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With roster rebuilt, TFC’s attention must turn to stadium expansion

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Early on in Monday’s splashy unveiling of high-priced talent for long-suffering Toronto FC, Tim Leiweke described his outlay of $100 million dollars on three designated players as “financial suicide.”

And here’s why, in the words of the refreshingly frank and delightfully bold MLSE head honcho himself: “We don’t have enough seats to make economic sense out of this.”

Toronto’s DP slots have been filled to overflowing. Next on the agenda is the expansion of BMO Field. An announcement on the matter, possibly a funding agreement with government blessing, can be expected “in the very near future,” Leiweke said Monday.

Like the influx of new stars, it won’t come cheap. Not that MLSE can’t afford it, mind you. But they’re looking at dropping another $100 million at least, or maybe as much as double BMO’s original $63 million price tag, to breathe new life into a bare bones facility that still isn’t even a decade old.

“If we have one of the top teams in the league, we have to have one of the top stadiums in the league, so we’re committed to working with the city and trying to find a vision that significantly enhances the stadium,” Leiweke told a media scrum Monday, moments after taking the wraps off striker Jermain Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley

Updated digs will add an anticipated 8,000 seats to TFC’s lakeside home, probably with an upper deck stacked on top of the current east stand and further changes behind one or both goals. Leiweke’s typically grandiose plans include visions of Grey Cup games and NHL Winter Classics at BMO, with temporary seating boosting capacity as high as 40,000 for one-off events.

The fan experience will be improved with modern touches like WiFi routers and HD televisions, similar to those at Kansas City’s soccer playpen. There’s also likely to be some kind of roof, given that Leiweke has promised to give the place more of a “European flavour.” And while, strictly from an aesthetic standpoint, that’ll probably ruin one of the prettiest stadium views on the continent, it’s also the inevitable price of progress in the march towards a bigger and better future.

photo-5The other, somewhat more ominous expectation is that any renovation to BMO will make sure it can also accommodate the 150-yard field required by the Toronto Argonauts, whose time under the roof of Rogers Centre is running short. Amid debate over retractable seat technology to handle the CFL’s expansive end zones and yard-line markings that can be washed away between uses, the more troubling matter here is the heavy toll the gridiron game is likely to take on the immaculate natural surface preferred for soccer. Leiweke insists scheduling can be handled so the grass always gets a week off for repair, but alarm bells are ringing nevertheless.

As a goodwill gesture to fans, TFC has frozen ticket prices for the coming season, hoping to reverse a slide that saw attendance fall to just over 18,000 last year. But win or lose with the raft of new additions, there can be little doubt that it will soon take more green to watch the Reds play. And despite the lofty price tag, Leiweke is convinced his costly endeavour will soon bear fruit for MLSE.

“We’re going to be the first $50-million gross-revenue club in the history of soccer in North America, going all the way back to the [NASL’s New York] Cosmos,” he pledged Monday. His track record suggests he’s the type of man to make that happen, someone whose ideas aren’t likely to wither and die in focus group sessions with fans or design discussions with architects.

The roster has been rebuilt, but that’s only the beginning. More change is coming at TFC. Expect a bigger, better home field, and a CFL tenant, by the time the dust settles.

Ian Harrison

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Toronto’s Footballing Folk Heroes?

TFC

The football media in North America went into overdrive this afternoon over a report that has been brewing for months.  Now, the continent’s worst-kept secret is almost completely out of the bag. Everyone is expecting England international Jermain Defoe to sign with Toronto Football Club from Tottenham Hotspur.  The striker has been unhappy for months because of his almost-permanent place on the substitute’s bench during league play (although he’s been well-used in Spurs’ cup adventures).  TFC will end the speculation on Monday when they unveil the striker at a press conference.  Here is Toronto FC trying to be coy on Twitter:

However, the “Big Deal” may be even bigger.  There is word that Defoe is not the only big-name coming to Hogtown.   Both SI.com’s Grant Wahl and ESPNFC.com’s Jeff Carlisle write that USMNT member Michael Bradley will leave Mediterranean shores for Lake Ontario beaches, for virtually the same reasons.

