T.O.: Titletown

Just a short note of congratulations to TFC for winning their first MLS Cup – the first for a Canadian-based team, making it even more significant.  TFC has been the best team in MLS for the past two seasons (they were the better team in last year’s final as well, you’ll recall, despite losing on penalties).  They are now in the conversation about MLS all-time “super teams” – amazing considering the ignominious start this franchise had.  Most importantly, I want to offer congratulations to my friends who are die-hard TFC supporters and have been even in the lean years – you truly deserve this wonderful moment.

I don’t write about TFC because I admit I don’t feel I have the technical knowledge of the game required to do it intelligently.  But I am more than a casual footy follower and have enjoyed watching the building of this franchise.  Altidore, Bradley, and Giovinco are now household names in this city. This team, this sport, has become a big deal.

It’s amazing that Toronto, a city that has endured much disappointment from its teams over the years,  will see its second championship rally in less than two weeks tomorrow, following the Argos Grey Cup triumph last month.  The Jays, Raptors and Leafs all remain more than competitive.  Enjoy this, Toronto, because it’s truly a golden era, and no one can predict how long it will last – or when the next one will come along.

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Dear Ricky Ray…I’m sorry #Argos

Dear Ricky:

I’d like to think it takes a certain amount of integrity to admit when you’re wrong.  That’s why I want to say publicly in this forum I was wrong about you, and want to take this opportunity to apologize for some of the things I’ve written on here over the past couple years (please don’t scroll down).

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I had advocated your departure from the Toronto Argonauts for some time.  Not because I ever doubted your talent or your ability. You don’t win four Grey Cups by accident. No, it was your lack of durability and the lack of support you had on your offensive line that made me question whether your time in Toronto had passed.  In successive seasons while injuries plagued you, the former management of the club chose you over more mobile up-and-comers Zach Collaros and Trevor Harris.  I believed at the time they had a better chance of bringing a Grey Cup back to the team I’ve followed and loved since Cedric Minter was a rookie than you.

Then came 2017.  When you went out in week 5 with an injury, I thought we were about to see the same old story all over again.  But in a twist of fate, you bounced back, while the younger Collaros and Harris have been banged up in Hamilton and Ottawa.  Thanks to Jim Popp and Marc Trestman, you finally got an offensive line that could protect you.  And things began to turn.  You won 8 of your last 10 games, including a 34-27 win over Edmonton I attended at BMo Field in September, the first CFL game I’d been to in nine years.

The winning drive you engineered in the East final was as thrilling a CFL finish as any I’ve seen.  And with the score tied at 24 late in the 4th quarter Sunday night, I found myself on the edge of my sofa, repeatedly pleading under my breath “just one last drive, Ricky, just one last drive.”  And you delivered.

So congratulations, Ricky Ray.  I have never been happier to be wrong in my life.  Retire, don’t retire, stay, go, I don’t care.  Do whatever you want.  You’ve earned that choice.  And my respect. Here’s hoping your perseverance both personally and collectively will spark a revival of interest in Toronto in a team that will always be a part of who I am.

Thank you, and again, I’m sorry.

Clint

NEW – What we’ve learned the last three months #BlueJays #Leafs #Raptors

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a couple of steps back from the hourly hot takes that dominate today’s sports narrative and take a look at the bigger picture.  Looking back, many things this blog site has had to say have held true, while changing circumstances have altered the playing field in other areas.  I thought now might be a good time for a review.

LEAFS

It’s one thing to make a bold prediction just to make it, it’s another to base that prediction on some insightful observation.  Back in December, this blog surmised the Leafs stood a plausible chance of making the playoffs based on unforeseen weakness in the division (thanks to internal chaos in Florida and a historic depth of injuries in Tampa), and a eureka moment against the Penguins in December.  Well, here we are with the young Leafs facing Washington in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to a phenomenal March performance. Pre-season, I had pegged Calder trophy favorite Auston Matthews to be in the low 60’s in points, Nylander 55 and Marner 50…all exceeded my expectations greatly – I certainly didn’t expect 40 goals from Matthews. Oh yeah, and Nazem Kadri scored 30 and Connor Brown 20! The trade deadline addition of Brian Boyle also stabilized a shaky fourth line.   It’s proof that Mike Babcock can do great things with talent that buys into his system.

