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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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Hanging with Chad: Ochocinco gets MLS tryout

The threat of a looming NFL lockout is apparently of little concern to crazy Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocino. He’s making plans to give up the gridiron and play proper football instead. Number 85, a noted soccer fan who played the game in his youth, has signed on for a four-day trial with Sporting Kansas City. Hachi Go will hit the pitch next Tuesday, hoping to fulfill what he calls “a childhood dream.”

If you follow Chad on Twitter, you’ll know already that he’s a serious footy fan: he travelled to Europe to meet top players and attend both matches and training. But trying to win a spot with Sporting KC, and not a top team across the pond, means Ochocinco is falling short of the plan he proposed for his footy career a couple of years back, when he mused about a stint in Serie A.

At The Rails would like to wish Johnson/Ochocinco the best of luck with his trial. Rejects from the EPL aren’t likely to put bums in the seats, but if Chad hangs in KC, he might bring more attention to the middling league than David Beckham ever could.

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Patience is a Winter virtue

Rodin's 'Thinker' has nothing on our gaffer.

A rather prominent member of the U-Sector, with close ties to the hierarchy of Toronto FC, told me before the MLS Cup Final last year that a tide was turning at the club, and that those moaning in the various other supporter clubs were acting like spoiled children. I agreed with him on the latter viewpoint: we certainly have a boisterous, opinionated set of fans.

But it was the second point I couldn’t agree with. Only the Sunday before I had watched Columbus’ ‘keeper equalize in the dying minutes as the woeful TFC defence played musical statues. Add that to the recent fan protests that made continental news and the tide-turning seemed little more than evaporation.

That was until I took a few days off and watched various pre-season games in Turkey and at Disneyland (that still makes me cringe). Gone was the apparent feeling of cluelessness, and in came a new, improved vigour, confidence and free-flowing football. If the much-publicized Dutch style Mr. Winter has been adding has shown us one thing, it’s this: we have players who will run with the damn ball.

Last year, even on the hottest of summer days, the ball spent so much time in the air it had snow on it. It was frustrating, demoralizing football that drained the crowd and added to their venting. As of late, the ball rarely goes above knee-height, like you were always taught as a kid, and players are encouraged to express themselves and look for the short, snappy pass.

Fancy, perhaps. The right way, arguably yes. It doesn’t come overnight though, in fact maybe not even this season, but it will. The younger players I saw on the pre-season tour are the best I’ve seen in TFC colours, way better than last season’s crop.

So instead of supporter groups showing disharmony and painting a picture of doom and gloom, they need to realize that football teams don’t change overnight, and given time, this really is a team that will grow to be Canada’s finest.

Sam Saunders

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Lost in translation

The pride of Essex took a pounding this week, not just when a bunch of visiting Yanks better known as the San Jose Earthquakes (which is a bloody stupid name, if you ask me) put a 3-0 whupping on my hometown XI, Colchester United. No, the worst of it was that the press release sent out by the visiting MLS team got the name of their English opponent wrong, alleging that the California tourists had posted a triumph over Colchesterville United. Whoops. That wouldn’t have gone down well with the Barside lads at Layer Road.

At The Rails feels it has to stand up for the little clubs like Col. U. After all, we’ve got a bunch of U’s fans whooping up a promotion-clinching victory up there on our banner at the top of the page. And among that Where’s Waldo of Escort-driving Essex lads and lasses are two of my cousins, including one who’s contributed to this site. So, stuff your corrected press-release, San Jose. I don’t even care that you’ve got a partnership with Tottenham and played this warm-up match at the Spurs Lodge in my home county. We of Colchester (and Colchesterville) all say sod off to Leicesterland, or wherever your next match is, and don’t come back.

Ian Harrison

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Even Don Draper couldn’t sell this team

Draper gets a red card… for looking so damn good!

Well, so much for the MLS SuperDraft reviving the hopes of the Toronto FC faithful. On a day when clubs are expected to get better, the Reds appear to have gone in the opposite direction – trading away a potential double-digit scorer in Chad Barrett while bringing in a prospect with an interesting bill of health and Ecuadorian soccer Smurf Joao Plata.

The diminutive playmaker promises goals, but until he can prove it the mantle of secondary scoring falls to Maicon and his 2010 tally of three.

