clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Fireside Chat: We talk Fire-TFC with James Grossi of Waking the Red

Injuries, an eternal road trip and the Greg Vanney Career Death-Watch amongst the topics in our question-and-answer ritual

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
We ask, they answer

HTiOT: Defensive injuries have undermined TFC's consistency in the early going - is this just poor luck, or symptoms of a top-heavy roster?

WtR: It's fair to say it's a function both bad luck and a poorly constructed roster. Injuries will happen, they are a part of a game, the wise course of action would be to accept that and build some depth at each position, a rainy-day fund of sorts, to cushion the blow when they do arrive.

And it's not as though the back-line was not a source of concern last season as well. Greg Vanney did address it with the additions of Damien Perquis and Eriq Zavaleta. The question that remains is: was that enough?

Steven Caldwell is getting up in age and was bound to pick up the occasional knock. Nick Hagglund did well in his rookie season last year, but most MLS clubs would be uncomfortable with being only three-deep at such a crucial position. The club is very high on Clement Simonin, who made his debut against Salt Lake and caused some surprise going ninth in the SuperDraft - very much an off-board selection. But for a long, grinding season, such as the MLS calendar provides, it is without doubt a risky strategy.

One has to assume that the limitations on the salary cap - using all three designated players and having some other sizable contracts on the books - was a factor in not bringing in that needed depth. Or perhaps Vanney has enough faith in Hagglund, Simonin, and Zavaleta to fill any of those needed gaps.

The outside back positions are similarly precarious, with Justin Morrow the first-choice left-back and right-back seemingly up for grabs with Warren Creavalle leading the way, so far, ahead of Hagglund and Mark Bloom, who has also been hampered by injury. Ashtone Morgan, the club's longest servant, also showed well in Salt Lake, providing a second option on the left, and Marky Delgado is an option there as well, but whether any of those five are true starting quality is yet to be seen.

HT: This is the fourth game of a ridiculous seven-game road skein the Reds have to endure to start the season, thanks to the expansion of BMO Field. Are there signs that the rootlessness is troubling the team? How many points would they need to take from this road-trip to feel good going into that first home game on May 10?

WtR: It's never easy to start the season with such a length spell on the road. Travelling in MLS is hard, home field advantage is tangible, and due to the local weather, TFC, like a lot of other MLS sides, spends much of the preseason away from home.

Anecdotal evidence from around the league suggests that many players like to settle back at home after the pre-season, then adjust to the rhythms of the schedule. It offers a certain amount of grounding; plus the home performances can lift a team - something Toronto could use given the disparaging bouts of referee interference results have seen of late.

The optimistic types would like to have ten points from those first seven matches - that would provide a solid base to compete and make up any ground over the upper reaches of the table - but the more conservative crowd is looking at having seven points. A point a game from the road is both doable and useful. This league is about winning at home and collecting points on the road.

The more concerning factor is that with the road trip comes a rather strange schedule that will see the club play just six matches through the first two months of the season. While the time off does mitigate some of the excessive travel problems, it both prevents them from establishing a rhythm and means that the rest of the season's schedule will be made more hectic.

The first few months of the season are largely about coming together as a side and finding that momentum to go into the summer and then the stretch run, building towards the playoffs. Is six matches enough to find that form? And then, with at least seven games in May and potentially eight in August - depending on the Voyageurs Cup (Canadian Championship) results, will having used up two bye-weeks come back to haunt? Add to that all the international commitments, namely the Gold Cup, and these first two months could have been better spent.

One must be thankful that Toronto does not have any CONCACAF Champions League duties these season - not sure how they would be fit in to the schedule.

HT: Everyone likes to talk about buying players and the transfer market, but MLS' cap and spending restrictions limit the viability of buy-to-win as a strategy. What's the state of player development for Toronto FC now?

WtR: Fully agree on the limitations of the buy-to-win, it can help, but should not be relied upon to build a truly competitive side, especially in the long-term.

Toronto, and the province, Ontario, in general, has been compared by many to some of the richer talent regions in the States - say the LA, New York, or Dallas areas. Nearly 40%, as per the 2011 census, of the Canadian population lives in this province, and a healthy portion of that resides in the Southern stretch from Kingston to Windsor, along the shores of Lake Ontario.

TFC, though there have been plenty of missteps in their relations with the established youth soccer structures, has done a decent job of finding that talent and enticing it into their academy structure. Based out of their fancy training ground in the northern fringes of the city proper, it currently stretches down to the U12 level and the senior academy side, U18, plays in League 1 Ontario, a recently-established, semiprofessional, high performance development body that incorporated some of the best clubs in the province. Sigma FC, the club that helped develop Kyle Bekker and Cyle Larin, the first-overall draft pick, is a member.

