Coming off what was their most complete performance of the season, only to be let down by yet another late collapse, Toronto FC has a respectable seven points from their first seven games of the MLS season.
Now attention is turned away from the league to the first leg of the Canadian club championship against the Montreal Impact on Wednesday night. But the question is just how much attention?
Wednesday programming alert: Watch Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact (live on all four Sportsnet channels at 7:30pm ET/4:30pm PT) and FC Edmonton vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (live on all four Sportsnet channels at 9:30pm ET/6:30pm PT) in the first leg of the Canadian club championship semifinals.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Houston was the start of a stretch of six games in 18 days, including both legs of the Montreal tie. If they get through to the final and add an extra two games, it would mean 11 matches between April 20 and June 1. That’s the sort of schedule that could test even the strongest squad, and we all know TFC doesn’t fit that description right now.
There’s going to have to be squad rotation at some point and the word from training last week, and from the looks of the side put out against Houston, suggests that if there’s going to be any games with a "B team," it will be in these cup games rather than in MLS. If so, it’d be a controversial choice, but one that could be for the best in the long term.
Let’s face it, the chances of TFC seriously competing for an MLS playoff place this year are slim and while supporters can accept that this is a rebuilding year and the team is going to have its struggles, it can make for a long and difficult season when looking for positives is all you’re doing. The tangible achievement of a trophy would go a long way in making that more palatable, as of course would another CONCACAF Champions League adventure later in the season.
Having said that, the crowds these extra games attract suggest that MLS is seen as more important to the season ticket holders, and if distractions or injuries led to another disastrous league campaign, a fifth consecutive Canadian title would do little to assuage the disappointment and further bleeding away of that fan base.
An argument could also be made that these games and potential future Champions League matches might provide valuable lessons and help build the mental toughness that this team seems to lack.
That particular argument is easily quashed by history. TFC has been a great cup team over the last few years, clinching the Canadian championship four years in a row. None of that has translated into learning how to close out a close game in MLS – the late game collapse is now practically in ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ territory.
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Obviously, putting the strongest possible team out there for every game in this upcoming stretch isn’t advisable. Injuries have already taken a toll on the defence and there’s no need to put too much wear and tear on the first choice players.
Experienced players such as Stefan Frei or Danny Califf should get some playing time, and there are plenty of youngsters on the fringes of the first team who would also benefit from some extra playing time, the likes of Kyle Bekker, Jonathan Osorio, Emery Welshman or Andrew Wiedeman.
But which games should be used to give the regulars a rest? If TFC is unlikely to compete in the league, wouldn’t it make sense to really go for it in the cup, and rest players in league games? Or is it more sensible to concentrate on the league, and the steady long term development of the squad?
Having a straight forward league schedule, with plenty of time to rest and practise between games would be for the best. The added games and the travel demands of a Champions League run could just end up as a distraction yet again.
Despite a very minimal chance of success in the league this year, it’s time to focus on the basics, on building a foundation of a competitive squad that can handle multiple tournaments. Until TFC is at that point, the Canadian club championship should take a back seat.
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