The pair will reportedly cost $100 M dollars, with Defoe earning an estimated $148,000 US per week, or about $7.7M US for the season.  Other reports say Bradley’s salary is on the same street, not including the $7M-$10M that TFC will pay AS Roma for the midfielder.  All in all, it’s a lot of coin for a club worth only $120M.   There is also the small matter of the salary cap, and having to fit in four Designated Players into three spots: Defoe, Bradley, Gilberto, and Matias Laba, who looks to be the odd-man out (ironically, considering all the hype and hurdles that surrounded the Argentine’s signing last spring).  But that’s for the accountants to work out.

TFC's Three Wise Men

TFC’s Three Wise Men: (L-R) Bezbatchenko, Leiweke, Nelsen

What you do have to admire is the gusto with which the club is making changes.  No doubt, this is down to the arrival of new Maple Leaf Sports Entertainement CEO Tim Leiweke.  The former Anshultz Entertainment Group boss revamped the sports landscape in Los Angeles, in a way that benefited both the product and the bottom line.  That appears to be the motivation here as well.

Defoe would be TFC’s first really big soccer “name” who, despite sitting out much of last season, still has some love to give.  He’s only 31… not exactly a player ready for the elephant graveyard that is often Major League Soccer.   It will be interesting to see if he and Gilberto become the club’s starting strike force, although with the wages they are on, you would expect that formation to be a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, Bradley adds much-needed grit in the middle of the park.  He’ll be joined in the midfield by Canada’s best-ever player, Dwayne DeRosario, who gets unveiled by the club tomorrow.   The changes are radical… but radical changes are needed.  After seven seasons, Toronto FC has never made the playoffs.  That is offensive to a fan base that was amongst the league’s most vocal and loyal until they swallowed almost a decade worth of disappointment.  With this in mind, the club has acted boldly, even going so far as to delay season-ticket sales so they could show off their newest acquisitions.

The moves are basic sports business wisdom:  the win column is full of dollar signs.  However, it’s more than that.  Leiweke knows that sports fans want heroes.  This is especially true in Toronto.  How else do you explain the Danny Dichio phenomenon, a journeyman who came here and became bigger than he ever was in Europe? You only have to look at the Toronto players who have been idolized by the faithful:  the Maple Leafs’ Tie Domi and Wendel Clark,  Roy Halladay for the Blue Jays, the Raptors’ Alvin Williams.   Toronto loves their blue-collar players; call it a product of the city’s Scottish Presbyterian roots.

So sure, Toronto FC supporters want to win. But even more than that, they want players they can get behind and build mythologies around.  Defoe, Bradley, DeRosario: those are Toronto’s kind of players.  Now let’s see what they can do on the pitch, come March.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Carroll: Bad Bargain, Good Buy

The Geordie and the General

Alright, now that the dust has settled — and the incredulity has been reduced to simple head-shaking — let’s get this out of the way: Andy Carroll is not worth £35 million right now.  He’s 22 years old, he has only ever scored 34 goals at the senior level, and is carrying a thigh injury.  He has one England cap.  One.  And he has already been in the papers several times for the wrong reasons.

That doesn’t make him a bad buy.

The long-and-short of it was that Liverpool’s situation was dire.  Last year’s mediocre campaign became the millstone for this year’s disaster.  The Reds are down 10 points from this time last year, a season that saw Liverpool plummet 23 points from their almost-title winning finish in 2009. (This is the point where you can hear the collective snorts from the crimson side of Manchester).  It’s because they couldn’t score. For all intents and purposes, Liverpool had no strikers.

Over the last 10 seasons, Liverpool averaged about 62 goals a season in the Prem. In the early part of the decade, a peaking Michael Owen shouldered much of the load. When he started to get hurt, Liverpool’s goal totals slumped and so did their form.  After he left for sunny Spain, other players managed to fill in the gaps, and Rafael Benitez’ stingy formations meant Liverpool were always contenders.

Then Fernando Torres arrived and the goals started to come again.  In the 2008-09 EPL season, Liverpool scored 77 goals… their highest total since they were winning the League. (In fact, they came two goals away from doing it that season. If Liverpool had scored a goal in two of their drawn games, they would have tied United on points, but pipped them to the title on superior goal difference).

