Rica and El Salvador – in the nightcap match – showed better stretches of sustained control, that could have put them in the driver’s seat against either Canada or Jamaica tonight.
    But Canada goes into Tuesday’s first-place clash with El Salvador – in warm, happy, red-shirt friendly Columbus – tied for first in a group where there’s a good chance three teams will advance. Canada could book a spot in the quarters, in other words, without even needing a result against Costa Rica.
    Put like that, the small picture looks okay.
    And I’m perfectly happy to stay there for at least another few days.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Casual Friday

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Well, here’s a novel suggestion for those of us who wind our souls around our adrenaline, and live and die with every move the Canadian men’s national soccer team ever makes.
    Chill.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Gold Cup kicks off tonight – Canada v Jamaica at the Big Building Supplies Barn in Los Angeles, California. Yep, same opponent as a year ago, when World Cup Qualifying began.
    Yeah. Well. Anyway …
    Not that 2009 is the year that doesn’t matter. Sure it does. But it will be three clear calendar years before Canada plays a game of any true importance, relative to its own future as a World Cup soccer nation (and all the cash and adulation that entails).
    As always, Our Reds have been slotted in a Group of Death-like set-up, with the Reggae Boyz, a grim, grinding El Salvador and Our Old Pals From Costa Rica. Outside of World Cup matches, it’s a group Canada hasn’t done badly against in recent times. Heck, Costa Rica’s looked plenty darn beatable at times. (Other times, not so much.)
    So, for this fan anyway, this is going to be a low-expectation, high-study Gold Cup. Take the scout approach, and pretend – yeah, yeah, I know – that maybe the actual results don’t matter all that much.
    (If that bugs you beyond endurance, please just jump down to the paragraph below, beginning with UNLESS!!!)
    With big stars like Dwayne DeRosario and Adrian Serioux sitting this one out, it’s a great chance for some newer faces to shine.
    - Do Josh Wagenaar or Kenny Stamatopoulos get an extended run in goal, or is this former Toronto FC backstop Greg Sutton’s big chance to re-start his career?
    - Young target-man Simeon Jackson has had a great run lately, both for club (Gillingham) and country. And now that striker Ali Gerba is coming home to Toronto, will that put some extra jump in his already impressively heavy shot? Swingman Will Johnson is gradually becoming a star with Seagull City SC in MLS. Is this the time for him to claim serious international playing time as well?
    - Is defender Andre Hainault ready for a decade of solid starts? Does speedster Jaime Peters finally make himself indispensible?
    That’s should be enough to keep me interested, and out of agony.
    UNLESS!!!
    … They start winning.
    They did that two years ago, didn’t they? Okay, they opened with a win, then got embarrassingly buried by not-even-a-country-drat-it Guadeloupe. But they resumed winning, and looked set to keep right on doing it until they ran into the wrong side of Mexican ref Benito Archundia, the same demolition specialist appallingly responsible for Honduras-gate in Edmonton, WCQ, 2004.
    Yeah, that hurts to remember.
    I’m not saying anyone should even try to prevent emotional hemorrhage if every little thing starts clicking and Canada starts putting serious boot to CONCACAF butt. And once we’re committed, well, who knows how it ends this time?
    So I’m going for wise and impartial – at least off the top.
    But ultimately, who are we all kidding? A big win over Jamaica tonight, and we’re all helpless. I’m just going to at least try not to volunteer for it.
    Sort of …
    Maybe …
    GO CANADA!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Onward!