As far as that talent breaking through to the first team, it has yet to really flourish. Doneil Henry, the first-ever homegrown signing in 2010, was transferred to West Ham in the off-season (after a bizarre bit of player movement involving a Cypriot club) and is now on loan at Blackburn Rovers. Ashtone Morgan, another of the early wave, is close to becoming the all-time appearance leader for TFC, though he has had his struggles the last two seasons after looking to breakthrough in 2011 under Aron Winter. But like Jonathan Osorio, who is technically a homegrown player, how much TFC had to do with their development is debatable.

There were a handful of other signings that showed some promise, but with the reserve league seemingly optional, chances to play were few and far between and the development suffered.

Like many other MLS clubs, Toronto FC took the plunge into USL this season, setting up their own satellite club in a nearby community (Vaughan, Ontario, for those interested), a short drive north of the city. And though it is early days - they've played only two matches so far - it does seem to be the perfect instrument to get those homegrown and draft players a chance to play and thus develop. Keeping them within the club structure, rather than cutting to keep the first-team roster trim.

There are a handful of first-team signings down with the club - homegrowns: Jordan Hamilton, Manny Aparicio, Jay Chapman, Quillan Roberts, and Chris Mannella, draft picks: Clement Simonin and Alex Bono - currently on loan to the imaginatively named TFC II.

And perhaps those benefits of additional, competitive matches has already paid off. Ashtone Morgan looked dreadful in Columbus, but a match against Charleston with TFC II later, he was much better against Salt Lake. Baby steps, but signs of encouragement.

As to whether any of those players are ready, or will ever be, for the first team, that remains to be seen, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about it - Hamilton and Chapman are the most likely, along with Simonin, to see time with the big club. Many of the Canadian talents have already been called into the National Team, a humble honour given Canada's lowly position these days, but even former Maryland goalkeeper Alex Bono was a part of the US Men's National Team January camp; some indication that soccer minds away from the club have high opinions of the talent in place.

HT: How close, according to Leading Football Scientists, is the Greg Vanney Career Death-Clock to midnight?

WtR: Haha, well, given the experience of the previous eight seasons, the ol' TFC Death Clock is currently broken due to overuse. It was never meant to be thrust into such regular duty, intended as a symbolic feature, but the shambolic nature of the club has broken yet another investment.

Having burned through six full-time managers and two interims, in eight years, there is a definite level of managerial-turnover fatigue around the club; fingers-crossed, this will be the team that makes it to the playoffs. They will worry about winning championships, the real goal, once that first hurdle is cleared.

On a more serious note, Vanney has, through no action of his own, been set up with ready-made excuses to the start of the season - road trip, lack of home matches, international absences, and erratic scheduling. And his role at the end of last season has very much been swept under the rug, chalking up any faults to the previous regime. So any serious considerations will be held off at least until the season is in full-swing. It a fair reading to say that he has this season, at least, to produce; Tim Bezbatchenko, the club's general manager, has expressed great faith in Vanney. But of course, this is Toronto, and many front offices have been invested with that faith before; Bezbatchenko himself was brought in initially as a cap manager, thrust into the full GM position with Ryan Nelsen and Tim Leiweke's departures. One can never be too sure what the top brass at MLSE is thinking.

That said, it would take something truly disastrous to see yet another change before the calendar year is up.

Lineup: Joe Bendik; Warren Creavalle, Nick Hagglund, Clement Simonin, and Justin Morrow across the back; Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou at the base of the midfield, with Jonathan Osorio, Sebastian Giovinco, and Robbie Findley further ahead; Jozy Altidore atop the formation.

Score prediction: 2-2 - This game could have plenty of goals in it, both teams have defensive concerns and plenty of potential firepower.

They ask, we answer
WtR: Chicago was very active in the off-season as Frank Yallop set about building a side in his image. A bus full of new arrivals, three designated players, and the retirement of long-time servants Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares have left the Fire with a very uneven squad. What's with having so many midfielders and so few defenders? Is that a concern heading into a long MLS season?

HT: The feeling here is that the management duo of Yallop and Brian Bliss were given 2014 to evaluate the roster and clear the decks of the truly odious contracts left behind by the 'stewardship' of Javier Leon. And boy, have they done so - fully half the roster are new faces, and as many as eight men who will start Saturday afternoon were not with the club last year.