Torres brought the goals — and so did mighty midfielder Steven Gerrard.  But the team began to rely too much on the pair.  An infuriating tinkerman early on, Benitez eventually built his formation around Torres and Gerrard, neglecting the development of other forwards.

Both players wanted to play all the time: Premier League, Champions League, cup ties.  The result was that Torres and Gerrard got hurt… a lot.  Combine that with the departure of defensive keystones Xavi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, and the team fell into shambles.

Fast forward to this month.  The team is trending to top out at 50 goals this season.  Top that with an atrocious goals-against and they are looking at a paltry +3 goal difference.  That would almost certainly rule them out of the lucrative Champions League again… and maybe even the Europa League.

Unhappy Torres

So when the transfer window was closing, an unhappy  Torres handed in his transfer request. He wanted to play in Europe. He wants to win titles (which he never did on Merseyside.  Not one piece of silverware.).  The team’s shiny new owners realized they had both an opportunity and a dilemma. Free-wheeling Chelski was willing to pay top dollar for the Spaniard… but that would have left the Reds without a paddle, in the popular parlance.  If Torres goes, there is no one.  The cupboard is bare.

Enter Newcastle United.  The perfidious Mike Ashley had to have known what Liverpool were doing with Torres. He is simply desperate for cash so he pounced, jacking up Carroll’s price.  The overlords of Anfield paid and made the young Geordie the most expensive British player ever.

He ain't pretty, he just looks that way...

The reality is it would have been foolish not to take him.  Liverpool are replacing Torres with England’s best striker this season. Who has more goals? Not Wayne Rooney, the man who was considered to be among the best in the world.  Not Peter Crouch or Jermaine Defoe or Emile Heskey.  In fact, no England player has found the back of the net this season as much as Carroll — and he hasn’t played since Christmas.

Carroll is not a pretty goal scorer.  He doesn’t have Rooney’s skill on the ball.  But he’s tall like Crouch, big and strong like Heskey and heads the ball like Tim Cahill… only he doesn’t have to jump.

Instead of Joey Barton or Kevin Nolan to feed him the ball, he now has Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez (don’t laugh, he’s come along this season!) and Luis Suarez.  That last one could be telling.  There are big hopes that Suarez and Carroll could be the new Owen and Heskey (except a Heskey that actually scores).

Finally — and this is important — he is only 22-years-old.  He will learn the game — and learn discipline — from Dalglish, one of the finest strikers to ever play the English game.

The club paid far, far too much for him.  I admit that, even with my red-tinted glasses on.  But Andy Carroll could end up being the finest money that Liverpool ever threw away.

Brent Lanthier

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The Weekend 10: “Isms”

Hey Gerard, why the long face?

1) Pessimism: Is there something about being an ex-Liverpool manager that makes you whingy? Is it advanced age? My God, will someone tell Gerard HoullierRafa Benitez, and Roy Hodgson to stop thinking the football world is out to get them?

2) Alcoholism: Getting up to watching Premier League games on Saturday/Sunday is getting harder as my liver gets older… less Ales, more Rails, methinks… Maybe I’ll just start hanging out with Dennis Bergkamp

3) Racism: Fiorentina must have missed their Sunday morning caffe as they drew to Paolo DiCanio con Lecce.  I wonder how DiCanio and Fiorentina boss Sinisa Mihajlovic greeted each other after the match. Of course, Mihajlovic isn’t racist: everyone else is

4) Antagonism: Maybe the sputtering Viola are missing bad boy striker Adrian Mutu. The Romanian has been banned from the team after an alleged training ground confrontation.  Mutu denies it was with manager Mihajlovic, asking how he could he fight a man twice his size. Ummm… this is how

5) Sexism: And not even the clever kind!  The “Wait a second, the mics were on?!?!” kind…

6) Skepticism: Manchester Citeh are willing to let Shaun Wright-Phillips go for free, because they can’t find anyone who’ll pay to take on his 65-thousand-quid-a-week salary.  His agent say five teams are interested in SWP joining their team. If his negotating skills are anything like SWP’s game, he’ll probably just run all over England without actually making contact with any teams…

