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    Pesch earns new challenge

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Former Canadian international striker Paul Peschisolido has been named manager of English Football League newbies Burton Albion.
    If any other Canadian has ever run a club in England’s top four divisions, I can’t find any mention of it.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    I chatted with Pesch a year ago, broadcasting matches at a youth tournament in Oshawa. His playing days had ended, but he was still holding out hope of a contract with one more English club. It would have been his tenth team over there, had it happened.
    Alert fans will remember he briefly scrimmaged with Toronto FC on that trip, having played for then-TFC coach John Carver in a disastrous season at Luton Town. Pesch professed to be a huge Carver fan, but he and the MLS club didn’t impress each other. The fleet, fiery finisher never suited up for his hometown club.
    Pesch was a tired, quiet man that weekend. The English season had just concluded, and even though he’d been sidelined for a while with another nagging injury, he looked exhausted. Taller than I’d remembered – slimmer, too – with a rolling English accent he certainly hadn’t picked up growing up Italo-Canadian in Scarborough, Ontario.
    I was there, in 1991, the day a 20-year-old Pesch was drafted by the Toronto Blizzard of the old Canadian Soccer League. He looked impossibly small and young then. And he was so, so good.
    He went on to score 11 goals for Canada, but there was a lot of frustration in his 53-game international career. Pesch could run the ball through opposing defenders, and he could finish. Too often though, his runs died when there was no one else to pass to. When he pushed further forward and waited for the ball, it rarely got to him.
    Canada needed two of him. One to run the ball, the other to finish the play. Obviously, that never happened.
    But his desire to find one more contract in England has come true. A bit unexpectedly, perhaps, although the Pesch I met last year was clearly reading the soccer pitch with a coach’s eye. His wife, Karren Brady, is famously the managing director of Birmingham City, newly promoted back to the English Premier League. They have been together since the mid-nineties, so Pesch will have picked up a lot of ideas.
    As for Burton Albion, they are a small, sassy side from Staffordshire, who caught the world’s attention when they held Manchester United 0-0 in an FA Cup stunner at their tiny Pirelli Stadium back in 2006. United buried them 5-0 in the replay at Old Trafford.
    11,000 Brewers fans made the trip to Manchester, and various sources claim this was the largest contingent of visiting support in Man U history. Seems unlikely – but then again there aren’t many United matches where that many tickets would be available in the first place.
    Burton have been consistent contenders for a Football League place ever since, and finally sealed the deal this season, winning the Conference by two clear points.
    Small ambitious club, tiny modern stadium. Conference champions usually do okay in League Two (the most recent comic misnaming of the English Fourth Division), so there’s every opportunity for success.
    Paul Peschisolido is a hugely competitive man, facing an excitingly new and different challenge. And he’ll be paving new trails in Canadian soccer achievement – whatever happens next for Burton Albion.
    Onward!

    Guest

    The inconsistency of youth

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Ah, young soccer players.
    Promise, potential – and won’t they just drive you nuts every now and then?
    Or – in the context of Toronto FC’s 0-2 loss to Chicago on Saturday ….
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Chad Barrett: Again, he missed a lot of shots and didn’t score. But I saw a couple of things I really liked.
    For a guy famous for losing his focus when he gets close to opposing nets with a soccer ball on his feet, Chad showed some highly focused grit a couple of times in this one.
    There’s actually a high-angle replay of the Amado Guevara shot that belted the Windy City crossbar after the Fire had taken a 1-0 lead. The ball comes back into play, but it’s a major-league pop up. Barrett is well behind the play, in heavy traffic – and his eyes light up like Christmas in Las Vegas. He forces his way in, never once taking his eye of the ball. Not only does he get there first, he does very well to head the rebound just over the bar. Yeah, he missed, but wow!
    A few minutes later, the ball – as it so often does – falls dead at Barrett’s feet, in the Fire area, just off the right post. The snake-bit striker blasts a wicked volley – superbly struck – which ‘keeper Jon Busch needs fine reflexes and both fists to turn away. I wouldn’t even call that a miss.
    Four non-goals for Barrett on the day, but none of them the sad, soggy efforts so much bandwidth has been squandered decrying. Some days you do great, and the ball doesn’t go in. This, I submit, was one of those.
    Stefan Frei: TFC’s phemon rookie netminder was pretty ordinary in this one. His worst decision was the costliest. With Chicago’s Chris Rolfe barreling in on him all alone, Frei was hesitant coming off the line. When he finally got religion and went for it, he led with his leg instead of his body. Rolfe had more than enough time to sidestep the narrower, lighter obstacle, easily rounding Frei to tap in what proved to be the winning goal.
    Frei, of course, is learning. This was a good lesson.
    ---
    The loss, of course, could easily have been avoided had the Reds’ strike force been able to convert any of the numerous consecutive chances they set up for themselves after Toronto fell behind. Barrett, Vitti, Guevara, DeRo – all had fine chances that never found twine.
    Seeing what was happening, TFC coach Chris Cummins bolstered his attack late by yanking centre back Marco Velez to make way for veteran target man Danny Dichio. A classic “What are we going to do, lose?” ploy, aimed at going all-out – not just for the draw, but for the win.
    The chances kept coming … and going. Chicago got one ball worked into all that abandoned real estate in front of the Toronto goal, and easily crafted it into goal number two – an empty-net nudge job for MLS leading goal scorer Brian McBride.
    A loss, then – Cummins’ first – but a better effort than the Torontos put out in the draw with Columbus and, I think, the Voyageurs Cup win over Vancouver.
    ---
    And, a note on the hand ball call that wasn’t:
    It wasn’t.
    This, of course, the bounding ball in the Chicago area that hit the arm of Wilman Conde of the Fire. No call, and Chicago immediately pushed the ball the length of the field to score their first goal.
    The rule MLS refs have been ordered to enforce this year – which has burned TFC’s Marvell Wynne twice and let Conde walk – has to do with using your arms to increase your width. Conde’s arms were entirely within the line of his torso, where Wynne’s were famously flapping like he’d been cleared for takeoff at Bedrock airport.
    The ball hit a teammate, then hit Conde. TFC were already vacating the zone. Classic ball-to-hand, in other words. I believe the ref got this one right – although the ultimate timing of the play sure won’t be sitting well with Toronto fans.
    ---
    After the match, a frustrated Dwayne DeRosario told the CBC directly that BMO’s Field’s artificial turf is killing the team, and has got to go. There are still huge legal, bureaucratic and financial obstacles to grass at the Ex, but it will be interesting to see how DeRo’s honest anger shakes things up.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Messed up in Montreal?

