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.

 

Go West, young #Leafs

The performance of young teams can often confound fans, and this year’s Maple Leafs really are no different.  After being outworked and outhustled in their loss at home to Carolina last week, the upstart Buds turned around and held Alex Ovechkin and the powerhouse Capitals in check in a 4-2 win at the ACC Saturday night.

Mitch Marner (16), tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead, celebrates with Tyler Bozak

Mitch Marner (16), tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead, celebrates with Tyler Bozak

Frustrating as it is to see this team play in its own end most nights, getting to watch Auston Matthews, William Nylander (who sat out Saturday with a mysterious injury) and Mitch Marner more than makes up for it.  Matthews (9-8-17) snapped his 13-game goal-less drought last week, and now sits a point behind Marner (7-11-18) and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine in rookie scoring.

Now, the Leafs head for Western Canada, with a rematch against Connor McDavid and the Oilers up first Tuesday night at the new Rogers Place.  The Leafs beat the Oilers 3-2 at the ACC on November 1, thanks to the strong two-way play of Nazem Kadri, who held McDavid in check while potting a pair of goals himself.  Somehow, though, I think the rematch will be a different story, especially with the Oilers having last change.  We’ll see.

Then it’s on to Calgary the very next night to face a hot goalie in Chad Johnson (no, not the former NFL receiver).  Johnson has been solid in supplanting (at least temporarily) Brian Elliott, going 5-2 and allowing just 12 goals in his last 7 starts.

Oh yes, and then it’s the return grudge match against Vancouver on Saturday.  You know, the one where Erik Gudbranson said Matt Martin would be “dead” after a series of third-period fracases in a 6-3 Toronto win November 5, highlighted by Nazem Kadri’s crushing hit on Daniel Sedin.  Retribution games are frought with a lot of unexpected possibilities, and you know the league will be watching closely for any questionable behaviour.  Still, you know you’re going to watch, simply for the possibility something will happen.  The Leafs need to keep their wits about them and focus on winning the game.

Toronto gets a three-day break after the west coast trip before returning to the ACC to host Minnesota a week Wednesday.

A trying Tuesday

A frustrating night to be sure if you watched either the Leafs 2-1 loss to Carolina or TFC’s 3-2 defeat in Montreal in the first leg of the MLS East final.

tfcmtlWatching TFC go down 3-0 early in the second half was not at all what I expected from this club, and it looked like disaster for a short time.  But the goals from Altidore and Bradley within seven minutes gives them legitimate hope heading into next Wednesday’s rematch at BMo Field.  Now, thanks to those two away goals, 1-0 or 2-1 victories will propel TFC into the MLS Cup.  With a crowd I expect will border on berserk, and friendlier field conditions than the trampoline turf at Olympic Stadium, the opportunity is there for TFC’s taking.

Meanwhile, at the ACC, Auston Matthews goal drought extended to 13 despite the fact he was AGAIN the best Leaf player on the ice last night.  Aside from he and Morgan Rielly, no other Leafs were noticeable.  While Matthews is great with the puck, I think he needs to play more without it – I’m just not sure he has the linemates to do that.  Perhaps putting him with JVR and Marner for a while might offer him more time and space?  Also nice to see Freddie Andersen solid again last night.  He held the Leafs in a game I felt they were (sadly) outplayed and outmuscled in.  Hoping for a different outcome in New Jersey tonight.

Lay off the kid #Leafs #BlueJays

There’s been a lot of talk and consternation among Toronto media types recently about Auston Matthews’ current goal drought.  I was rather astonished the other day listening to one of the noon-hour hockey talk shows to hear someone who should know better being critical of Matthews.  I can’t believe I’m quoting Donald Trump…but STOP IT.

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Anyone who’s actually watched Matthews and William Nylander play over the first 17 games of the Leafs season can see they’re dangerous every time they’re on the ice, and often play in the other team’s end.  Has he failed to convert a number of good chances recently, including a wide open net last night in the first period against Florida?  Yes.  But he’s far from the first goal scorer to go through a period of bad luck…seems to me Phil Kessel was quite streaky this way in his time in Toronto.  He’s wearing a Stanley Cup ring in Pittsburgh if you hadn’t heard.

Let’s get some perspective here: He’s 19, and most kids his age are still playing junior.  He has 12 points in 17 games, hardly a cause for concern.  Don’t compare him to Patrik Laine, who has 12 goals, because Winnipeg is a much better team, and he’s playing with some solid veterans.

If there’s one thing I think Matthews could benefit from, it’s some video work on positioning in the offensive zone.  I’ve seen more than one occasion where had he been in a different spot, we may not be talking about this at all.  The Leafs are above .500 and have scored 18 goals in their last 3 home games.  Mitch Marner is a difference maker.  Freddy Andersen has found his stride.  The defence is going to be maddening all season.  Just chill and enjoy the Leafs.

