Welcome back for another installment of the 3 Questions interview series. This week, James Grossi joins us from Waking The Red, the Toronto FC SB Nation site. Last weekend, something terrible happened. We won't go into it because nightmares. Instead let's focus on the task at hand: Toronto FC. The maple-soaked northerners take the field in Frisco Saturday night. James and I had a little chat, so let's see if we can peer under the hood of the red Canadian machine.
Big D Soccer 1. What is Greg Vanney doing differently than his predecessor to ensure Toronto progresses forward from last season?
Waking The Red: A tough question. Saturday will only be TFC's fifth game of the season, and so it is far too early to really analyze what it is that Vanney has been trying to instill in his side. Add in all the injuries and international absences and it would not be entirely unfair to say that Toronto has simply been treading water as opposed to really building the platform upon which to have a successful campaign.
That said, there have been some definite changes. Aside from all the technological investment the club has made - the players are monitored in extreme detail through all training, measuring all sorts of nodes and currents, those are technical terms, to ensure they are at peak fitness and injuries, as can be, are avoided (that has not worked out so well as of yet) and they have hired a full-time analyst to crunch the match data, searching for any possible edge - the primary switch has been structural, especially at the back.
Ryan Nelsen wanted to build his attack off of a conservatively-structured defense - full-backs were defenders first - whereas Vanney requires a much more attacking outlook from his full-backs, getting up the pitch to provide that width. Of course, that comes with its own challenge, as the central defenders can find themselves isolated on the counter. Nelsen also seemed to prefer an old-school 4-4-2, whereas Vanney has gone with something more like a 4-2-3-1, though that has sometimes been adapted, somewhat, to the situation.
With so little and irregular play to really dig into what Vanney's intentions are, one thing that can be said is an improvement over last season is that the new regime is not afraid to make changes. Nelsen had a tendency to stick to his first eleven, only using subs to react - usually too late and often just to kill some time at the end of a match. Vanney has been much more proactive in that department, attempting to adapt to the game situation with his use of the bench.
It is a subtle change, but one that can pay dividends over a long season, where a club's fortunes can be determined by the strength of the squad and not just the first eleven names on the team sheet.
My favorite part of James' reply was how TFC central defenders "can find themselves isolated on the counter." Yes, please. Paging Castillo, Fabian. Fabian Castillo, time to shine.
BDS2. Jackson was polarizingly inconsistent on the field for FC Dallas fans in his 3.5 years in North Texas. He was asked to perform in different positions all over the field (not his fault) to varying results, and disciplinary issues (his fault) left FCD in hot water more than once. How has the Brazilian settled in Toronto - is he an asset or liability?
WTR: It is fair to say that Jackson is very much still Jackson.
He has, more-or-less, been given a consistent wide attacking role - the odd right-back experiment (usually in an emergency) did not end well - and has been free to play his game; Jackson will do as Jackson wants.
He can definitely still be frustrating and still has that susceptibility to red mist - one red and five yellows last season; he was perhaps lucky it was only one red. But on the plus side there are two things he brought that the club needs: grit and audacity.
Toronto is a town that still holds its blue-collar roots close to its heart, so when a player comes in and works hard - as Jackson does, usually - that is appreciated, and if that comes with a little fire, that's fine too, as long as it does not prove too costly. That's the grit.
The audacity is something that every team needs. A club needs that guy who tries things. On at least two occasions last season Jackson would take what seemed like a ridiculous shot from distance, only for the rebound or a deflection to prove it fruitful. Soccer as a game, especially midsummer in MLS, can easily turn into a stalemate and having a player that is willing to take that risk can be advantageous. Though, of course, it too can be incredibly frustrating.
To answer the question, he is both an asset and a liability; one must find the comfort to accept that. Perhaps the birth of his first child during preseason, for which he missed a good chunk of preparation, will mellow him out a little and improve the consistency.
As frustrating inconsistent as he was, I was thankful for Jackson's skill set as a utility player. I think we could have had a few more losses during the Schellas era were it not for Jackson's willingness to play anywhere.
BDS3. Who's new for TFC that FCD fans should be sure to watch for?
WTR: The player Dallas is most likely to see on Saturday that fans should be aware of is Frenchman Benoit Cheyrou. Acquired in the off-season after a long career in France, most recently with Olympique Marseille, Cheyrou has been a joy to watch, and has quickly become a fan-favourite for his Gallic nonchalance.