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    There were a few things I felt quietly sure of going into Wednesday night’s Voyageurs Cup grudge match between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
    - Toronto would again control the ball well and easily against USL-1 opposition.
    - Toronto would squander multiple scoring chances.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    - Toronto would win the game.
    - John Limniatis would be coach of the Impact for a long, long time.
    Normally, I’d be thrilled with three out of four. But in this case, losing number four – Limniatis has been axed – is a real shock.
    What more, exactly, did owner Joey Saputo and crew expect this guy to do?
    When Limniatis stepped in a year ago, the Impact were off to a dreadful start. Even as late as late July, there were still mired in ninth place out of eleven in USL-1.
    - But then they won the Voyageurs Cup, as Canadian professional soccer champions.
    - Then they started rising in the standings.
    - Then they ousted Real Esteli of Nicaragua to qualify for group play in the CONCACAF Champions League.
    - Then they kept rising in the standings.
    - Then they advanced to the CONCACAF quarterfinals, got as far as the USL-1 semifinals, trained through the off-season, toured Italy to stay sharp, played Santos Laguna of Mexico in front of 55,000 fans (!!) at Olympic Stadium, then ran out of gas and blew a 4-1 aggregate lead in the dying moments in Mexico to finally get ousted and sent home – utterly exhausted – just a few short weeks before the new season got under way.
    Pretty much all of that looks glowingly gorgeous on John Limniatis’s resume.
    Sure, L’Impact are struggling now, and in a deep six-point hole in the Voyageurs Cup. But they get four shots at the Vancouver Whitecaps (league and V-Cup) in the next couple of weeks. Roughing up those guys will cure everything.
    They got off to a far worse start a year ago – and lost their first V-Cup game to Toronto FC by an identical 1-0 score.
    Something must be going on behind the scenes. Maybe this team has been through so much more intensity – and mileage – than it was ever built for, which utterly fried the coach-roster relationship? Does someone higher up in the organization believe this team is pole-screwed if it doesn’t get back to CONCACAF? Or do they figure changing coaches worked last year, so qu’elle-the-hell, let’s do it again?
    The true story will filter out over time.
    We’re left with a heavily fatigued pack of Impact, facing a brutal month of games, with everything on the line.
    … Exactly the kind of situation they thrived in – under John Limniatis.
    Anything you can tell us, Montreal fans?
    Onward!

    Guest

    The ballad of Chad Barrett

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Late Wednesday evening, down at the Dufferin Gate pub in Parkdale, there was a sudden moment of silence, followed by a whole bunch of swearing.
    Not angry swearing. This was amazed swearing. Happy, relieved swearing. “If you’re happy and you know it, cuss!” swearing.
    The Toronto FC-Montreal Impact highlights were up on the video screens, and this was the first time U-Sector got a really good look at Chad Barrett’s goal.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    The embattled TFC striker had scored a blinder’s blinder – but he’d done it at the north end of BMO Field. U-Sector sit in the south, where you can certainly see every player on the field, but the inner subtlety of a lot of what happens out there isn’t always clear.
    They knew it was good. Now, they know it was great.
    Barrett didn’t even start this game. Amid rising frustration over the young striker’s chronic ability to turn wide-open chances into grinning, grateful goaltenders, Barrett hit the pine while TFC coach Chris Cummins trotted out yet another intriguing, innovative starting line-up.
    4-4-2, with embattled defender Marvell Wynne pushed up to right midfield, and impressive youngster Nana Attakora given the start at right fullback. TFC controls the ball easily and wonderfully in this shape, but Wynne pulls up with a hamstring twang early, and Barrett gets his chance.
    So what does he serve up, with the pressure oddly off and no one really expecting anything? Brilliance.
    The ball comes in from captain Jim Brennan on the wing, a well-struck roller right at Barrett’s feet. Chad flips it into the air, stumbles slightly, then rockets a deadly right-foot volley over the goalie, under the crossbar, explosively smack into the back-centre of the net.
    BMO Field explodes.
    ‘Cause this is the revenge game, people. This is payback for last July 22, when Montreal squeaked out a 1-1 draw, and nabbed the Voyageurs Cup – and a coveted place in the new CONCACAF Champions League – right from under the noses of the red-shirted favourites from MLS. Great story and good luck to them, but BMO Field last night didn’t want to know about another freakin’ upset.
    It’s Barrett’s third goal of the year in all competitions. And they’ve been good – this one, exceptional.
    Ah, but it’s always hit-and-mish-mash with this guy. In the second half, he tries another flip-and-fire. This one misfires badly. Then he’s in all alone on goalie Matt Jordan, who comes w-a-y out, dives, flails an arm at Barrett’s feet, and knocks the ball away.
    But there’s second-half brilliance, as well. Barrett scoots in from the wing, runs on to the ball from nowhere, beats two defenders and rolls a shot just agonizingly past the post. It’s almost a twin for the dance-and-shoot wundermiss youthful teammate Pablo Vitti laid on Chivas USA a couple of weeks back.
    Barrett’s got three more goals than Vitti, but Vitti gets better press. Barrett’s also got a four-year contract, while Vitti is kicking around the Lake Ontario waterfront on loan.
    So Toronto’s got an unpredictable, inexplicable talent in Chad Barrett, who can miss and miss and then set off stunned gasps in the bar when the south-side supporters finally see what he really, actually did to score that wonderful, wonderful goal.
    The lack of a second goal could matter though. Can’t put that on all on Barrett’s bill, with Dwayne DeRosario and Sam Cronin bonking goalposts and other nice chances going begging. But if either Montreal or Vancouver sweeps the other in the next two V-Cup matches – cooking up something stronger than TFC’s matching pair of 1-0 wins – goal difference could again become a nasty reality when the Reds go on the road to conclude this not-yet-concluded round-robin.
    Barrett did great. TFC’s up six points. Fans who filed glumly out in a black cloud of silence after last year’s upset stood cheering and waving and singing and pounding and laughing in their seats for twenty delicious minutes past the final whistle.
    Now they wait to see if he – and the team – can seal the deal.
    Onward!