    Guest

    Mid-season burnout

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    I’m really not all that surprised Toronto FC took the night off in Salt Lake City last Saturday.
    Coming off the high of their great escape in the Voyageurs Cup and consecutive home-field wins over the utterly awful New York Energy Drink, the Reds had utterly no answer for a decent, under-achieving squad of Salt Lake Seagulls.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Altitude, time zones, fixture backlog – take your pick. This particular 0-3 loss was well-earned.
    Too many ragged passes across contested territory. Amado Guevara’s backpass of doom that set up the opening goal was a perfect symbol of a lost evening. This guy’s done it all lately, and once it was clear he didn’t have it, the rest of the roster quickly and neatly fell in line behind him.
    And I’ve been sitting here for a day or two wondering why they didn’t adjust? Why the Torontos couldn’t move away from serving up piles of pass interceptions and get back to the short-pass control game that served them so well when they beat Chivas and Kansas City?
    Exhaustion, mostly. Thin air and one more airplane ride, when what they really needed was some time away from it all.
    Well, they get that now. No more games until the trip to San Jose on July 11. And that’s good for the fans, as well. If you guys are feeling as burned out as I am, we all need a little time away.
    So, then …
    Midpoint of the MLS season, and Toronto has a .500 record with just five out of 15 matches left at home. They’ve bagged the Voyageurs Cup, and have a tough home-and-home with the Puerto Rico Islanders, one of the very best teams in USL-1 who got all the way to the CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals just a few short months ago.
    Key question: is this as good as it’s going to get?
    MLS is a league with very little separation between most teams. The money’s so low, and rosters so small there just isn’t all that huge an advantage in any game.
    That actually works in Toronto’s favour, I think, because for all the improvements, this still isn’t a team that can consistently put games away. They’ll earn their share, but this is a league where everyone gets points they don’t really deserve.
    It’s a strange argument, certainly, but odd circumstances sometimes call for an unorthodox approach. Toronto FC can certainly create chances, but they have struggled all season to finish. That costs them points. On the other hand, other teams in this league are going to lose the thread while playing Toronto, and that will bring some points back.
    In other words, I think we’re looking at a .500 team here – at best. Breaking even would be good enough for a playoff spot. Much less won’t.
    Now, as far as CONCACAF goes:
    MLS teams got eaten alive in this competition a year ago. Too many competitions and tiny rosters doubled up to just destroy them. Only Houston even vaguely hung in there, but what few resources they could throw at the problem were never going to be enough.
    Puerto Rico are an experienced, well-organized squad. This is no breeze for TFC. I think, however, with the time off and a good chance to re-focus, Toronto should be able to advance past them. It won’t be easy, though.
    Beyond that – well, I don’t think there is any beyond that. A very tough CONCACAF group that includes Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa and everyone’s favourite defending MLS champions Columbus, coupled with endless MLS road games, will certainly make or break this team.
    Certainly, there are encouraging signs, but there’s still a long way to go. TFC can defeat Puerto Rico, but they could easily torpedo both their league and cup seasons if they do.
    We have to understand that the team which folded up and posed for Seagull City was the real Toronto FC. A team is always a product of how far it has come, and how far it has to go.
    The Voyageurs Cup and a .500 record is a first-half combo I think most TFC supporters would have happily settled for back in March. All the roads get harder now.
    I recommend settling in and enjoying the ride. There will be some infuriating setback ahead, no doubt. But Toronto is becoming a team that can thrill and entertain – even if the doors fly off from time to time, and the engine occasionally falls out and goes bouncing down the highway.
    This was never going to be easy – or pretty.
    Take a few days off, and get ready for a ride.
    Onward!

    Guest

    BMO Field grass update

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Three questions:
    1) Has BMO Field’s all-weather bubble assembly team been seen crossing north of the railway tracks to take measurements at nearby Lamport Stadium?
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    2) Is there a proposal in place to make Lamport Toronto’s new all-weather, all-year soccer facility?
    3) Could this potentially clear the way for Toronto FC to play home games on grass as early as next season?
    I don’t yet have the answers. But the questions are solid.
    Feel free to start asking around.
    Onward!

    Guest

    One more round of tweets

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    This got lost in the post-Voyageurs Cup hoo-hah last week, but one last Friday in June means one more call for concerned soccer fans on Twitter to directly message MLS commissioner Don Garber on the sorry state of league officiating.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    If you’d like to chime in, here’s a suggested tweet:
    @thesoccerdon – With the U.S. through to the Confederations Cup final, what can be done right now to improve officiating at home?
    Of course, feel free to word that any way that speaks for you.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Wiped out on Wednesday