The midfielder/defender numbers are skewed quite a bit by Yallop's tendency to place people where he thinks their skills fit, regardless of their previous tenure in the position. Jeff Larentowicz is a prime example; given an aging defensive midfielder, no longer able to cover the width of the field alone but whose communication is crucial, Yallop moved him to the back line, where he could keep play in front of himself, use those organizational skills, and contribute. It's the kind of adjustment which is lauded when the team wins and ridiculed otherwise; we shall see how it goes. So far, the defense has been pretty solid, with the glaring exception of everything having to do with set pieces.


WtR: Through four matches, Yallop seems to have a bit of a conundrum on his hands, namely that both his potential creative midfielders have appeared to operate most effectively n the same area of the pitch, but to play them both creates a bit of a soft centre, which opponents will no doubt seek to exploit. Albeit a little early to be alarmist, how is the Shaun Maloney-Harrison Shipp dilemma to be resolved?

HT: I'd argue that Shipp and Maloney have been playing each other's roles, and that's part of the problem. Shipp is the real thing, a guy whose immaculate first touch allows him to function in the very crowded spaces in the center of midfield, while Maloney is more of a swashbuckler coming off the wing, trying technical feats of derring-do. Unfortunately, whether because of the promises made to Maloney in recruitment or because Yallop just thinks this will work, they've been flipped; Shipp has played nominally from the wing, while Maloney has struggled to find the ball, coming deeper and deeper to get the space he needs for a clean touch. The results have been very muddled, as you note.

The hope here is that defeating Philadelphia will help Frank notice that a midfield triangle of Polster-Stephens-Shipp is a much sturdier base to build from, and will move Maloney back to the creative wing role in which he excelled at every previous stop in his career. A 4-3-3 with David Accam and Shaun Maloney on the attacking wings offers a lovely variety of pace and trickery.

WtR: Again, very early for concern, but so far none of the three designated players have hit the ground running and, to be honest, Chicago has a history of DPs that have underperformed. Does this year's class have what it takes to be difference makers in the league and will Yallop be under pressure should their lack of production continue?

HT: Oh, man, the Fire DPs - as motley a crew as allocation money and half-assed scouting could assemble. There's already signs that Yallop is disenchanted with Kennedy Igboananike; the guy Frank 'scouted for more than two years' hasn't been able to displace the willing but limited Quincy Amarikwa up top, and Yallop has implied in interviews over the last couple of weeks that they're not afraid to dump an underperformer when the summer transfer window opens. So, Mr. Igboananike, welcome to underneath the bus.

That said, the other two are looking more hopeful. Maloney obviously has some quality, but is just as obviously struggling with understanding his role on the team. The presence of Shipp has, I believe, surprised him a bit; it's not hard to imagine that Maloney assumed he'd be the creative axis for the side, The Man rather then one of the guys. I suspect he'll figure it out. Accam, on the other hand, is living the Mike Magee 2014 Experience - come into camp late because of national-team call-ups, never quite get fit, pick up a niggling injury. Now that he's fit, we'll see - he certainly showed more in his 45-minute cameo against San Jose than we've seen from a Fire winger in a while.

WtR: As the major markets go in MLS, Chicago could be considered the most under-performing - aside from TFC of course - in terms of success both on field and off field, what's the deal with that? Does the local populace know where the stadium is? Or is it a conscious decision to stay away?

HT: It's useful to remember that a fanbase isn't a cohesive, monolithic thing - it's thousands of people making their own decisions for their own reasons. For casuals, fans who just want an affordable entertainment for the evening, the club's shrinking market presence means fewer randoms getting the message. The stadium's placement well off any public transit means that the club struggles to mine the hipster hordes that've swelled attendance elsewhere. And the team has been pretty consistently frustrating if not truly terrible, so there's no bandwagon effect at all.

That said, there is a growing sense of betrayal and rage amongst long-term supporters, especially those who remember the club's years in the league's elite. The feeling is that Andrew Hauptman bought the team on a whim, found the criticism too harsh for his liking, and is now merely trying to invest as little as possible until the expansion bubble pops and he sells his (vastly-appreciated) interest to another party. Those interested in the discontent should explore the whimsical world of the #HauptmanOut hash-tag for more insight.

Lineup (4-3-3): Jon Busch; Joevin Jones, Adaílton, Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Gehrig; Matt Polster, Michael Stephens, Harry Shipp; David Accam, Quincy Amarikwa, Shaun Maloney.

Score Prediction: 1-1 draw.

Goalscorers: Altidore, Accam.