#BlueJays Update

I’m not happy to hear the Blue Jays are kicking tires on Sean Rodriguez, be it as a utility player.  He’s “excitable” much like Jose Bautista, and if you wish to move on from that temperament, bringing Rodriguez in certainly would be counter-intuitive.   With Reddick going to Houston, I imagine the Jays focus now falls on the likes of Dexter Fowler, and trade possibilities like Jay Bruce, CarGo (which I suggested previously here), Charlie Blackmon, and Adam Eaton (mentioned by Fox’s Jon Morosi this week).  I believe you need power and production from one of your corner outfield spots to contend, and it would seem Atkins and Shapiro seem to favour Bruce based on the fact they almost traded for him last spring, and have reportedly again engaged the Mets in talks.

One final thought…the fact Edwin Encarnacion seems to be waiting to sign after the new CBA is reached, where teams may have more room to spend with a new luxury tax threshold, does not bode well for his return to Toronto.  If the Blue Jays are truly working with an increased payroll number, as has been suggested, they may still be a player.  But the Yankees and Red Sox may simply be holding back right now ready to blow him away with an above-market offer once the new CBA is in place.

Jose, Edwin hit the open market #BlueJays

It’s been a busy few days of Blue Jays rumours ahead of today’s 5 p.m. deadline for players who were extended $17.2 million qualifying offers by their current teams to accept or reject them and choose free agency – we now know Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista have chosen the latter.434778

The biggest news of course came Friday afternoon when multiple sources reported free agent DH Kendrys Morales was signing a 3-year, $33 million deal with Toronto.  It’s left everyone trying to figure out what that means for Edwin Encarnacion’s future — is there a chance he returns now or not?  I’d suggest it makes it less likely, but only time will tell.  The Blue Jays also inked coveted Cuban infield prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to a 7-year, $22 million deal on Friday – some expect he could start 2017 as high as Double-A.   Here are some of the other rumours that have been floated recently:

 

Jamie CampbellVerified account @SNETCampbell 2h2 hours ago

Sources tell me the have offered a 3-year contract to free agent pitcher Brett Cecil.

MLB Network RadioVerified account @MLBNetworkRadio Nov 13

.: “ are in on Josh Reddick & have discussed a trade with for Jay Bruce. Working on LH platoon for Upton”

Ken RosenthalVerified account @Ken_Rosenthal Nov 12

Sources: interested in Steve Pearce, possibly as RH platoon partner for Smoak at 1B. first mentioned possibility.

Personally, I think Reddick would be a great fit, and I’m encouraged the Jays seem to be open to pursuing trade options like Bruce — see my previous column where I suggest Carlos Gonzalez in Colorado should be considered a target for the Jays as well.  With regards to Cecil, I’m not sure they can do much better, sadly.  The only “lights out” bullpen lefties are Chapman and Miller, and Cecil then falls into the next tier.

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.

The #Leafs are…alright

We’re only a dozen games into the NHL season, but yes, if the playoffs started today, the Maple Leafs would be there.  After last night’s “excited” 6-3 win over Vancouver, the young Buds are 5-4-3 – a mark I’m quite sure any Leaf fan would have been happy with at the start of the season.

And this a team you’d expect will get better over the course of the season. It’s amazing how Frederik Andersen has gone from looking like Hardy Astrom to Dominik Hasek in the span of a week…he made some all world saves Thursday in Buffalo. Perhaps Mike Babcock knew best after all in letting his #1 netminder ride out his rough start.

I still believe this is an evaluative year for this team…and I think the Leafs brass are prepared to let the current roster ride, and so are most fans. More solid performances from Andersen will give them a chance.kadri

No doubt there will be some form of supplemental discipline in the forms of fines or suspensions from last night’s game which unfortunately could disrupt a lineup that seems to have found its rhythm.  I still believe the shoulder was the initial point of contact on Nazem Kadri’s hit on Daniel Sedin, as you can see, his elbow is at his side.

Regardless, I still expect Kadri to get at least a game, given he did receive a five-minute charging major on the play.   The rematch in Vancouver December 3 now has gong-show potential in what was otherwise a benign tale of two franchises heading in opposite directions.

The Leafs defensive play is still suspect – it was an absolute disaster last night when JVR and Bozak were on the ice with Gardiner and Polak at the same time.  Despite that, overall defence seemed to improve when Matt Hunwick went on the injured list — addition by subtraction perhaps.  I still don’t expect the Leafs to make a move to significantly bolster the blue line this season…but circumstances can change so never say never.  Even with a leaky back end, Matthews, Nylander and Marner are dangerous every time they’re on the ice and, with solid goaltending as we’ve seen, they give this team a legitimate chance to compete every night.  Fun to watch.

Respect for the #Raptors

Sat down and watched my first Raptors game of the season Friday night, and was impressed with what I saw.  DeMar DeRozan seems to be using the SI snub as motivation to elevate his game to where it needs to be if this team wants to challenge Cleveland.  Terrence Ross needs to have more nights like he did against Miami as consistency has always been his issue.  And did any team have a better draft than the Raptors?  Pascal Siakum and Jakob Poeltl have stepped right into this lineup to make positive contributions.  Poeltl needs to bulk up – he lost a couple loose balls to Whiteside and Winslow he should have won – but again, these are two guys who will only get better as the year goes along.  They’ll make them a good regular season team, but their inexperience is likely to show come playoff time.  It’s very possible you see one of them dealt for a veteran in an area of need before the deadline.  So long as DeRozan is playing at this level, the Raptors are clearly the #2 team in the Eastern Conference.