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    On a day when so much else was going on for me, soccer just kept seeping in.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    So, I had a bad head cold, but it’s been gone for a week. But, as often happens with me, it went down into my throat and turned into a wet, wheezing cough.
    I woke up Wednesday morning feeling awful. Yes, I have medicine for this, but at this point it would be another full day before I remembered. Bens are like that sometimes. Nobody knows why.
    Wednesday was also about to turn into the hottest, most humid day in Toronto so far this year. And, I had two hours of morning performance scheduled in my other career as a pre-school children’s musician. I wasn’t contagious, and didn’t feel sick enough to disappoint anyone. So I trudged off into the heat, and worked.
    (Cue soccer angle.)
    It went okay, but by the time I hit the couch and switched on the Confederations Cup semifinal match between Spain and the United States, the Yanks were up 1-0 and I was completely exhausted.
    To paraphrase a wonderful beer commercial: I don’t always fall asleep watching an important soccer game, but when I do, I prefer Latin commentators.
    Even a very boisterous Spanish announcer couldn’t keep me from nodding off, but his battering crescendos always woke me when there was close call in the game. There were many – and they were all Spain.
    A shot over the bar here, a pass just behind a striker there. All Spain, all the time. Some games look like they’re played on slanted pitches. This one looked – what I saw of it – like it was on a cliff, with the U.S. defending the bottom.
    No question there was going to be another goal. But when I finally heard that call – that horrendous “GOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!” that I’d be beyond delighted to never, ever have to hear again – I jolted awake to the impossible sight … of the Americans celebrating?
    And they did it! They pulled it off! An underdog side that was all but ignominiously eliminated just days ago, knocking off the world champs in a huge game that really matters. If my only clear image of the match is that that Spaniards utterly dominated and the Americans found a way to win anyway? – well, that’s pretty much the central story of the entire soccer day. Wow!
    And then I had to go back out in the heat and play another show.
    I actually felt okay when it was over, but utterly wrung out and done.
    Back in the car, word breaks that Toronto FC midfielder/reluctant-defender Kevin Harmse has been dumped to Chivas USA for allocation cash – MLS-speak for money Mo Johnston can spend wot don’t count under the salary cap.
    He’s the third midfielder cut in a row, following Johann Smith (yeah, I know he thinks he’s a striker) and Rohan Ricketts. And in my not-quite-healthy, over-heated delirium, this is the first moment I’ve actually wondered if there might be some actual truth to the Julian DeGuzman rumours.
    You know – great Canadian player, leaving Deportiva La Coruna of the La Spanish Liga, in town recently. A lot of people tell me many things, and not all of them are true. I do certainly believe the Reds have chatted with DeGuzman, and contract terms have been offered. I’m also sure he would love to play here. Some day.
    Europe already knows how good this player is, and he’s got nothing to gain by spending four months in Toronto, even for DP money which I’ve been told would bring him a cool million bucks for the rest of the season. There must be other offers – and they will be more lucrative, from higher-profile clubs.
    Driving and fading, I decided to pass on BMO Field in the stillness and humidity, and retreat home to watch TFC and New York Enegry Drink on my couch – awake, this time.
    Awake, but distracted.
    ‘Cause didn’t just PBS let fly with a documentary on the best sandwiches in America? And I’ve had some of these! Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, with the fries and coleslaw in the sandwich. Schwabl’s in Buffalo, with the wet sumptuous roast beef and dry, salty, unforgettable bread.
    I’m far too tired to resist. So it’s sandwiches on the TV, and a grainy internet feed of TFC – who are wearing pink shirts tonight in a breast-cancer fundraiser. The shirts are pale, and remind me of a long, strange night in the old APSL when I called play-by-play in a Toronto Blizzard-Ft. Lauderdale Strikers game where – due to terrible planning – both teams wore white shirts.
    But I don’t have the brain – just yet – to figure out how to expand the Internet picture to the full screen. So I’m drooling over All-American junk food when one of the pale pink dots on my computer monitor heads a pixel-sized soccer ball over the late-arriving New York goaltender dot for what turns out to be – finally – Pablo Vitti’s first goal for Toronto FC.
    Finally, for the second half, I was up, undistracted, and watching a full-sized feed. I lasted long enough to watch Toronto’s Chad Barrett slide a perfect pass to Dwayne DeRosario, who perfectly lobbed it for Toronto’s second goal in a 2-0 win. I was sad not to be among the cheering fans at the end, but also glad not to be out in the heat, facing yet one more drive across Toronto on such a still and sweltering night.
    A very long day – with lots of soccer, even though I seemed to be doing my best to ignore it all.
    Onward!

