Major League Soccer team previews: TORONTO FC

Leave a comment

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.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.