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  • For Toronto FC, the more things change...


    ccs-3097-140264010669_thumb.jpgA big, bald target man named Danny thumps home an equalizer at a frosty BMO Field, giving Toronto FC a 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution in the Reds' season finale. But despite a troubled start to the season that eliminated any hint of a playoff run, TFC fans are still looking ahead to next season with a sense of optimism.

    That could have been written today, or on Oct. 20, 2007. In either case, it wouldn't be particularly well written, but it would adequately get across the "the more things change, the more things stay the same" motif. For five years, TFC has been largely sold to the masses as an abstract concept: Not trophies, or wins, or goals -- but passion, dedication... hope.

    The team's original messianic hope-peddler, Mo Johnston, was ultimately outed as a snake oil salesman. But as Aron Winter addressed the post-game media scrum for the final time in 2011, there was a palpable sense of belief that despite yet another year of non-playoff soccer, there is a chance the squad would yet recapture the excitement and civic relevance that surrounded it in those halcyon days of 2007.


    Most telling in Winter's post-match remarks was his unwillingness to identify the high and low points of the 2011 campaign. He'd earlier reiterated that Toronto had just witnessed a rebuilding year (the city is accustomed to those) and stressed that there are changes yet to be made in the off-season. What changes? Again, he wouldn't say. But based on his mid-season wheeling-and-dealing this year, it's safe to say that he wouldn't make such pronouncements lightly.

    Now, surely there won't be any off-season deal-swinging with as profound an impact as the acquisition of designated player pair Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, who now form the on-field and spiritual backbone of the franchise. Surrounded as they are by a personnel core who range in talent from "passable" to "electric", it seems there's no particular need for the traditional wholesale roster turnover that ol' MoJo made a habit of.

    The most pressing concern would likely be to sort out the contract situations of young standouts Joao Plata and Richard Eckersley, both currently on loan (from LDU Quito and Burnley, respectively). A central defender is commonly cited as likely being atop Winter's wish list, but with the presence and organizational prowess of Frings, the makeshift tandem of Andy Iro and Ty Harden has usually looked capable. And let's not forget, Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams still find themselves on TFC's roster, though their futures are uncertain.

    There are holes to fill. Winter will endeavour to fill them. But it's no secret that the relatively-stable roster of the season's second half acquitted themselves reasonably well (remarkably well, by general TFC standards).

    Now, Winter did admit that his team looked "flat" against the Revs, after pouring their hearts and souls into a once-in-a-half-decade performance against FC Dallas on Tuesday. But they withstood an early bombardment of shots, took the lead and gave the south end something to celebrate late in the second half. Naturally, this being TFC, the last few minutes at BMO Field were nervy, the threat of an opposition winner always looming large.

    But unlike 2007, or 2008, or 2009, or 2010, or large parts of 2011, the goal never came. The result held up. That, maybe, is one crucial change from previous years. Fans needn't clinch their sphincters quite as hard anymore, knowing that a late-game collapse isn't as inevitable as it once was. Perhaps that faith comes from a renewed faith in the team -- or, more specifically, the man putting the team together.

    With Winter and co. came the concept of "total football", a phrase that has come full circle, to an extent, this year. First used frantically and ubiquitously to hearken a supposedly revolutionary approach for an MLS side, then bitterly and derisively as the revolving roster door began spinning and wins dried up, it now once again may hold some sense of promise, as fans have seen glimpses of how a fit, organized and invested squad (assembled by Winter) can play.

    While the playoffs eluded TFC once again, the selling points have now become more tangible than abstract. Gone (hopefully) are the internal feuds that were supposedly ripping the franchise apart. Gone is the monkey from Toronto's back over having never beaten its erstwhile rival, the Columbus Crew. And added to the trophy case are another Canadian Championship and a Trillium Cup (insert dismissive snickering here).

    No one can deny the squad in 2011 was -- and in the upcoming off-season, will continue to be -- a work in progress. But the days of throwing anything at the wall (or on the pitch, as it were) to see what sticks appear to be gone as well. Winter has been forthright with media and fans. He's given deserving Academy graduates an honest opportunity to earn first-team roles, and two (Ashtone Morgan and Matt Stinson) have done so, with Doneil Henry seemingly on the fringe of a breakthrough as well. He's torn Toronto FC to shreds so that it may be put together again to his liking, and so far, the prognosis looks good.

    Next up for Toronto FC is a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal in March. Surely, between now and then, Winter will be asked about his thoughts on the team's chances in the tie, or their chances of advancing, or their chances of finally making the MLS playoffs. Chances are, he'll provide a sly response. He'll talk about long-term building. He'll talk about putting together solid performances and building on-field connections that will, ultimately, produce results.

    Perhaps he's also peddling snake oil. Perhaps some new Danny will be scoring a late equalizer at the end of another lost season in 2016, before a sparse and disinterested crowd on Toronto's lakeshore. And perhaps any end-of-year optimism is borne exclusively of the extended afterglow of that truly remarkable midweek performance in Dallas.

    Regardless, there will be no calls for the coach's head this off-season. Nor for the GM's. Nor for a drastic roster overhaul. Tweaks will be debated, and indeed made. Adjustments will be contemplated. Formations mused about.

    But the words "Toronto FC" won't be automatically tinged with a pervasive sense of apocalyptic worry and fatalism. They will, instead, be bandied around by fans the way Toronto fans do when they talk about their team: With self-effacement bordering on embarrassment, but underwritten by a flickering yet indefatigable sense that this, finally, could be the year.

    Indeed, in Toronto, the more things change...

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