7) Dwarfism: ‘Arry Redknapp was robbed in Madrid when a gang of six men started pulling on his pant legs and availing themselves of the contents of his pockets.  However, Jermain Defoe managed to stay lodged against ‘Arry’s thigh, fast asleep…

8 ) Fallibilism: Speaking of Madrid, Real manager Lord Valdemorte has refused to commit his future to the club.  Ahhhh. Mourinho leaves Inter for Real… and then departs after a season. Benitez leaves Liverpool for Inter… and then he’s out after half-a-season.  Hodgson leaves Fulham for Liverpool… and then, well… Grass is greener and all that…

9) Infantilism: Cristiano Ronaldo says that of course, he changes diapers.  I had to read further into this article to find out they weren’t his own….

Hey Ruud, why the… oh never mind…

10)  Equestrianism: Hamburg have rejected a Real Madrid request to bring Ruud Van Nistlerooy back to the Bernabeu.  It appears Der Rothosen will ride out the Dutchman’s contract before putting him out to pasture….

Brent Lanthier

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Of insults and injuries


After an international break that saw several England players stretchered off with injuries, it’s back to business in the Prem this weekend. And right at the top of the schedule is what could be a volatile affair at Goodison Park, if Man. United’s repentant Wayne Rooney puts in an appearance at his former stomping grounds. Verbal stomping is sure to fly from the stands as the onetime Donkey of South Africa, now the Big Man of Basel, makes his Merseyside return. United lost 3-1 the last time they paid a visit to David Moyes’ men, who have just one point from three games.

Former United coach Carlos Queiroz may be feeling a bit insulted today, having been sacked as manager of Portugal, one week after he was hit with a six-month ban for disrupting a drug test. His lawyer is already on the case, looking for compensation.

And Serie A footballers are so insulted by new transfer limitations that they’re threatening to strike. AC Milan defender Massimo Oddo, spokesman for the player’s association, said the shut down is scheduled for Sept. 25 and 26.

But back to those unfortunate souls being stretchered off as England beat Bulgaria and Switzerland. First to go was the unfortunate Michael Dawson, expected to miss six weeks. The old Wheeler Dealer Arry Redknapp had barely finished writing ‘Gallas’ in his next team sheet when Jermain Defoe, fresh off his hat trick last Friday, was carried off in Switzerland with an injured ankle. He’s now expected to miss the entire Champions League group stage, which begins Tuesday at Bremen. The only comfort for Spurs is that Bremen defender Per Metersacker has picked up a knock on international duty and won’t be fit.

In between Dawson and Defoe’s stretcher-assisted departures, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott was carried off with an injured ankle while the aforementioned Rooney was still celebrating his Swiss strike. It’s turning into a bit of a rough go for the Gunners, with Robin Van Persie set to miss six weeks and Nicklas Bendtner still sidelined.

There was international injury pain for Liverpool, too, with Dirk Kuyt shelved with a sore shoulder.

And finally, there’s Becks, who still harbours hopes of future England glory, despite mixed messages from the gaffer, and who is close to shaking off his own injury woes and returning to the pitch for the LA Galaxy, who host Columbus on Saturday night. LA, Salt Lake and the Crew are all tied atop the league with 44 points, although RSL has played one more game. TFC, who have seven matches to go, are currently in ninth place, out of the playoffs, with six Western teams competing to qualify. Toronto is home to DC United on Saturday.

Ian Harrison

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Party time in Port Elizabeth

Simon ‘The Happy Hoofer’ Hagens is in South Africa for two weeks of World Cup football and travel. In his second note from the road, Simon heads east to Port Elizabeth for England’s pivotal clash with Slovenia. Keep up with Simon’s gang on Twitter for plenty of fun photos.

Port Elizabeth stadium scene

Inside the stadium at Port Elizabeth

A long, beautiful drive out of Cape Town brought us as far as Knysna on the first night, where we stayed in the impressive Phantom Forest. Beautiful huts scattered throughout the trees were truly impressive… although better suited for young lovers than a squad of smelly football fans, as evidenced by the numerous soaking tubs, and absence of televisions. We took the opportunity to clean ourselves up, talk about (rather than watch) football, and tried keeping the monkeys away from our food with a slingshot. Still lost some jam.