    Guest
    In no particular order …
    1) Sunsets over water, or seen from a high, long bridge.
    2) The first bite of Schwartz’s smoked meat after a long journey to Montreal.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    3) Watching lacrosse at Six Nations, with a cherry malt from Hewitt’s on Highway 6.
    4) Babies smiling and dancing in my pre-school music classes.
    5) Canoeing. Call me.
    6) Meeting my next sweetheart. Kinda gotta a feeling it’s finally time.
    7) The first swig of icy draft beer when it’s really hot and I’m desperately thirsty.
    8) Long, rambling walks across Toronto with the sun coming up – or going down.
    9) Christmas morning with my family at home.
    10) Toronto FC v Montreal Impact in the Voyageurs Cup.
    Get a ticket, and get down here.
    Onward!

    Guest

    A bounty for Barca

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Regular readers will not be shocked to know I’m not a fan of the giant clubs. This boy wants the global soccer money gap narrowed enough so that an inspired smaller club that has an amazing season can actually win the English Premier League, or Serie A, or La Liga.
    But if I had to pick a giant club to express some heartfelt admiration for, it just might be Barcelona.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    The Catalans have always treasured flowing, foot-to-foot football, and have never surrendered the fronts of the jerseys to the logos and brand names of big-time corporate sponsors. When the time came for Barca to don a logo, they chose the international children’s charity UNICEF. As a guy who makes half his living working with kids, how could I not love that?
    So – story breaks yesterday. Barca are signed to play the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders in August, and they’re looking for a third MLS side to fill out the tour.
    This comes among rising rumours that Barcelona’s ultimate Spanish nemesis – Real Not Salt Lake – are considering a side trip to BMO Field to spread some Galactico glitter-dust on awe-struck Toronto FC supporters sometime later this summer.
    My task is clear. And if money be the grease of such games, it’s time to put my extremely limited resources where my mouth is.
    Way back in the original season of Saturday Night Live (1975, if you’re scoring at home), producer Lorne Michaels publicly offered the Beatles $3,000 if they would reunite on the show.
    It was both a wonderful joke and a serious offer. Michaels told the Fab Four they could split the money any way they like, and if they wanted to give Ringo a little less, that was fine with him.
    Urban legend has it that Paul McCartney was visiting John Lennon at the Dakota that night, and the two titanic troubadours loved the joke so much, they almost grabbed their guitars and hopped in a cab to claim the cash. What an unbelievable pop-culture milestone that would have been!
    So, with all that and more in mind, it’s time to step up to the plate.
    Onward! – in full view of all – is officially offering FC Barcelona $11 (Canadian) to play a friendly match of football, at BMO Field in Toronto, against Toronto FC.
    The money can be divided any way the club sees fit. Maybe each starter gets a dollar. Maybe you toss some to the scrubs, as well. Maybe you give Samuel Eto'o a few cents less, just to send whatever message one might wish to send.
    Some things to consider:
    - This is the most money currently being offered by any accredited member of the working North American soccer media.
    - This offer is unprecedented.
    - The money is instantly transferable for goods and services anywhere in Canada.
    - This offer is not being made to Real Not Salt Lake.
    In the grinding global game of top-level soccer domination, every little bit helps. This is certainly a little bit. I’d even be happy to donate the entire $11 directly to UNICEF, if that would seal the deal.
    I must, in fairness, note that in addition to my journalistic proclivities, I am also a full-throated supporter of Toronto FC. I will cheering against Barca on the night, should this magic game materialize. But the money is still good. This offer is real – and open.
    If anyone reading this has any kind of inside contact with the Catalans, please feel free to forward this offer.
    I first mentioned this on yesterday’s edition of “It’s Called Football.” And while the $11 I flashed on the show was subsequently spent on the Star Trek movie and a bag of brightly coloured peanut-chocolate confection, eleven other dollars can be found – at any moment – to take their place.
    Barca, this is a reward for beautiful football, and your commendable embracing of children’s charity. A way of saying “as long as you’re in the neighbourhood, welcome to my home.”
    The $11 will be available – in full, and in cash – at the centre spot at game-time.
    I look forward to hearing from you.
    // Ben Knight, Writer/Publisher
    Onward!