So, if the ad men who operate out of 170 Princes Boulevard are able to come up with a plan to sell its wares to the growing group of south end malcontents, I suggest AtTheRails acknowledge the impossible with a first-annual Don Draper Award.

With that in mind, ATR is here to help with a few suggestions on how to sell the Reds in Season No. 5.

(Disclaimer: If any of the ideas listed below are adopted in any shape or form, ATR is entitled to one set of tickets to a Toronto FC playoff game of its choice. Said playoff tickets can also be written into any will.)

Winter year-round

Has anyone mentioned to coach No. 5 that his surname is a Canadian marketer’s dream? That said, for Reds’ marketing purposes the idea of Winter all year is a positive, for it means there will be just one coach instead of the token two fans have come to expect.

Season F-I’ve seen better

In Season Four the Reds cleverly (no, not Tom Cleverley) took the ‘our’ from ‘four’ and made it theirs. Fail. So in Season Five why not take the ‘I’ve’ from ‘Five’ and market better days, like when the team won 10 games and missed the playoffs on the last day. Nostalgia is a powerful drug.

At Least Our Guys Are Eligible

Sometimes the best way to build yourself up is to tear down those around you. With that in mind, remember that with the first overall selection, the expansion Whitecaps FC chose 17-year-old striker Omar Salgado. Due to his age and FIFA transfer rules, Salgado likely won’t be able to play a game for Vancouver until he turns 18 in September.

Of course, this marketing campaign would only be good for one season. By summer 2012, I fully expect Salgado will single-handedly win the undercontested Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

Now for a bit of Prem chatter, with a side of pub-bashing.

This is where Rafael goes, "Lalalala, I can't hear you..."

The best part about Sunday’s goalless draw at White Hart Lane was that it confirmed my local is no longer a reliable place to watch a match. While the breakfast fare is fine and the Caesars are spicy, the suggestion that volume is not necessary and may bother the other patrons sealed the deal.

Anyhow, my audio-free observations of the stalemate are that as long as the Premier League continues to be hotly contested this season, goals will remain at a premium. There is far too much at stake for the big clubs to play the football fans want to see.

Biased Man of the Match: Nemanja Vidic. The captain’s partnership with Rio is arguably the only reason United remain unbeaten.

Ryan Johnston

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What’s so super about it, anyway?

The inappropriately-named MLS Super Draft is a tough place to generate super results, especially when all your picks are outside the top 25. With that in mind, Sportsnet.ca’s RJ will weigh in Sunday with his thoughts on TFC’s draft day activity…I believe the working title for his piece is is “Rejected TFC Marketing Slogans for 2011.” At least the local XI are getting DeRo back from bonnie Scotland.

For now, our friend Paul Attfield of the Globe & Mail did a nice job documenting TFC’s picks today:

Highlight #1: Multitple sclerosis cost  newly-drafted defender Demetrius Omphroy a contract in Portugal, but after returning to the US and  playing college soccer at Cal, he hopes he has the disease under control.

Highlight #2: Late pick Joao Plata of Ecuador stands just 5’2″ and was the leading scorer at the MLS scouting combine with three goals. I’d say that’s no small achievement, except it is. But the man I’m dubbing The Wee Assassin seems to have a nose for the goal.

Vancouver used the top pick on Omar Salgado, even though they need FIFA permission for a full transfer before his 18th birthday on Sept. 10, ruling him out for nearly all their debut MLS season. The Whitecaps like Salgado and know him: he trained with the team last year. And they didn’t want to get the Steve Francis treatment from Darlington Nagbe, who went second to Portland and had made noises about not wanting to leave the United State. Because Vancouver and Toronto are such foreign, scary, evil, ugly places.  What a doofus. He deserves to get booed in both cities this summer.

Englishman John Rooney doesn’t mind going abroad for a game of footy – he went to the New York Red Bulls in the second round. Henry and Rooney on the same team, they can’t lose.

Back in Blighty, big brother Wayne and his Man. Utd teammates will take on Tottenham this Sunday…RJ’s team against mine. He’s promised to deliver a reasoned, rational, FOXNews-esque account of the EPL encounter. Don’t miss it.

Ian Harrison

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