By the time we got to Port Elizabeth, we were just one of a long stream of cars full of England fans descending on the city, which was just as prepared as Cape Town for the onslaught. A quick word about the exemplary organization of the event and the country as a whole. Having been to South Africa a number of times over the last three decades, I was curious to see how this would all come together. In a word, it’s amazing. Shuttle buses carry fans wherever they need to go, security is excellent, roads are smooth roads, the people are helpful, friendly and proud to show off their country. And in most places, a beer costs about $2.

Posing with police

The lads pose with the local constabulary

The lead-up to the game was a perfect mix of orderly and disorderly. Shortly after noon, the beach front was decorated in red and white, chants of “10 German Bombers” rang out time and time again, bars were being drunk dry. Hordes of people stumbled towards waiting buses and were shuttled to the stadium. England’s fans were outwardly optimistic, but their faces clearly showed worry lines. Unlike Friday in Cape Town, where Algerian fans mingled and joined the party, Slovenian fans were few.

As we bustled into the stadium and found our seats, it was red and white alone. The big show of support was clearly the inspiration this time and England came out strong, to the great approval of the crowd. The line-up (a topic of much drunken debate) was to the crowd’s liking. David James’ sure hands were a pleaser, and Jermain Defoe was roundly thought to be an addition that would add neccesary spark, a suspicion that was proved right. Some Tottenham pride showed through as Defoe’s goal generated a massive holler, the loudest I’ve heard, and an enormous sigh of relief. A few more goals would have been nice, but it was roundly considered well played, and well enjoyed. Lots of curiousity about the US game, and as news of the American goal trickled in at the end (thanks to a message from my wife, back in Canada), the importance of a second goal caused a few groans.

On the Road With England

Our correspondent meets a two-fisting Manc

At the final whistle, the fans tipped their pith-helmets to the riot police and headed to the pubs for a night of singing and watching Germany-Ghana. At the end of the night, many of these fans knew they would be heading to Bloemfontein to see England play Germany, a much anticipated match. Maybe not as easy as Ghana, but a welcome challenge. We’ll be holding our breath until then.

Some of my travelling party are off on safari while I visit family, with our next game back in Cape Town on June 29th. Friday’s matches will decide the competitors, but we’ll likely see Portugal vs. Spain. More then.

Simon Hagens

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Pint-sized punch powers England

Jermain Defoe

He’s only 5’7″, but little Jermain Defoe scored a very big goal for England in their 1-0 victory over Slovenia, sending the Three Lions through to the knockout round of the World Cup, a win that was lubricated by Don Fabio’s decision to let the lads have a beer the night before. Proper English, that.

All across Blighty today, the country watched with a mix of fear and fascination, with even court cases taking a break to catch the match. Proper English and all, innit?

England weren’t great in this one, but they were a world better than they had been in Friday’s dour draw with Algeria, with the introduction of James Milner and Defoe creating the pivotal goal, and the attack more incisive and urgent, although Wayne Rooney still seemed sluggish and unsure at times. John Terry/Captain Schtupping’s failed insurrection didn’t do anything to hinder his play, even with his third partner in three matches, Matthew Upson.

John Terry

So, it’s Germany on Sunday for England, who were pipped back to second in the group when Landon Donovan’s late strike gave the US a 1-0 victory over Algeria, a match in which the Americans were once again denied a goal by a questionable referee’s decision. Algeria become the fourth African nation to crash out, and unfortunately they left a bit of a bad taste.

Coming off a loss to Serbia, Germany were still on the brink in their late  match against Ghana, but Mesut Ozil’s second-half strike proved decisive in a 1-0 victory for Die Mannschaft. The Black Stars stayed alive despite the loss, surely thankful that the pounding that 10-man Australia absorbed from Germany in their opening game had significantly decreased the Socceroos’ chances of overturning their goal difference, despite ending the tournament on a high by beating Serbia 2-1 and knocking Dr. Z’s darkhorse to the bottom of Group D. So, who needs Michael Essien?

I would have loved to see an England-Ghana matchup, but the Germany game will still be very tasty, while the Ghanians will attempt to eliminate the Americans for the second straight World Cup in the other round of 16 encounter.

Ian Harrison

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