    Guest

    DeRo’s decision

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Club or country? Country or club?
    It’s a big decision for top-flight soccer players the world over. But in the strange, isolated world of Major League Soccer, it hits even harder.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    No one wants to play soccer in Chicago in January, so North America’s top pro league plays a spring-to-fall season that puts it out of synch with the global soccer calendar. Also, most MLS teams still haven’t proved they can stand on their own financially, so the league imposes strict roster restrictions.
    So – not only does the MLS schedule frequently conflict with international competitions, the plucking of players hurts far more.
    Yesterday, Canada announced its roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup – and Canada’s three pro soccer teams emerged largely unscathed. No Vancouver Whitecaps are on the list, and Montreal loses only temperamental front man Charles Gbeke.
    And from Toronto FC, only midfielder Kevin Harmse and presumed upcoming signing Ali Gerba have been summoned. Other countries are calling, of course. TFC will have to spend most of July getting by without midfield go-through guy Amado Guevara (Honduras), and fleet-footed fullback Marvell Wynne (US of A).
    But they keep two key off-season additions – attacking midfielder Dwayne DeRosario and muscular defender Adrian Serioux. Both men have decided to put club before country.
    DeRo made his intentions clear two weeks ago:
    “I have decided to make full commitment to Toronto FC right now, and I really want to focus on the season,” he told Ryan Johnston of Sportsnet.ca back on June 8. “It is a big year ahead of us, and I want to make sure that we accomplish what I want to accomplish here, even if it means sacrificing national team games.”
    A year ago, this would not have happened. Canada was entering World Cup qualifying with high hopes. But all that came famously to naught. Since then, DeRo came home, walking away from multiple MLS championships with the Houston Dynamo/San Jose Earthquakes to become the biggest signing in Toronto FC history.
    And, since he said he’d pass on the Gold Cup, he fired a natural hat trick – in just 20 minutes – to ignite TFC’s massive 6-1 romp over the Montreal Impact, bringing home the Voyageurs Cup and clinching a coveted place in the CONCACAF Champions League.
    Sure the Gold Cup will have come and gone before Toronto hosts Puerto Rico on July 28 in its first match in an international club competition. But there’s also a six-team scramble in the MLS East for – at most – five playoff places. There really aren’t any points in the standings that can be lightly or inexpensively given up right now.
    The Gold Cup is a nice tournament – Canada certainly enjoyed winning it in 2000 – but DeRosario is locked into TFC right now, and a once-every-two-years shot at conquering CONCACAF just isn’t a big enough prize to tempt him away.
    Serioux hasn’t been as vocal about his preferences, but he certainly could have helped Canada.
    From a Toronto point of view, it’s not just the quality of these two players that matters. Roster depth is a huge concern for MLS teams entering outside competitions.
    The league allows only 20 senior players, and four developmental prospects per team. That is a frighteningly small number – especially given that if Toronto gets past Puerto Rico, they will instantly have six extra Champions Cup matches added to the back half of their schedule.
    A year ago, the MLS teams that got that far got shredded. Lack of depth absolutely killed them. The powerful New England Revolution had none of their regular starting back four available when they were embarrassingly annihilated on their home field in Foxboro by tiny Trinidadians Joe Public.
    As good a joke as Joe Public ousting the Revolution was, it sounded a stern cautionary note throughout MLS. And Dwayne DeRosario was listening.
    Outside of TFC and its fans, there will be grumbling. The old argument that the state of the men’s national team IS the state of Canadian soccer will be roundly raised and grumbled about.
    But in this case, I don’t think it applies. Canada is two years away from playing a truly meaningful match. There are many young prospects and players to consider. This Gold Cup is a golden chance to do exactly that.
    In the meantime, Toronto needs to build on its startling Voyageurs Cup escape, and step up as legitimate contenders in a very tough division.
    Right now, the Toronto roster contains just 21 names. Gerba will be number 22, but will immediately be yoinked away to play for Canada. Two more signings should – nay, must! – wander in once the transfer window opens in July.
    Canada needs its pro clubs to grow, and succeed – especially while there are still only three of them. A good Champions Cup run for TFC, coupled with some sound developmental work for the national team in the Gold Cup, seems a good and proper balance.
    Consider that – for a moment, at least – before anyone mistakenly suggests Dwayne DeRosario doesn’t have Canada’s best long-term soccer interests at heart.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Relentless, battering hugs