In the long run, I think it’s best this Leafs team is facing Washington and not a banged up Ottawa squad.  The Leafs could beat Ottawa, but I think it would present a false sense of progress, much like a young talented Colorado team experienced three years ago finishing first in their division.  They haven’t approached anything close to that since, and a teardown now appears in order there.  Washington is a legitimate Cup threat and will show the Leafs what they need to do to take that next step. The Leafs certainly didn’t look out-of-place in the series opener, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they learn that lesson from the Caps (and maybe teach one of their own?)

I don’t feel they can take the next step without improving on defence, and that includes dealing Jake Gardiner for a comparable D man.  Damn the analytics, I believe he’s a zero sum player (that is, his offensive upside is equally offset by his terrible, soft play in his own end).  Morgan Reilly needs to be paired with someone who can allow him to utilize his offensive skills to its fullest, and Nikita Zaitsev needs pairing help as well.  I expect a very different looking Leafs blue line come this fall.

BLUE JAYS

Aside from resigning Jose Bautista after the departure of Edwin Encarnacion in the wake of the addition of Kendrys Morales, the number one offseason concern was the bullpen.  The Jays front office did a decent job restocking the pen, adding veterans Joe Smith and JP Howell.  So far the pen has only had a direct role in two of the Jays eight losses.  But again this year, cold bats in April have put the Jays behind the eight ball. The unknown duration of Josh Donaldson’s calf injury certainly doesn’t help.  Last year, the Jays hit .236 in an opening month where they went 11-14 also in part due to a very leaky bullpen.  That combined with September’s hitting swoon almost certainly cost them a second straight AL East crown.  The past two springs have featured a lot of down time for the veteran players and you have to wonder if the organization needs to look at its spring approach going forward.  That said, let’s put the 1-8 start in perspective.  By going a modestly successful 24-16 over their next 40 games (which with their solid rotation isn’t a stretch), they would be back to .500 before the end of May.  Being at or slightly over .500 in mid-July means the Jays will be in the hunt for the wild card and will certainly be deadline buyers again this year.  So as discouraging as this start has been, there’s lots of time for the Jays to right this ship.

RAPTORS

The addition of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the trade deadline certainly changed the outlook for the Raptors for the better. Would be scary to think where they’d have finished without them. But now, this is a team that can play interior defence and also has a lot of scoring options.  The lengthy injury to Kyle Lowry was unfortunate, as it allowed the Celtics to overtake the Raps for the division crown.  Now as the #3 seed, they face a potential second-round playoff matchup with Cleveland and LeBron should they get past Milwaukee (and they should!).  The Cavs, however, are banged up and have many feeling that they’re vulnerable.  This year might be as good a chance as any for the Raptors to break through to an NBA final.  Going forward, resigning Ibaka would be the best thing this team could do to cement itself as a contender for the next couple of years at least.

Spring 2017 has certainly turned into an incredible time for Toronto sports.  Toronto FC appears poised for another MLS Cup run this year, the Marlies can make another strong playoff push, and the much-need front office housecleaning by the Argos which brought in Jim Popp and Marc Trestman can only improve their chances and renew optimism around that team this year.

 

State of Toronto’s sports union

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2016 to many will go down as a horrible year that had scattered moments of greatness.

To Toronto sports fans, however, 2016 represented perhaps the dawn of a new era.  Save for the Argos, all of the city’s big teams became competitive. Three conference final runs (Jays, Raptors, Marlies), one league final appearance (TFC) where a better fate was deserved, and a draft lottery win (Leafs) that brought hope and optimism.

That said, I think we know where we are with these teams. TFC is head of the class in MLS. The Raptors are the 2nd best team in the East but lack the defensive identity needed, especially down low, to entertain any notion of knocking off Lebron and the Cavs. The Blue Jays starting pitching will keep them competitive in 2017, but they still need to fill many holes and add another big bat if Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t return to make a third straight playoff appearance.  The Leafs will be exciting to watch for years to come, and will upgrade their defence and forward depth – just not likely this season. Don’t expect a playoff berth in April, though their division is weaker than expected, which will make March interesting. The Argos are an irrelevant mess.

