Major League Soccer team previews: TORONTO FC

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 10 in the East is Toronto FC:

Significant additions and subtractions: Ryan Nelsen took over for Paul Mariner (who had taken over just a few months earlier from Aron Winter) in one of the truly bizarre coaching shifts yet seen in MLS. New club president Kevin Payne, the polarizing architect of so much that was good and so much that went wrong previously at D.C. United.

Canadian international Kyle Bekker was the third overall MLS draft pick.

Julio Cesar has moved north from Sporting Kansas City, and may play a significant role in the center of the park.

Strengths: Torsten Frings is a skillful, determined leader who adds valuable versatility – so long as he keeps himself healthy and motivated. The German veteran has only recently returned to Toronto, where he was either in rehabilitation, sorting out personal business or perhaps … well, who knows what? There seemed to be some whispers of discontent, and isn’t that just what this team in high transition needs?

TFC gets a huge boost if goalkeeper Stefan Frei is back to his 2011 form (after missing most of the 2012 season due to injury).

Pressure points: The roster isn’t where it needs to be, even Payne admits it. That’s why he’s been gathering up allocation money for the next move. Or moves. Let’s go with “moves.”

Reading too much into preseason results is always a dangerous thing. That said, it was not been a good preseason for TFC. And then some. Perhaps unfavorable results aren’t a surprise considering the teams’ top two players remain on the mend. And Justin Braun’s injury over the weekend is alarming, especially considering how much of the scoring burden he needed to tote pending Danny Koevermans’ healthy return (which isn’t happening anytime soon).

Cesar is a useful player, but he’s not anything close to Frings in terms of leadership and gumption.

None of these preseason woes would resonate as loudly if not for the club history, for the yawning gap that has always existed between TFC and the field. In a league where over half the teams make the playoffs each year (well over half in some of those seasons), TFC has failed to qualify for all six years of existence. The ongoing organizational flailing has been a huge beat-down for TFC supporters, who once showed up in waves. We see more and more empty seats around BMO Field, which is a doggone shame.

source: Getty Images

Jeremy Hall has a central midfielder? Hmmm. He’s been a right-sided guy through his entire career, and he’s been adequate at best there. It seems like a big stretch to play the man on the inside now – and it probably says something about TFC’s that flagging roster strength at the moment.

Difference maker: It’s Koevermans, but there is a huge asterisk here. The Dutch striker (pictured right), sizable and skillful, looks like a Golden Boot candidate when at his best. He has 17 goals in 26 appearances for the club, which is righteous production. But can he be at his best coming off major knee surgery? He’s not even expected to be on the field until June – and the Reds could be too far behind by then.

Potential breakout player: The club expects big things of Bekker, the third overall pick in January’s draft. He has played in the middle (as Bekker does for Canada) but also on the flanks for Ryan Nelsen’s team.

Bottom line: Given the injury concerns with Frings, Koevermans and Braun, it’s hard to be optimistic, especially over the season’s first 90 days.

Sweden announces Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not return for World Cup

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s public flirtation and seeming committal to returning to the Swedish national team for the World Cup was a big tease.

Whether it’s his call or not is up for debate.

The Swedish Football Association reports that it’s spoken with Ibrahimovic and the 35-year-old LA Galaxy striker has declined the chance to return to the fold.

[ MORE: Fulham, NFL owner to buy Wembley? ]

Sweden’s sporting director Lars Richt says Ibrahimovic has not changed his mind on international retirement despite his own words.

Sweden’s current team may have a role in that.

We imagine Richt and Sweden may be cushioning the blow for Ibrahimovic, especially if national team goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson is speaking on behalf of a team vibe when he speaks of Zlatan being “an individualist” who could ruin Sweden’s team-first concept.

Report: Fulham, NFL owner Khan agrees $700m price for Wembley

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Fulham owner Shad Khan also owns a National Football League team, and could have two top-flight teams from different nations playing in England soon.

For Fulham, the Cottagers are currently very much in the race for automatic promotion to the Premier League and at the least will have a chance at qualifying through the playoffs.

[ MORE: TFC loses CCL Final in PKs ]

For the Jaguars, who have rarely needed all the seats in their stadium, it could mean a move to London if Khan goes through with what’s being reported as an accepted $700 million bid to buy Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium was also built with the design to host NFL games.

Here’s how ProFootballTalk’s Michael David Smith puts a bow on it (on one of the biggest days of the NFL calendar, nonetheless):

So it’s possible that there could soon be two iconic soccer stadiums in London with strong NFL ties, one which was built with NFL games in mind, and another that is owned by an NFL owner. The league is pouring serious resources into London.

It seems unlikely Khan would move Fulham from Craven Cottage, but there are other repercussions of this move for soccer in England.

There’s the potential for the England national team to no longer utlizie a permanent home, and the FA Cup and League Cup both potentially requiring new or rotating venues for their final rounds.

A lot to monitor here, and we’ll surely have all the details as they emerge from Khan’s crew.

TFC on CCL loss: “Feels the heart has been ripped from the chest”

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Michael Bradley went 90 minutes at center back, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco scored, and Toronto FC nearly, oh-so-nearly, became the first Major League Soccer side to win a continental title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

“We wanted to be the first (MLS side) to lift the CONCACAF Champions League trophy,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono, according to MLSSoccer.com. “We failed in that goal; that’s massively disappointing. … This is the way the game goes, it’s unjust; it feels the heart has been ripped from the chest sometimes.”

Bono made some big saves in regulation as TFC flipped its 2-1 first leg loss on its ear over 90 minutes, but Chivas Guadalajara scored all four of their penalty kick attempts as Jonathan Osorio hit the bar and Bradley set his effort on a path to the moon.

That part was possibly academic, as Chivas could’ve sealed it with their fifth penalty, but Marky Delgado’s miss of a perfect Sebastian Giovinco stoppage time cross is what sent the match into kicks.

Here’s how The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson framed his post-match interview with Delgado, described as one of the few players not to walk past the media after the loss:

“That’s football sometimes,” Delgado searched for words. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it goes in. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s heartbreaking.”

It felt cruel to keep him standing there any longer.

“Wherever we are, we want to win,” the soft-spoken American said. “Unfortunately today we didn’t, but we know we dominated the game.”

And Bradley, in the season after Toronto won a trouble but also 18 months removed from missing a PK in the MLS Cup Final — not to mention marshaling the USMNT midfield in its monumental failure to qualify for the World Cup was mostly good in playing out-of-position.

“In the biggest moments, we threw caution to the wind and played with balls, bravery, and pride in ourselves, in each other, in our club and our city,” Bradley said on Canadian television outlet TSN.

They did, and now they must hope to win the Canadian Championship, MLS Supporters’ Shield, or MLS Cup to get another shot at qualifying for the Club World Cup.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

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Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

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Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.