Efficient, yet not short on flair - he made one move to set up a goal in preseason that had the U23 Costa Rican defenders attempting to mark him collide with each other in a most humourous fashion - Cheyrou is the perfect foil for Bradley. Somebody who thinks and sees the game on the same level, and along with the higher-profile Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto could - stress, could - have the best midfield in MLS.
That vision and understanding has already payed off, setting up a goal in Vancouver with the kind of ball out wide that one only gets from an experienced player who has made that play a million times, patiently waiting for his runner to get into place, while faking out the opponents by surveying the rest of the field as if he was ever going to play a different pass, and scoring his first goal with a sublime, composed finish off a Giovinco pull-back, just guiding the ball past Jon Busch with his shin after it bobbled on him. Most players would have sailed that one high or wide, but he just placed it perfectly.
Every so often a veteran arrives who just fits MLS. Michel is a good example, a guy who just understands it and enjoys it. Cheyrou will be one of those players.
And there's another guy named Giovinco that may be worth keeping an eye on... And one named Altidore whom Dallas fans may have heard of...
Some of the MLS team blogs have little quirks they like to add to these Q&As. Something unique or rare to make their conversation stand out a bit more. James offered up the Double-Barbed Question - a banter-induced, sharp jab to get the blood flowing. Here is mine:
BDS Double-Barb: Toronto FC has an incredible knack for achieving elimination from post-season participation. Despite some expensive shiny imports last season, TFC missed the playoffs again to tally 8 years. Can TFC keep the streak alive to make it 9 consecutive in 2015? We know it's not the players, so what, if anything, stands in the way of TFC going the distance on this record?
WTR: Oh yes, TFC can definitely make it nine in a row. If a club puts their mind to it and really tries, anything is possible. And fans here have seen this plot play out before. This year's crop is just the latest batch of 'saviours' meant to lead to the promised land of the playoffs - nevermind actually winning a championship, which is, or at least should be, the true goal.
Julian de Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario, Torsten Frings, Jermain Defoe. The stands are littered with the rumpled jerseys of those false-prophets who came before. And of course, it was never their fault.
As to why, well that is the million dollar question. There have been rumours, of deals struck with certain nefarious parties at a dimly-lit crossroads, under the milky light of a full moon, exchanging success off the pitch for the eternal soul of the club - and any chance of a post-season run. A black cat once sprinted the length of the pitch - that can't be good. And it would not be unheard of for the 'luck' of the Maple Leafs to affect other sporting ventures in the nearby vicinity.
To be honest, if any one truly had an answer to that question, there's a job waiting for them in Toronto. Give it a few months and the position could well be open again. Stranger things have happened.
Thanks to James for some fun responses. Next up in our journey into the frost-bitten mind of a Toronton-ton is my set my answers to his questions:
Waking The Red 1:
Dallas, along with a few others, has been the model club for developing young talent. The area is renown for its youth clubs, hosts the internationally-heralded Dallas Cup, and has regularly been the host for MLS' Generation Adidas Cup, while FC Dallas have graduated many candidates to the first team via the homegrown program. Why is that and concurrently, why have so few managed to truly break into the squad?
Big D Soccer: The answer lies within the philosophies of the 2 most current FC Dallas head coaches - Schellas Hyndman and Oscar Pareja. Hyndman was head coach from 2008 to 2013, and during that time, Pareja was Director of the FCD Development Academy. Despite being a very successful college coach before joining FCD, Hyndman rarely even gave youth players a chance on the field. While Pareja was winning Academy championships and accolades for youth development, those same players that had been signed to pro contracts languished on the bench or deep in the reserves. I can't tell you why exactly - it boggles the mind. Oftentimes when there were injuries, Hyndman opted to play a veteran out of position rather than play a rookie or homegrown player.
