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Improved Depth Key for TFC Playoff Drive


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With Toronto FC’s recent qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League Group Stages, many TFC supporters applauded the achievement and then immediately took to worrying about whether the six extra games on the schedule might have a detrimental effect on the club’s chances of qualifying for the MLS playoffs for the first time. After all, Toronto FC would not be the first MLS club to see their playoff hopes go down the drain due to a fairly small roster succumbing to a heavy schedule of league matches and Champions League fixtures. And many will argue that the team’s recent loss of a very winnable match on the road to Kansas City was very much a result of the team saving their energy for a CONCACAF match against Honduran side Motagua.

At the beginning of the season Toronto Head Coach Preki was clear that making the playoffs was the team’s main priority, so much so that many supporters wondered just how seriously he was going to take the Nutrilite Canadian Championship tournament. Thus, many are now wondering about the possibility that while the team may have won a couple of battles, will they ultimately lose the war?

If last Saturday’s convincing win over Chivas was not enough to soothe fears that the Reds will lose their steam before they hit the finish line, the mood in the dressing room after the match certainly was one that suggested that not only is the team confident of making the playoffs, the players feel that the Champions League qualification has actually put the wind beneath their wings.

“By winning the series against Motagua and coming through with the tie in Honduras, I think it really has had a positive effect and reinforces a positive mentality throughout the entire team. It just adds to the motivation and momentum going forward, every win just gives us that more of a push and a desire to keep winning. There is really a positive vibe going throughout the team,” says central defender Adrian Cann.

To a man the players on TFC believe that it is the club’s depth that will allow them to achieve positive results in the Champions League while at the same time qualifying for the MLS playoffs.

“I think it comes down to our roster. We have a good twenty-four man roster and I think everybody is comfortable playing with everybody on the team. You can look at Ibby (Fuad Ibrahim) when he came in a couple of weeks ago and scored and he did well with U.S. U-20 team and did well again today (against Chivas). So I think we are just going to have to just rely more on other players. We have a lot of young players on the team that we are going to have to rely on and they’ve done well (when called upon in the past),” says midfielder Jacob Peterson.

“We are going to be playing a lot of games and every player is going to have play a role on the field. It’s going to take the whole team and everyone will need to be ready to play,” added fullback Raivis Hscanovics, who has previously competed in the Europa League with Latvian side Skonto FC.

While the overall depth on the club has allowed Preki to rotate players all season and made the Reds earn their minutes on the training pitch, many players were quick to point out that the club’s two most recent signings have arrived just in time for the really busy part of the schedule and the do or die games.

“It’s huge (to have the new players - Maicon Santos and Mista - that have recently joined the forward ranks). And it’s not just at the forward positions, we’ve got Nane Joseph stepping in where Amadou (Sanyang) was playing and he has done tremendously well. I think we have good depth now all over the pitch. I think we were a little thin up front and that would have hurt us down the road, because we (O’Brian and I) would have been playing in all of the matches and, if we weren’t scoring, we’d still be playing because there just wouldn’t have been other options to go to. Now that we have that depth, it is going to be the best players that are going to be playing on the field. And all of the forwards are all going to be called up – O’Brian, Fuad, Me, Maicon, Mista – everybody is going to be called upon to play a role down the stretch,” says forward Chad Barrett.

With the overall team defense and the world class play of keeper Stefan Frei carrying the team for much of the season, the chances that the team has been generating for last several weeks have finally started to result in goals. Back to back two goal games - combined with the usually stingy defense and acrobatic saves by Frei - has the club feeling confident that they can beat anyone, but not overconfident to the point that they have forgotten what has got them to point they are now at.

“It’s definitely encouraging to see the goals going in for the forwards. And then when we as defenders do our job, it just makes the atmosphere that much happier and positive for the team. I think they have been doing well. They are creating chances and even when they weren’t scoring, they were doing well in creating chances. Now they are popping them in, it makes it that much easier for everybody on the team,” says Cann.

“We have had back to back two goals and we are on a high as a team, but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We have to take things step by step. Our next opponent (The New York Red Bulls) has had a bunch of new signings, they are going to have a full house at their new stadium, and overall there is just a lot of optimism around their team as well. So we really need to be focused and ready to go in there and dash their hopes,” adds Barrett.

Even with so much roster turnover since the end of the 2009 campaign, the players also believe that with over half a season behind them, they have now played together enough that they can handle a somewhat reduced training schedule as necessitated by the number of matches they will play in the coming weeks.

“I think that by being involved in the next round of the CONCACAF Championship, it going to take a toll on the players energy-wise due to playing more games. Plus, we have to take into consideration concentrating on the league games as well. I think Preki does a good job of balancing it all out (in terms of training and the rest required for a heavier schedule). He knows that the schedule coming up is going to take that much more out of the players and, therefore, training session-wise he likely won’t make them as long. There will be a little more recovery time and a few more days off to recover,” says Cann.

“Of course, we are not going to spend as much time on training field as we normally would. But I think that’s better. Guys are going to be more ready for the games, rather than spending all of our time on training and tactics and stuff like that. We’ve had six months now of going over those things, so now every player should know what they need to do in the roles they have been asked to fill when they come on. We don’t worry too much about the league or too much about the competition. We want to make sure that is balanced out and I think that we can get results in both competitions,” adds Peterson.

Ultimately, these are professional athletes for whom fitness really shouldn’t be an issue. Several members of the 2009 squad have been candid in the past in saying that when the team faded down the stretch last season, it wasn’t so much that they were physically tired, it was mental breakdowns that lead to the team’s downfall. Thus, the upcoming stretch drive is really more of a mental battle than a physical one.

“We just have to be mentally fit. You have to be mentally fit, but you also have to be mentally prepared and prepared to just concentrate on one game at a time,” says Cann.

In that sense, the mental boost that the team has received from going into the harsh environment in Honduras and getting a result has been a plus. And the mental strength and character that the team displayed in not allowing a letdown to occur in the match against Chivas might be the most optimistic sign of all.

“It was a great three points for us. After a long week, a lot of travel and an emotional game down in Honduras, I thought that this game could have been the one that might be difficult for us. But I thought we came out in the first half – apart from maybe five minutes at the start – and played very well. We are a hard team to play against and I am hoping for us to become an even harder team to play against. When I first got here I thought that we were easy and we were soft. Now we are making improvements in those areas, but also today it showed that we have been making improvements playing soccer, because at numerous moments it was really nice to watch how we played,” says Preki, the man who was brought here to get Toronto to the playoffs after three years of failing to do so.

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