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3 Questions: Toronto FC

James Grossi of Waking the Red answers three questions about Toronto FC.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1) TFC was in the basement at the end of April, and now they've won five of seven. Besides repeated Giovinco golazos, what has allowed that run of form to take place?

To be honest, it has mostly been the play of Sebastian Giovinco - when a team has a player that can almost guarantee at least one goal per game, that can rescue a lot of results from less than stellar performances - but he has not been wholly responsible, or at least, there are plenty of other good things that can be pointed out.

The first thing that must be considered is that Michael Bradley has finally found a position. Since joining Toronto prior to last season there has been an insistence, more or less, that he was a deep-lying/defensive-midfielder. A role he can manage, but one that limits his ability to be impactful in attack. Bradley has a tendency to want to do more than patrol that part of the pitch, so he would be drawn out of that area, thus proving a vulnerability, while also not making the best use of his attacking talents - limits should not be placed on his ability to roam and pick spots.

But with him moving into an advanced midfield position, it has freed him of those constant defensive duties and allowed him to make those charging runs that can turn a game, thereby opening up space, drawing defensive attention away from Giovinco.

Another factor has been the play of Benoit Cheyrou, who was quietly acquired in the offseason. Most transfers are announced ahead of time, news leaking out in the form of rumours, but Cheyrou was a stunner. Not the most high-profile of names, but his contributions have been immense, putting another football brain in a vital part of the pitch that gives both Giovinco and Bradley somebody on the same wavelength with which to combine. Were it not for Giovinco's obvious and stunning form, Cheyrou would be the thinking fans' nominee for Newcomer of the Season, he is that good.

Add in the resurgence of Ashtone Morgan and the ever-improving contributions of Eriq Zavaleta and the concerns that existed at the back have been somewhat muted.

Morgan, who is the club's longest serving player having made his debut in 2011 and recently made his century-appearance. He rose to prominence under Aron Winter in 2011 and 2012, but took a step back with Ryan Nelsen in charge, unsure of how to balance his defensive and attacking commitments. Under Greg Vanney he has been a man reborn, playing so confidently at left-back that Justin Morrow, a stalwart at that position, has been moved over to the right side, a trouble spot with Mark Bloom yet to return from injury.

Zavaleta, on the other hand, was an offseason addition that surprised a few people; mainly because he had done little since being drafted by Seattle back in 2013, though he did see some extended playing time for Chivas on loan through 2014., but also because he is the nephew of Vanney - there were some joking cries of nepotism.

But since stepping onto the back-line through the last three matches, he has barely put a foot wrong, bringing some much-needed mobility and some aerial prowess to the defense.

One final factor that is still coming to fruition is that other players are contributing goals. Giovinco and Jozy Altidore still account for the majority - they combine for twelve of the nineteen Toronto have scored - but three different goal-scorers struck against San Jose - Morrow, Warren Creavalle, and Luke Moore each adding one. They will need more of that to truly challenge this season.


(2) Speaking of the Atomic Ant, are there any words left that are sufficient to describe the extra dimension he brings to an MLS pitch? Is he the best attacking player in the league?

No, there are no words. Pundits have run out of adjectives with which to describe how good he has been and have resorted to just making primitive howls of delight whenever he gets on the ball - not really, but it's getting there. There may be a need to draft in some Ray Hudson-ism's to get through the season.

Seven goals and six assists through twelve matches, not to mention he should have had more - his performance against San Jose was perhaps the best ever seen in a TFC uniform, and yet he did not score (he was credited with two assists though) - is impressive.

One could spout on about his qualities endlessly and voluminously, but as to whether he is the best attacking talent in MLS, well that is a very subjective question, but one that can be looked at - well, attempt to anyways - objectively.

Briefly comparing him to his peers at the top of the goal-scoring charts - the seven-goals-plus crowd, one can discount Kaka and Chris Wondolowski - a healthy chunk of their goals have been from the penalty spot - while players like Kei Kamara and Will Bruin are more dependent on the service created by their teammates than Giovinco. That leaves the Seattle duo of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, who both take advantage of each other's talents to score a lot of their goals.