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    I’ll be honest, folks. I don’t know how to put this into words.
    Conveying emotion that intense, to tell a story so unlikely … not an easy task.
    So I’ll start with the women’s rugby team.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    They wandered into the back room of Scallywags during a lull in the action. They had no idea – whatsoever – of the astonishing level of shouting, song and exultation that would soon tear from the throats of the fifteen or so Toronto FC fans who had gathered in the shadows to watch this hopeless soccer game.
    The women settled in to a fine post-match meal of steaks, roasted veg, mashed potatoes and draft beer, laughing, smiling, bonding – and then the joint blew up.
    Here’s the only background I can pause to give you. Toronto FC was at Montreal, needing to win by at least four goals to claim the Canadian championship and a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Anything less would mean the Vancouver Whitecaps – who had flown 3,000 miles and were getting rained on in the Stade Saputo seats – would win the Voyaguers Cup. The Montreal Impact, the other team on the field with TFC, had nothing left but pride to play for.
    Early on, Montreal made Toronto’s task even harder, scoring on a penalty kick. No question at all about the call. Newly arrived TFC defender Nick Garcia threw a flying figure-four leg lock on a luckless Montreal attacker. Toronto – a team cursed, in general, with an inability to finish – now needed five goals.
    I was downstairs in the bathroom when Toronto native son Dwayne DeRosario scored the first Toronto goal. A freaking bicycle kick! He threw himself down on his back, and blasted the ball – backwards! – straight into the Montreal net.
    I was out of my chair, pacing, when DeRo buried the second, banking a 20-yard rip off a defender’s leg.
    After that, I was informed by the other fans in the room I would not be allowed to sit down for the remainder of the match. I didn’t. Superstition is a big part of sports. And I don’t argue with mobs – even small mobs – when they’re right.
    2-1 Toronto at the half. Tension outnumbers hope, but hope exists.
    DeRo made it three, early in the second half. The rugby gals were visibly startled by the roar that jarred the place. No set-up, no warning – just BOOM!
    The fourth goal was brilliant. Toronto midfield free-kick ace Amado Guevara – already down three goals to DeRo on the night – decided to fight back.
    But the truly amazing part was the way his teammates set up to help him. As Guevara lined up a head-on spot kick outside the Montreal area, three TFC players inserted themselves into the Impact’s defensive wall. The middle man, striker Danny Dichio, likely the tallest and coolest player on the pitch.
    Guevara, seeing a wide swath of wall that would never rise to block him, ripped the ball a foot over Dichio’s head. The back of the net – and the back room at Scallywag’s – exploded simultaneously.
    Very surreal for the rugby gals. They know now they’re in a room filled with maniacs. They don’t have much of a view of the game (sitting under and to the side of the big screen), but must be wondering why a 4-1 score is generating such adrenaline-crazed thunderclaps.
    The fifth goal – the one that ultimately carried the night – came off the forehead of embattled TFC striker Chad Barrett. This poor, hard-working, well-meaning schlub has been giving gift-wrapped soccer balls to opposing goaltenders all season. Not this time. Guevara’s corner kick found the uptown neighbourhood of Barret’s face, and fell dead in the net for the impossible four-goal lead.
    And didn’t Dwayne DeRosario know it? DeRo was the first to hug Barrett – and wouldn’t let him go. They seemed set to dance back to the centre circle … except the entire rest of the team showed up to join in.
    Ah, but it wasn’t over. Games like this seem never to end. The Impact may have been outmanned, outclassed, outmuscled and outscored, but they never quit trying to answer back. Toronto goalie Stefan Frei was forced to make a pin-wheeling reflex dive save at the base of his right post. The gasping groan from the fans was louder than your average goal celebration on a far-more-average night.
    And then we started seeing pictures of the travelling Toronto fans in Montreal. Leaping and singing in the rain. Red scarves dancing in darting in diagonal swirls. Familiar faces – glowing with unfamiliar joy.
    Across the field, the Whitecaps. Brooding, sullen – mad.
    Goal six. Guevara. A nasty brute ground-level bouncer. Perfectly just inside the post. The backroom detonates. I let the songs and chanting ring for two full minutes, and finally go over and explain to the rugby gals what’s actually been going on all night. They’re sports folk. They get it. Big smiles all over the shop.
    And no, I’ll never know why the ref added four full angst-driven minutes to the end of this one. The Impact still fought back, but TFC kept getting the ball over the touchlines, eating twenty or thirty seconds with every stoppage.
    At the end, drained, adrenalized and exultant, I stood on the chair they wouldn’t let me sit in, singing at the top of my lungs. Our friends in Montreal filled the screen. And then Jim Brennan – TFC’s first player, captain and proud Canadian – hoisted the Voyaguers Bleepin’ Freakin’ Can You Even Believe It Cup.
    Bedlam. Relentless, battering hugs.
    Three things we learned:
    1) Being Canadian means the world, the moon and the stars to Dwayne DeRosario.
    2) DeRo and Amado Guevara can – most certainly – find enough chances and room to play on the same field together.
    3) It turns out Montreal was the team in the impossible spot. The angry Whitecaps are already publically accusing them of laying down. Yes, it was their back-up goalie, two back-up centre backs and their best midfielder never saw the pitch. But they were also long-since eliminated, and have a very tough, important USL-1 game coming up against Vancouver on Saturday.
    That’s about as much depth of analysis as I can muster. Normally, I can be a fan and journalist simultaneously. But this wild, ragged night at Scallywags was all about being a fan.
    I think I got most of what happened. I leave it to you and history to fill in the rest.
    Wow! Wow! Wow!
    Onward!