    Guest

    “Armed” and dangerous

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    And then, of course, it happened again.
    Back on April 19, Toronto FC played some dire, directionless soccer before thousands of empty seats in far-suburban Dallas, Texas.
    They deservedly fell behind by two goals, but shook off the malaise and rallied to tie the match deep in the second half. Then an FC Dallaser whomped the ball off TFC defender Marvell Wynne’s needlessly extended arm in the Toronto penalty box. Dallas claimed the win on the subsequent penalty kick.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    So very, very much has happened since. John Carver gone as Toronto coach. New formations. New inspiration. Wins over Chivas USA and Kansas City in the league, over Vancouver in the Voyageurs Cup, and a fortunate come-from-behind draw at home against Columbus.
    If Toronto FC go on to claim a place in the MLS playoffs this fall, that silly loss in Dallas may end up being the turning point of the entire campaign.
    So I’m not so worried about the Dallas game.
    Cut to the greater Chesapeake watershed, and last night’s tiff at RFK Stadium in Washington between the Torontos and D.C. United. Cracker of a match, this! A five-goal thriller coming down the stretch, with TFC ahead thanks to two sublimely crafted solo goals from home-town hero and go-to guy Dwayne DeRosario.
    Before we get to what you surely know is coming, I want do drift you back to the cool, sunny autumn of 1977, when a younger, skinnier me made the Jarvis Bulldogs high school soccer team – solely because there are eleven positions on the field and only eleven potential players tried out.
    I was an underweight left fullback, who couldn’t run, wasn’t strong and couldn’t head the ball. My memories mostly involve opposing forwards running past me, one of two clean and clever slide tackles, hoofing the ball downfield at every opportunity – and Coach McCully constantly badgering me to keep my arms at my sides.
    About the only things I ever learned playing competitive soccer were that I wasn’t very good, and how to run, turn, pivot and hold my position with my arms at my sides.
    So it was, last night, that less than three weeks after Dallas, a bounding ball in the Toronto FC penalty area found Marvell Wynne’s extended arm, the referee pointed to the spot, and TFC were robbed of what would have been a franchise-milestone 3-2 triumph in a building where always, in the past, they have been routinely pounded.
    Debate rages, of course. Seems the definition of “handball” is interpreted differently in CONCACAF and MLS than it is, for example, in the English Premier League. We watch a lot of EPL in Toronto, and there’s no shortage of folks who say Wynne didn’t commit a penalty-kick offence on either night.
    But you know what? I expect a slightly higher level of craftsmanship from the players I write about. It was clear three weeks ago, in squeaky heat of central Texas, that Wynne is never going to get that call, in the dying minutes, on the road, with the game on the line.
    Marvell is a spectacular physical talent – blazing speed, and an ability to dribble eighty yards in under eleven seconds with the ball on a string. But he’s sloppy. Many times, his speed rescues him when he’s caught out of position. It’s a pretty good trick, but still happens a bit too often.
    And then there’s this arm-flapping lottery-shoot game he indulges in at the worst of all possible moments. He’s now oh-for-two at it, and it has directly cost Toronto FC three points in the MLS East standings.
    I know a lot of you don’t agree. And certainly, in terms of raw, basic soccer ability, I am in no position to comment on anything Marvell Wynne does.
    But if a clueless klutz like me can make his cuts and keep his balance with both arms bolted to his sides, can we not all sincerely hope that new Toronto coach Chris Cummins will be drilling his right fullback to cut out the windmilling, and leave both arms on the bench the next time TFC enters stoppage time with a good result on the scoreboard?
    The refs have clearly spoken – and a third round of this is a hat-trick all of us can do without.
    Onward!

    Guest

    The team that isn’t here

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Toronto FC. Montreal Impact. Vancouver Whitecaps.
    Serbian White Eagles?
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    The first three are Canada’s three top men’s professional soccer teams, set to begin play for the Voyageurs Cup when Vancouver visits Toronto tomorrow evening.
    The fourth is a team that should be there, but isn’t.
    White Eagles are champions of the Canadian Soccer League, which despite its largely semi-pro status, remains this nation’s only all-Canadian pro league.
    For decades, from its founding in 1926 up to 1992, it was known as the National Soccer League. When I started noticing it, back in the late seventies, it was running multiple divisions in small stadiums and high school playing fields all over Toronto and the surrounding area.
    The teams were largely ethnic social clubs – First Portuguese, Toronto Croatia, Toronto Italia, Panhellenic, Serbian White Eagles. Occasional teams joined up from other southern Ontario cities. I remember watching Montreal Castors play on the concrete plastic at Toronto’s tiny Lamport Stadium, before cramming into a minibus for the long ride back to La Belle Province.
    This league has survived, in different forms and alignments, for the best part of a century. It kept pro soccer alive, bubbling on the back burner, through all the times and troubles when it appeared the sport would never find success here.
    So now, in a time healthy growth and rising interest, we have three stand-alone sides ready to compete for a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. Sportsnet has signed on to air the games, and fans are excitedly bracing for a half dozen Canadian derbies – that matter! – over the next six weeks.
    Montreal already knows how good a prize this cup can be. After upsetting Toronto and Vancouver a year ago, they faced five Mexican and Caribbean opponents home-and-home before finally crashing out in the quarterfinals. Their final home match – at Olympic Stadium – drew 55,000 fans.
    Admittedly, we’re in the early stages here. It makes considerable sense to limit the competition to the nation’s three biggest clubs, at least until it’s a little more established.
    But, throughout the world of soccer, national cup competitions are open to amateurs and semi-pros as well. In this country, though, there are huge and significant obstacles.
    Canada is far too vast and sparsely populated to run any kind of straight knock-out competition. You can’t just pull St. Catharines Roma of the CSL out of a hat, pair them with a side from the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, and expect them to effortlessly set up a home-and-home set of cup-ties in the next four weeks.
    But leagues at all levels crown champions every year. Let’s start with them. I’m nominating the CSL first, because it is the biggest, highest-level, most-established soccer loop that isn’t yet competing for the prize.
    Serbian White Eagles, by the way, went 12-5-5 in the 2008 CSL season, knocking off North York Astros and Italia Shooters in the playoffs before scoring an upset win over the Trois-Rivieres Attak (farm club of the Montreal Impact), on penalty kicks in the final.
    I don’t know if the current round-robin format would survive with four teams. Doubling the number of Voyageurs Cup games from six to twelve might easily sap the excitement and energy from what is quickly becoming the highlight of the Canadian pro soccer year. Maybe the CSL champ is randomly drawn against one of the three big clubs, in a two-legger to decide the third and final spot.
    If this works, we don’t have to stop at the CSL. Let’s look at Professional Development League sides. I have no idea if eligibility laws would ever allow Canadian university teams to compete, but in the end, it wouldn’t be that hard to make the Voyageurs Cup a truly open competition.
    Just take the various eligible champions, and play them off against each other until you have one left standing. Then throw them into the mix – in whatever format is agreeable to teams, networks and sponsors – and run a classic cup competition where big upsets – HUGE upsets – are occasionally possible.
    Brampton Lions of the CSL knocking off Vancouver in the run-in, and getting a dream draw against Toronto FC at BMO Field on a nationally televised Wednesday night?
    Maybe it’s not possible right now, but it certainly is in the future. I expect the next six weeks to cement this competition’s place in the Canadian sporting imagination. Once the heavy lifting is done, it’s time to do what all the rest of the world does – open the national cup to every team in the nation.
    Admitting the Canadian Soccer League champions is the best – and most logical – place to begin.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Real rivalry