But the real difference is that both players have a level of physicality that Giovinco simply cannot match - he is, relatively, easily muscled or bumped off the ball. Dempsey, since returning to MLS, has played with a real chip on his shoulder, more often than not scoring scrappy goals rather than highlight reel ones - and it is more fun when a player at least smiles after scoring, so he can be chalked off, if callously.

But Martins, in particular, has the combination of both trickery to juke by and physicality to power his way through opponents, something that Giovinco must do with guile alone rather than sheer strength. Furthermore, Martins too is fond of the sensational stunner, which is at least the equal of Giovinco's similar knack.

Concluding that brief analysis, Martins would be the only other forward that could compare to Giovinco, but both play very different games. Can't wait to see them paired together at the All-Star Game; Tottenham be forewarned.


(3) The Gold Cup is something like Major League Soccer's dark night of the soul. What can TFC do to withstand Jozy Altidore and Il Generale's inevitable absences?

The Gold Cup is indeed a raw topic in MLS circles. Everyone loves international competition, but it robs the league of so many of its best players for an extended period, rendering matches a pale comparison of their former selves, as teams struggle to field strong lineups without their stars.

Toronto is definitely fretful of how that spell will play out, not only will Bradley and Altidore be absent, but a further pair of starters - Morgan and Jonathan Osorio - will also likely be away with Canada, though, if truth be told, they will not be gone as long as the former duo.

Though it is a concern, Toronto has done alright without both of their American stars. Altidore has scored a bushel full of goals, but his hamstring issues over the past few weeks have shown that TFC can compete without him. Moore is a frustrating forward, he is not visibly active for large swathes of a match, but has some quality lurking within him. Bright Dike is currently out on loan, but could presumably be brought back to add some physicality up top, while Jordan Hamilton, who may well be away with Canada himself, is a highly-touted homegrown prospect on the verge of breaking into the first team.

Replacing Bradley is a more difficult prospect. No single player can do exactly what he does, so it will fall to two or three to pick up the slack left by his absence. He was away in Europe with the American side for Toronto's win over DC, but Giovinco saved that result near single-handedly, so there remain plenty of question marks as to whether some combination of players can step-up without the club captain in place.

One positive note is that Toronto has a relatively light schedule during that period of the season, with just one match a week, and three of those are away, so one could possibly get away with a more counter-attack based strategy, sitting deep and waiting for chances to spring Giovinco one-on-one against defenders.

It will be tricky, but this is the deepest side Toronto has ever had, so unlike back in 2008 when eight starters were lost to international duty and TFC was forced to sign three players for a match against Chivas - one was their chief scout, another a defender from a local semi-pro league - things, hopefully, will not be too bad. As long as Giovinco stays fit that is.


4) Toronto FC is playing its ninth year in MLS, yet has never made the playoffs. What's the general mood of a TFC fan day-to-day in light of this extended run of futility?

It has definitely been a tough existence for TFC fans.

Not only has the club repeatedly failed to achieve that most modest of goals, but it has done so in ever-more frustrating manners.

Back in 2009, Toronto was one result away from clinching the final spot, only to lose 5-0 at Giants Stadium, dooming them to a third-straight season without a post. Further frustrations came when Salt Lake backed into that spot and went on to win the MLS Cup that year.

And just last season, Toronto was in a solid position midway through, only for a personality clash to lead to Ryan Nelsen's firing, and the club plummeted down the standings under Vanney.

There is plenty of cynicism around the club for those very reasons; a touch of gallows-humour is helpful is such situations. And one can never really get overly excited, regardless of how prospects look at any given moment, as around the corner may lie doom.

Alternatively, the failures of the past have led to a bit of a 'live for the day' element to the support. One can never be sure of what tomorrow will bring, so the small victories are savoured. Perhaps that is why the Voyageurs Cup, the domestic tournament here in Canada is so prized; though, in search of the playoffs, Toronto has overlooked that competition in recent years as well.

And that is why a player like Giovinco has been such a revelation, he is just fun to watch. Trips to the park are much better for his presence.

All that considered, there have been shoots of growth from out the stagnation of eight-plus long years. This team appears to have put the soul-crushing late concessions in the rear-view - memories of which seemed to unsettle them previously as the clock ticked from the 74th to the 74th minute. And thus there is some cautious, guarded hope.

But no one in Toronto will be counting any chickens anytime soon.