    Guest
    I’m not in Montreal today.
    I’m at home, in East York – which is a sleepy part of Toronto within easy walking distance of all this city’s finest Greek restaurants.
    I’m eating boiled soup noodles, and gazing out the window at lush green leaves and a gray, yucky Thursday.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    I’m trying to put into words how it feels to know I will soon be leaving my home, going out into yuckiness, to stand in a bar and watch my favourite domestic soccer team try to win tonight by four clear goals.
    I’m now taking a moment (for those of you just joining us) to explain that the Canadian men’s professional soccer sponsorship – the Voyageurs Cup – is a double round-robin tournament that concludes in just a few hours at Stade Saputo in Montreal.
    I’m adding an obligatory shot at Stade Saputo’s security guards, who seem congenitally incapable of noticing the bad behavior of anyone wearing blue.
    I’m coming back to the main point that Toronto FC – whom I cover, cheer for and lament – have squandered so many gold-plated, gilt-edged, yummy-yummy-yummy-I’ve-got-goals-in-my-tummy scoring chances in this competition, they now must score four more than they concede tonight.
    I’m adding that, if they don’t, they will watch a minor-league opponent claim Canada’s lone place in the CONCACAF Champions League for the second year on the trot.
    (I’m declining to explain what CONCACAF stands for.)
    I’m hoping you understand how huge and toxic an embarrassment this would be – even though both Montreal (who won it last year) and Vancouver (who stand to clinch tonight) are decent soccer teams, and normally I would be delighted for either one of them.
    I’m a TFC fan just at the moment. I’ll be a down-the-middle journalist when it’s over.
    I’m afraid to have any expectations at all for this evening. But they come. Wave on wave, the expectations come.
    I’m certain this plight tonight is the focusing point this misfiring Toronto attack force has needed all season. That Dwayne DeRosario will show up with his A-game, and whatever combination of TFC goalhounds grace the pitch will get more than enough chances to score four goals.
    I’m also grindingly aware of leaky-bucket slop-job Toronto’s back four has almost always been. Newcomer Nick Garcia was just fine in the win over New York Product Placement, but tonight is a whole different level of nightmare.
    I’m imagining a bar full of fans. I’m imagining Toronto scoring. The first goal settles folks down, but is not – in itself – enough to ignite hope. Then comes the second. Yeeps! What if Pablo Vitti finally, actually, unbelievably scores his first TFC goal?
    I’m thinking the third comes late – 80th minute, or some such. Hope’s alive and flying at that point. Maybe newcomer Ali Gerba comes on as a late sub – and maybe he bazookas the fourth goal home on the ragged edge of stoppage time.
    I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. Montreal – whose thrilling CONCACAF run was snuffed out in February when they conceded four second-half goals in Mexico (two in stoppage time) – pour forward, set up a shot, it bounces off somebody, wobbles crazily towards the top corner, Toronto goalie Stefan Frei, wrong-footed, sees it, reacts, lunges, stretches …
    I’m not even able to finish that paragraph.
    I’m hoping whatever happens tonight won’t be that painful.
    I’m wishing I were in Montreal right now – and I’m ever so glad that I’m not.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Ah, Rohan