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Okay. The Columbus thing was cute.
    1-1 with the defending champs, keeping them winless in a game Toronto FC could – and likely should – have lost. The Crew pressured the Reds off the ball for huge stretches of the game, but missed a couple of fat juicy empty nets before halftime. Poor finishing cost them, and they still haven’t won.
    Funniest suggestion I heard yesterday was that two – and only two – Toronto fans should journey south for the July rematch in Ohio, and put up a large banner in the empty south stand at Crew Stadium:
    “Actually, it’s your fault.”
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    I don’t take a particular editorial stand on this one. I just know it’s funny.
    The Toronto-Columbus rivalry is more friction than fact. For fans of Canada’s three men’s professional soccer clubs, the real rivalry games start … now.
    And yes, I know the Canadian pro championship tournament has a corporate sponsor, but there’s any number of other places you can read and hear about that. Here at Onward!, it’s all about the Voyageurs Cup.
    Now up for grabs for the eighth time, the cup was dreamed up, commissioned, paid for and donated by members of the Voyageurs, Canada’s national soccer supporters’ organization. Until last season, it was competed for only by Canadian members of USL-1 or the old A-League. The Montreal Impact have won it all seven times the mug’s been on offer.
    Last year, when CONCACAF gifted Canada with a spot in its new Champions League, the V-Cup went prime time. Toronto FC, the Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps played a six-game round robin – which Montreal famously won.
    V-C VIII kicks off this Wednesday evening on the Toronto waterfront, with the USL-1 champion Whitecaps visiting a rebuilt and resurgent TFC. A year ago, Vancouver won here on Canada Day – and that loss was the crucial block that allowed Montreal to squeeze home victorious, launching their giddy run to the continental quarterfinals.
    Since then, Vancouver has become an MLS team-in-waiting. When that deal goes down in 2011, these two teams will likely be playing each other four times a year, and time zones be darned!
    That’s a lot more rivalry fodder than yellow shirts and boorish cops. It was nice of the Crew to be the last team in before The Show starts, though. The contrast should be apparent to everyone.
    Odd situation, yes? Toronto FC’s hottest MLS rivalry pales by comparison to the Canadian derbies – even when the yellow guys are carting around the MLS Champions Cup.
    It’s not that the VC is a bigger, better cup. Any Toronto fan would love to celebrate an MLS championship some day. It’s not even right to say the Voyageurs Cup is more attainable – because that opens the door to the obvious flaw that the only other two sides eligible for the thing play in a lower league.
    What is certainly attainable though – regardless of league, as Montreal proved last summer – is a place in a high-level international competition that feeds directly to the World club championships, where TFC/Impact/Whitecaps might one day lock ankles with Manchester United or Boca Juniors or Barcelona or Flamengo.
    And along the way, six fine rivalry matches – which all have upset potential, and which will all deepen and fire up Canadian pro soccer history, which had suffered dreadful, debilitating neglect these past few decades.
    For many Toronto FC fans, this week’s Vancouver game – and Montreal’s hotly anticipated visit on May 13 – are THE games of the TFC home season. The tournament’s capper – Toronto at Montreal on June 18 – is a very hot ticket, even though the whole thing could easily be sowed up by then. Toronto fans I talked with over the weekend said the Montreal trip was either the nexus point of everything, or what-the-heck-a-trip-to-Montreal?
    Columbus, bless them, can’t match that.
    By comparison, July’s what-the-heck-a-trip-to-Columbus? is a glacially cold ticket here. (And while glaciers may be melting everywhere else in the world, this one’s firming up just nicely, thanks.)
    New York, Chicago and Boston could probably heat up to this level with Toronto fans some day, but the on-field history just isn’t there yet. (Toronto’s NASL Soccer Bowl finals were against Minnesota, Tulsa and Chicago. Chicago was a rivalry, but the league folded almost the next day.)
    The TFC fan phenomenon is based on a real team, a real stadium, and real fans who’d never had either until just two short years ago. The only missing ingredient is intense rivalry. MLS is a league where all teams are created pretty much equally, and it presently lacks an enticing geographic hook for Toronto sports fans. (Columbus is close, and things got nasty. That’s it.)
    The Voyaguers Cup solves this problem – in just exactly the right dosage.
    Toronto’s still here, MLS. The season still matters and the playoff hunt’s still on. But you’re just going to have to excuse us if we’re a little bit … distracted for the next six weeks.
    Onward!