Titletown Toronto isn’t.  But it’s a far sight better than where things have been most of the last 20 years.  And fans going into 2017 can actually legitimately think for a change “so you’re saying there’s a chance…”

Still Title-less town…but this is fun #TFC

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Toronto FC’s crushing loss in the MLS Cup final on penalty kicks was tough to swallow for many sports fans.  It’s counter-intuitive that a team that has no shots on goal during play should win anything, let alone a league crown.  But that’s what happened Saturday night at BMo Field.  The bottom line is TFC wasn’t able to put the ball in the net either…when this team succeeds, it’s because Giovinco plays well.  He did not.  Michael Bradley was a non-factor, and had his weak penalty try stopped.  The moves Greg Vanney made to get to win the East final, late substitutions of Cheyrou and Ricketts, didn’t pan out this time, though Ricketts had a glorious chance in extra time that rolled just by the post.  That meant no Giovinco in penalty kicks.  It may not have mattered, but it could have.  I think I knew when former TFC keeper Stefan Frei made that amazing one-handed save on Jozy Altidore in extra-time that this wasn’t going to be TFC’s night.

Regardless, it was damn exciting to watch, and this city has seen one team reach its league finals and two others reach their conference finals in back-to-back years in the past two seasons.  The Toronto sports scene is alive again, and just imagine if these young and upcoming Leafs can find the next level.  Despite last night’s heartbreak, it’s good to be a Toronto sports fan right now.

Wet, wild…and wonderful #TFC

torontoeastchampsExhilarating. Euphoric.  Is there any other way to describe the incredible spectacle that unfolded at BMo Field last night as Toronto FC fought back from an elimination position twice to score a 5-2 extra time win (7-5 on aggregate) over Montreal to become Canada’s first ever entry in the MLS Cup, which will now be hosted in Toronto on December 10?

You didn’t have to like or understand soccer to enjoy the drama provided in the second leg of the East final last night.  And what a roller coaster ride for the 36,000 in attendance on a rain-soaked evening.   Disappointment after Montreal’s Aduro opened the scoring early.  Then the brilliant answers including the near-post header from an inspired Jozy Altidore before halftime to give Toronto a significant 2-1 lead.  Confusion opens the second half, and Montreal score again to take a potential tie-winning tie.  Then the tremendous elevation and header by Hagglund with 20 minutes left to force extra time.

Give TFC coach Greg Vanney credit – he pushed all the right buttons last night.  His substitutions of Benoit Cheyrou for a hobbled Giovinco, and Toussaint Ricketts turned out to be the difference as both scored in extra time on diving and sliding efforts into the 6-yard box to find the back of the net.  It was a magical sporting moment for the city of Toronto, for a city that’s seen a few of them recently thanks to the Blue Jays.

The TFC win overshadowed a lacklustre 3-0 Leafs loss in Calgary, and a 120-105 win by the Raptors over Memphis at the ACC (who are now a solid 12-6 and quite on track in the middle of a six-game homestand), and hardly anyone was paying attention when false reports about Edwin Encarnacion signing in Houston surfaced.  Yes, this  was a night that soccer and TFC, a franchise that bungled the first decade of its existence, truly arrived on Toronto and North America’s sporting radar.

So what to expect in the MLS Cup?  Home field advantage means more to TFC than any other team I would suggest, and the Reds have shown the resilience of a winner throughout these playoffs.  Toronto and Seattle did play to a 1-1 tie in their last encounter at BMo Field in July.  But no one would be more shocked than I if they weren’t hoisting the MLS Cup a week Saturday.

 

How big a deal would a TFC title be?

Toronto FC’s devastation of NYCFC in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-final was one of the most impressive playoff performances by any Toronto sports team in recent memory – yes, Blue Jays included.  tfc2-logoTo beat the highest-scoring team in the league 7-0 on aggregate with a lineup loaded with world class (albeit past-prime) talent like David Villa, Pirlo and Frank Lampard is nothing to sneeze at.  The ball control and possession displayed by the Reds was truly clinical.  Now they face their nemesis Montreal, who knocked TFC out of the playoffs last year.  I have more confidence in TFC winning the MLS title than I did the Blue Jays winning the pennant this year, they look that good.  Regardless, a Canadian team will vie for the MLS Cup on December 10 for the first time in its 21-year history.  The atmosphere for both games could be unlike MLS has ever seen — perhaps up to 60,000 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and the mad house that is BMo Field will be stuffed to the rafters.  Hopefully in a broader context it will have a positive impact on Canadian soccer at the grassroots level that will be seen years from now.  An MLS Cup win would be Toronto’s first significant sporting title since the Argos 2012 Grey Cup win (yes, I still consider Grey Cups significant) and a milestone for the current upswing on Toronto’s sports scene.