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    In the end, it’s simple.
    Rohan Ricketts, young English midfielder for Toronto FC, simply didn’t make the cut.
    Loved by the fans – even as his play frustrated them – Rohan could never blend his skills with the TFC system. No matter how many times that system changed, the fit was never found.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    This afternoon, he took a buyout, and was unconditionally released.
    I have huge sympathy for the guy. He came across the ocean to a strange, puzzling league. He danced out on some dreadful plastic, and tried to force a playing style that demanded both speed and finesse. But his speed was ultimately too fast for his subtlety.
    He was well paid for his time, but his game was in trouble.
    See, MLS is a tough, physical league – painfully short of art most nights. Defenders didn’t care about Rohan beating them down the wings, because they knew there would always be help arriving behind them. Once word got out that all you had to do was let the guy tightrope the touchline and it was over, that’s pretty much what every other team that faced him did.
    Rohan could have broken this in half if he could have got some good passes and crosses in. But he didn’t.
    Easy for me to say? Certainly. He’s on the field, and I’m up in the rafters. He’s the one who’s got to make the pass. All I have to do is see it.
    But I didn’t. Not nearly often enough.
    By the time this season started, Rohan was still quite popular with the fans. But he had lost the pressbox. Oh, you’d hear the odd, optimistic note, but mostly the rafter rats had given up the long watch for things which now seemed clearly not to be coming.
    See, wing play has never been Toronto FC’s strong point. When John Carver was bounced as coach, new man Chris Cummins dumped the concept completely. In general, he turned Amado Guevara loose in the middle, and let the fullbacks and strikers carve up the sideline duties.
    This meant more open pals to pass to. The number of solo suicide runs down the wing has hovered comfortably close to zero ever since.
    To his credit, in very limited playing time, Rohan seemed to be adjusting. But comfort on the ball just wasn’t there. All over the stadium, you could hear the footsteps he was hearing. His play was rushed, and hurry hurt his distribution. And then the team started making changes. And Rohan’s time in Toronto – inevitably – ran out.
    It’s hard to be in trouble so far from home. Back in 1986, I bombed out as a CBC radio reporter in Iqaluit, on Baffin Island. It was a big break, and it went bust. One of the hardest times in my life. I’m sure that if Rohan and I ever got a chance to hoist some pints and compare notes, we’d find CBC Baffin and Toronto FC have quite a lot in common.
    Sometimes, it just don’t work out. It’s awful, but that’s the game. And the game is always bigger than the player.
    A few weeks back, Rohan’s Twitter account served up some ringing high notes of discontent. Anger over being unwanted. Biting about being told there was no trade out there for him.
    He quickly stepped in to say he’d been hacked. On “It’s Called Football” this past Monday, he elaborated, saying a few people have access to his account. But the alleged fake messages were never removed. That’s the first thing I’d do if someone started writing on my blog under my name. But then again, I’m not Rohan.
    For what little it’s worth, I don’t believe the hack story. I think those posts were simply Rohan telling the truth – in a business where the truth isn’t always good for business.
    He did rip home some fine goals for TFC, but they tended to be solo shots. On a team starving for good, consistent service from the wings, this funny, popular, outspoken lad became yet another young hopeful unable to solve the problem.
    Whatever happened in the back room – and whoever Tweeted what – Rohan Ricketts’ job on the field in Toronto simply did not get done.
    The deeper details may yet make some amusing journalism some day. But other than that, they really don’t matter at all.
    But I do – certainly – wish him lots of luck.
    Onward!

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