    Guest
    Not that I’m a conspiracy guy, mind you ….
    MLS commissioner Don Garber has publicly denied there was any league directive ordering John Carver to return to the sidelines after the embattled now-ex Toronto FC coach watched his side’s 1-0 win over Chivas USA from the private boxes.
    Carver said repeatedly that “order” was the last straw.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Since GM Mo Johnston was the ultimate source on the Garber story, and since Johnston has also suggested the Carver situation was unsettled for several weeks leading up to his resignation, is it not fair to conclude it was Johnston himself – or someone higher up in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – who wanted Carver gone?
    And why put words in Don Garber’s mouth?
    Not that I’m a conspiracy guy, mind you ….
    Onward!

    Guest

    A yellow card for MLS

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Okay, so MLS ref Jair Marrufo throws a questionable red card Columbus’s way for a “hit” on Chicago Fire DP Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and Blanco gives the ref his shirt after the game.
    MLS yanks Marrufo from his next assignment, and the entire odd bit of business is under review.
    I’m not going to get into conspiracy theories here. This is far more likely a case of ego and situational unawareness than a blatant public play to rip off the defending MLS champions.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK] But I’m pleasantly surprised to see Major League Soccer actually take an apparent interest in the perception of its officiating.
    Earlier this season, Marrufo hit a low-water mark – even for this league – when he awarded a game-breaking penalty kick for hand-ball in the box … for a ball played cleanly off a D.C. United defender’s thigh. That’s similar to an old Monty Python joke of a cricketer being called out for “bat before wicket.”
    Officiating in Our Little League is notoriously weak and thin. And while I still don’t buy the argument that it drove ex-TFC coach John Carver away from an improving team that had just cracked its lingering formation problems, there has long been cause for concern.
    For whatever reason, MLS takes very little hand in the selection – and training – of its arbiters. They pretty much wave onto the field any refs the USSF or CSA sends them, blithely and blindly hoping for the best.
    Not to pick on Marrufo in particular, but it is long-since time this changed.
    MLS needs to invest some of their fresh tidal wash of expansion money into significantly upgrading the way the North American pro game is called. The world is awash with recently retired refs. These are dedicated, experienced soccer judges, who can lead by example.
    It’s not even that the present refs are that bad. Mostly, the chronic gaffing is down to inexperience. There’s been so little division-one soccer in this part of the world, MLS routinely settles for officials whose experience simply does not match the speed, intensity and high-stakes nature of the pro game.
    I say again, Italy has an age-limit for refs. No matter how good you are, you’re finished at 45. And while I think this rule is insanity itself, it creates a fine opportunity for MLS. Throw some money at some 46-year-old Italians! Let them run clinics, ref some games, do some serious assessment work on the current crop of officials.
    The goal isn’t to single anyone out or make a bunch of well-meaning over-matched card wavers look bad. MLS refs can do that all on their own – and do, most weeks.
    This is about taking care of the game.
    Better officiating is good for everyone – the refs and linesman most of all! The money and expertise are there. It’s time for the league to show initiative and leadership, thank the USSF and CSA for their trouble, and bring responsibility for MLS officiating in-house.
    Ever since the arrival of David Beckham, the rest of the world has been watching. They see the ref mess here. They know.
    The simple question to commissioner Don Garber isn’t “what are you going to do about Jair Marrufo?” It’s “what are you going to about the entire over-strained, over-burdened, inefficient and incompetent set-up?”
    You can’t charge $35-million and up for expansion franchises, and let well-meaning boobs with flags and cards run around playing ref. It’s a significant MLS shortcoming, and it must be addressed.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Carver’s story doesn’t square

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    Departing Toronto FC head coach John Carver has his say in this morning’s Toronto Star.
    I’m not going to go deep on this one, but there are some inconsistencies that need to be flagged.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Carver says he quit because of MLS meddling – the last straw being the league ordering him out of the private box and back to the sidelines for Saturday’s match with Kansas City. The fiery coach refused (so he claims) and picked out a plane ticket instead.
    He also takes credit for the 4-3-3 formation that has suddenly turned Toronto FC into a football team.
    Caretaker bench boss Chris Cummins has said the 4-3-3 was “a group effort.” Given how dreadfully lost the entire TFC roster was in Dallas – the final game (and loss) in Carver’s fatally flawed 4-4-2 – I think “intervention” is a better term.
    Carver may have had a hand in it, but he’d never done anything throughout his TFC tenure that even hinted at two defensive midfielders, and three hard-running raiders at the front. This was a bold departure – and it just happened to coincide with a new man on the sidelines?
    Carver claims he went upstairs to see how the new formation would work. There’s certainly precedent for that. He’d done that last year, as well – at least twice.
    But GM Mo Johnston, addressing the media after the Kansas City game, suggested things had been coming to a head for awhile. Mo says he was deflecting pressure off of one of his “best friends.” But if it’s all as Carver says, why didn’t Mo say it was Carver’s idea to watch from upstairs? Why vaguely hint at a “we thought it better” approach?
    And – if Carver quit because he didn’t like the league, what does that say to his players? They are even more helplessly subject to the strange structure of MLS than any coach will ever be. Where’s “all for one” now?
    The short digest version, then: An embattled coach who publically said his job was on the line before any of this happened, concocts a brilliant new strategy that transforms his team, then quits because of interference from league office. If true, it says a lot about the man's priorities. If not ... well, discuss among yourselves.
    John Carver may indeed believe he quit because he’d had a bellyful of Our Little League. But there’s more than enough evidence to suggest he’d still be out on his ear today – even if he thought he wanted to stay.
    Onward!