This method flipped the instant Pareja was pulled back from Colorado and promoted to head coach of FC Dallas. Pareja has faith in all of his players and says that they will play when needed, or they will be let go. Each player is expected to pull his weight, whether they are a salty veteran or fresh-faced teenager straight out of the academy. Last year, Pareja's first in charge, FCD led the league in minutes played by homegrown players. Pareja had the advantage over any other coaching candidate since he is very familiar with these kids from his time as academy director. But it's one thing to say it and another to do it. We know the talent is there, and it took Pareja to show it. The best example I can leave you with is Victor Ulloa. Ulloa was a highly touted high school player in North Texas before signing with FCD in 2010. Under Hyndman, Ulloa played 9 minutes of MLS action in 3 seasons and was released. Pareja invited Victor back for preseason training, Ulloa earned a contract. In less than 1 year and a half, Ulloa has accumulated almost 3,000 minutes for Dallas as a regular starter. Was Ulloa a worse player during Hyndman's reign? I don't think so.
Oscar Pareja has built himself a very nice squad, full of vibrant attacking pieces - Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo, Tesho Akindele, and Ryan Hollingshead, to name a few. They are very fun to watch. But MLS is not that sort of league, at least not all the time, and winning requires a certain amount of grit and muscle, especially in the middle of the pitch. Pareja made the decision to decline the options on players like Hendry Thomas, Adam Moffat, and Jair Benitez, all experienced, MLS-tested players, while also not reinforcing at the back following the loss of George John. Are there concerns amongst the fans and pundits alike that Dallas is a side that is lacking in physicality and depth in those crucial central regions of the midfield and defence?
BDS: Yes absolutely. This exact issue has been the source of a lot of hand-wringing and complaining amongst the fanbase. Last week's blowout loss to Colorado serves to highlight the lack of quality defensive depth right now. Without Matt Hedges, FCD dropped 4 goals to a team that hadn't scored in 6 months or won a game in almost a year. Fernando Clavijo is the technical director and has stated that if the right player is identified, he will be signed - but we don't even have the sniff of a rumor of an imminent signing.
I know that the uncertainty about roster size and cap size led ownership to hesitate during the offseason. It's definitely biting FCD now. The Hunt Sports Group is a conservative bunch - they don't take many risks. It seems like Ulloa is all alone in midfield sometimes. HSG will take their time to properly vet and qualify some reinforcements for this team, but it's not something that will happen quickly. If they do take a chance on a player sooner, it will be low cost/low risk (and consequently low reward). FCD faithful have a few more months of worrying, I'm afraid.
Dallas appear to have turned a corner when it comes to support. The stadium is still not always packed, but the atmosphere, especially compared to the lazy bouncy-castle days of recent past, looks an all-together more raucous environment. How have they laid the groundwork for that turnaround or was it the fans themselves who put in the effort?
BDS: A little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. FCD hit a home run when they unveiled the Budweiser Beer Garden a few seasons ago. Before that, the north stage area went largely unused on game days. Now, however, it is a Budweiser-branded, general admission area full of some of the most vocal fans. The fans themselves did some of the heavy lifting in jumping on the idea and putting in the work to establish a new supporters group. The Dallas Beer Guardians evolved over a year or two and have turned into one of the largest SGs for FC Dallas. The group has helped to establish a larger following in their generous tailgates starting hours before every game, open to anyone. They've caught some flak recently from others with a different view of how opponents should be treated because when KC came to visit, DBG opened up the tailgate to all traveling fans, hosting a "Frenemies" tailgate for everyone to enjoy. I focus on DBG because I have limited space here, but El Matador, Red Shamrock, DFE, and others all contribute to the cause as well.
The Inferno was the original supporters group for FCD and hung tough through some hard times, but this newer batch of SGs have been successful in expanding the reach and increasing their numbers.
Dallas has a history of picking up TFC's droppings, whether Julian de Guzman, Eric Hassli, or most recently Kyle Bekker, what is the deal with that? Surely TFC's poor-planning is not the sort of thing that should be encouraged. And would you perhaps be interested in a slightly-used Michael Bradley and/or Jozy Altidore?
BDS: The Hunt Sports Group loves a good bargain. As stated before, the FCD ownership group runs a tried and true method to their sports business, taking only calculated risks, never risking more than they are willing to lose. It goes to show that the TFC failures make good thrift store finds. I think part of the reasoning is that these players have MLS experience, so that is a plus over a foreign import. De Guzman worked out well for FCD; his performances on the field helped salvage a hard season. But when it came time to pony up for his entire salary, FCD politely declined. As a USMNT fan, I would be happy to take a Bradley or Altidore off of your hands, but I can't promise the millions to pay them.
That's it for this week's edition. I hope everyone has fun out at Toyota Stadium on Saturday.