    Guest

    Dollarama total football

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    With consecutive home wins over conference-leading teams, Toronto FC stands suddenly – all alone – astride the MLS Eastern Conference.
    Both wins came in a 4-3-3 formation, for which current coach Chris Cummings declines to take credit. Compared to the inept, sputtering 4-4-2 everyone suffered through under departed coach John Carver, TFC looks like an entirely new – and suddenly dangerous – team.
    Last night, a fellow soccer writer looked me right in the eye and wondered how the same squad could look so bad a week ago, and so good now? I humbly suggest the truth is deeper than how the players play the system. This is about the system playing the players.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Let’s start with the back four:
    Fullbacks Jim Brennan (left) and Marvell Wynne (right) love to push forward in attack. In Carver’s 4-4-2, that left the centrebacks exposed. Adrian Serioux would come out to man-mark the lead attacker, leaving Kevin Harmse or Marco Velez all alone. That, as we’ve learned far too many times, ain’t good for anyone.
    With no one to pass to, Harmse just hoofed it. That meant the midfield always had to fight for possession. Hold that thought.
    Midfield:
    Under Carver, Carl Robinson dropped back, and TFC had a rotating cast of two wingers and a lurking attacker. This all but abandoned the back four. In this 4-3-3, however, Robinson is joined at the back by impressive rookie Sam Cronin, able at last to play his natural position.
    What this means for Marco Velez (who’s played two good games since Harmse hoofed himself to the sidelines) is simple. He has help. There’s always a midfielder to pass to. For the midfield, that means less fighting for long balls from the back – the majority of which always go to the opponents.
    Yikes, you’re thinking. Six at the back? Hold that thought, as well.
    All of this leaves Amado Guevara the centre of midfield pretty much all to himself. And he likes it! His world is far less congested than it was in Carver’s 4-4-2, and he still has plenty of help and options on …
    The wings:
    At no point, anywhere in the win over Kansas City, did any red-shirted TFC man attempt the Andy Welsh/Rohan Ricketts one-man suicide run down the wing. Brennan and Wynne pushing forward, with strikers Pablo Vitti and Chad Barrett ranging back, creates a sliding, overlapping system of ball advancement where everyone has options.
    I spent the entire KC game assessing every Toronto touch. When the player got the ball, did he have one or more teammates to pass to? Overwhelmingly – all night – the answer was yes.
    So – not only is a 4-3-3 TFC able to calmly and constructively claim, possess and advance the ball at the back, it also has presence and potential in the midfield, created entirely by a move away from a slapdash, unreasoned clutterfest to a smooth, practical multi-pronged support system that lets everyone do what they’re good at. And then, of course …
    The attack:
    How are you enjoying Danny Dichio these days, Reds fans? Man of the match for me, two games running.
    In the 4-4-2, where every team possession was a struggle, it wasn’t easy for Dichio to read the play and be where the ball could come to him. Now, with an ordered midfield that possesses more and scrambles less, Dichio can do what he was born to do – hold the ball, and make lightning passes to attacking teammates.
    And, as happened on the winning goal yesterday – when the play breaks down and his mates are perfectly positioned to scramble it back to him – he can still make perfect, delicious passes straight to the back of the enemy net.
    Pablo Vitti, meanwhile, shook off a stumbling first half, and did some dazzling solo work down the stretch. He even stutter-hopped through four defenders at one point, before rolling a shot just agonizing inches past the post. The goal would have become TFC legend had it gone in. This system gives the young Argentine room, and a clear role as a creator. Carver … didn’t.
    Oh, and both Dichio and Barrett tracked back to make sliding defensive plays, while both Brennan and Wynne continued to figure in the attack. Sure, the defence miscued sometimes, but it never ran out of numbers, or options. The fact that rookie goalie Stefan Frei continues to impress ain’t hurtin’ a hoot!
    This team, in 4-3-3, is like a single possession-hungry organism that can actually play football! Sure, they’re doing in on the cheap, and certainly the overall talent in the organization won’t scare the global powers anytime ever.
    Call in Dollarama total football, if you will, but most importantly of all – it’s working!
    Dwayne DeRosario?
    Good question. He’ll be healthy soon. Where does he fit in?
    I’m sure he’d love to be where Guevara is. One of them will be the advance middie for sure. The other goes out on the wing, in place of either Vitti or Barrett. Carver’s loyalty was to Barrett, but Vitti can’t be benched after what he did last night. And neither can Dichio, after two inspired 90-minute blinders just four days apart.
    Wherever DeRo settles, this formation maximizes the abilities of every blessed player on the field for TFC. Compared to that terrible loss in Dallas just over a week ago, when nobody knew anything about where they were and just what exactly the heck in all this universe they were supposed to be doing, the transformation is breath-taking.
    And – I really do believe – it’s real.
    Toronto FC is finally showing us how good this team can be. The job’s not done, and they haven’t won a darn thing yet, but I’ve always been a huge and ardent fan of anything that makes sense.
    This clever 4-3-3 is passing that test impressively. If remaining coaches Chris Cummins and Nick Dasovic are its masterminds, I think it’s time to promote one of them to field general. The Voyageurs Cup, after all, is right around the corner.
    Are you loving this, TFC fans?
    Onward!

    Guest

    Carver

    By Guest, in Onward Soccer,

    The “It’s Called Football” crew was stranded in a stairwell at Bay and Dundas when the John Carver era ended at Toronto FC.
    As a cell phone objector, I was left looking on in amusement as Duane Rollins and Ben Rycroft barked into their Star Trek communicators, chipping loose details of the story as we waited for someone to show up and unlock the studio door.
    High tech meets no tech – but we got the story on the air.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Which leaves us to wrestle with the strange and entertaining enigma that was Toronto FC bench boss John Carver.
    The very first time I saw him do a post-game press conference, he took issue with the first question he was asked. Dismissed it as uninformed, said he didn’t want to start with a bad question, and moved bluntly to the next. “Oh brother,” I’m thinking to myself. “Another one of THESE guys.” But then came the surprise. A few questions later, he pointed to the scribe he shot down, and said “All right. NOW I’ll do your question.”
    It really broke the ice. He was blunt – but funny. A passionate, dedicated man who was deeply and deliberately rough around the edges, who went on to give some of the most honest, relevant and entertaining post-games you could ever hope to be in on.
    At the same time, his record wasn’t good. Not much experience, and the team was losing. But how much of that was Carver? TFC was a clear and present bad team. It takes time for a coach to mold them in his image.
    He was refreshingly honest. He’d tell you what a player did well, and when he didn’t. He’d consider points being raised by reporters. If he didn’t agree, he’d carefully take the time to explain why.
    The most stunning moment was not one of his frequent, anguished outcries over lousy MLS officiating. It came in the awful aftermath of TFC’s elimination from the 2008 Voyageurs Cup by the upstart Montreal Impact. Asked about striker Jeff Cunningham’s unbelievable last-minute miss of a five-yard empty-net sitter, Carver wondered aloud how the player had ever scored 99 goals in MLS.
    Coaches just don’t cut their players that dead, that publically. And yet, all objectivity aside, just about everybody in the room was already thinking that or worse about Cunningham, who was dumped to Dallas just days later.
    When Carver went off the rails, in other words, honest watchers of the game couldn’t really help but sympathize. So what if Toronto slumped uselessly through four tedious, terrible months last spring and summer? They rallied late, and put in a good September. So Carver must finally have reached them, right?
    Always, always the illusion. If you liked John Carver – and I certainly did – you could find enough good stuff to convince yourself he wasn’t the problem.
    Even now, with Carver gone, problemship is still tricky to assign. But one important fact now seems clear:
    John Carver never was – and never would be – the solution.
    This was laid brutally bare by TFC’s last two games.
    In Dallas, under Carver, they were shapeless, clueless reflex hoofers of the ball, with no continuity and no apparent plan. Last Wednesday, home to red-hot Chivas USA, they kept it on the carpet, controlled the game, defended well, built carefully, and scored a wonderful goal to win it.
    All of this, apparently, under the direction of assistant coach Chris Cummings, who was tossed the keys after Carver went off on the ref in Dallas.
    There are multiple versions of what exactly happened, but it appears today that Carver has not, in fact, signed a deal to coach in England, with the heavily rumoured Newcastle United or anyone else. It’s also coming crystal clear that his head was on the block, and his resignation saved the headsman some minor wear and tear on his axe.
    The man – for all his heart, charm, character, wonderful gruffness, refreshing honesty, commitment, strength, passion and perseverance – just isn’t a very good head soccer coach.
    I’m sure most of the players loved him, but the tactics weren’t there. When a team – as Toronto did in Dallas – bypasses two of the most creative central middies in the league (DeRosario and Guevara) with endless high hoof jobs to struggling strikers – well, Carver can argue all he wants that a bad penalty call led to the loss, but these rebuilt Reds never should have been in that position in the first place.
    Those four bad months were, in fact, ineffective generalship as much as poor talent. If it hadn’t been for that happy little blip in September (which was cruelly snuffed out by a terrible late penalty call … in Dallas), I doubt Carver would have even returned to start ’09.
    I will miss the man. He made my job better and easier. But I won’t miss the awful drifting lack of direction Toronto FC displayed far too often in the Carver era.
    And a little side note to Newcastle’s desperate new manager Alan Shearer:
    Before you offer this guy a job, you might want to do what Carver himself loved to do above almost all else … check the video.
    Onward!

    Guest
    We have much to discuss. Walk with me.
    [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
    Okay, so some brainless teenage yahoo from Stoney Creek winds up and throws a burning road flare.
    Not into Section 114 at BMO Field – but straight at Ottawa City Council.
    Ottawa immediately bans pro soccer from the region for all eternity. They also order Bank Street closed for another nine months. (Inside Ottawa joke. If you tried to drive that town in the fall and winter of ’07-’08, you know.)
    That lights a fire under the suddenly efficient Canadian Soccer Association. They get on the horn to CONCACAF president Chuck Warner, and convince him to cough up a chunk of the money he never got around to paying that incredible Trinidad and Tobago 2006 World Cup team (Do the right thing, you bureaucratic stinkweed!). That money goes straight to Montreal, for the expansion of Stade Saputo.
    Montreal is immediately welcomed into MLS with open arms, settling for an expansion team after declining the chance to be a foster home for the Columbus Crew. (“Too much bad karma,” owner Joey Saputo says. “We want to start clean.”)
    That lights a fire under the Vancouver Whitecaps. Realizing they are about to become a “turf team” when they move into B.C. Place, and desperate to win the Voyaguers Cup whilst Montreal are still minor-leaguers, the Whitecaps roll a plastic pitch out over the grass at Swangard. They subsequently win the Canadian championship, destroying Toronto FC on the flare-singed turf at BMO. (“Turns out we’re a turf team,” ‘Caps president Bob Lenarduzzi tells “It’s Called Football.” “Who knew?”)
    The Torontos, stung by the loss of whatever home field advantage their poor and pummeled plastic once provided, decide the only way to protect the turf from flying flares is to replace it – with grass.
    Canada’s national teams immediately embrace “Canada’s National Soccer Stadium.” The men win a bunch of games at BMO, and easily qualify for the 2014 World Cup. They are drawn in a group with Portugal, Peru and Liberia. In the end, all they salvage is an edgy 1-1 draw with the Africans – on a bizarre quadruple deflection that is subsequently credited to the assistant equipment manager on the sidelines.
    Newly elected Canadian prime minister Peter Montopoli hails the performance as “distinctly Canadian,” and we all go back to our daily existence in the new and booming ethanol-and-zamboni economy of the mid-2010s.
    (Ottawa never receives an MLS franchise. The Las Vegas Crew do, eventually, relocate to Saskatoon.)
    (Not that I condone flares, mind you.)
    Onweird!

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