By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (March 3, 2016) US Soccer Players – It seems as if the start of every MLS season often brings with it the same batch of questions. Will the New York Red Bulls finally break its MLS Cup drought? Can any player break the single-season goal record of 27? Can a Canadian team win the title? While the Red Bulls will have their troubles and players who can score lots of goals come and go, the notion that a Canadian club could compete for the title is something that would be a boon for the game north of the border.
The league’s three Canadian representatives – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC – enter the 2016 season poised to do well. All have rosters competitive enough to compete for a spot in the playoffs.
From 1968 to 1984, the original North American Soccer League crowned 17 champions, but only two were Canadian. Toronto Metros-Croatia won the Soccer Bowl in 1976 and Vancouver in 1979. That remains the only times in US first division history that a team outside our borders won a soccer championship in the NASL and MLS eras. It could very well happen again this season.
Montreal came close to achieving continental glory in 2015, reaching the final of the CONCACAF Champions League only to lose in the final to Mexico's Club America. The year before, the Impact had finished last in the Eastern Conference with a 6-10-18 record. Toronto, meanwhile, reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season (after a string of poor seasons). Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco showed everyone that foreign players under age 30 are a better, long-term investment than over-the-hill stars. Vancouver also defied expectations, finishing second in the Western Conference after a strong showing in the second half of the season.
At the end of last season, I wrote that 2015 was a year where Canadian clubs excelled, something they can build on. However, MLS is a league where parity still reigns supreme and teams can be great one year; poorly the next. Being consistent is what’s most difficult. Teams across the league have bulked up their rosters this winter and foreign stars continue to stream into the league. Whether Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver can keep up – and get hot when it matters most during the postseason – remains a big question mark.
Montreal plays Vancouver in the season’s opening day Sunday at BC Place, with the sides renewing their rivalry after the Impact won 2-1 last season in their only MLS regular-season meeting. The teams, however, are no strangers. They played each other in the Canadian Championship final last season, with the Whitecaps winning the title 4-2 on aggregate.
Montreal is hoping for a strong 2016 season. Didier Drogba is back for another season, but age is certainly an issue. He scored 11 goals in 11 games in 2015, but will need to be that consistent for the entire season, a near impossibility for a player his age. Bolstering the Impact’s offense is midfielders Ignacio Piatti and former Chicago Fire star Harry Shipp. If there was ever a dark horse for the 2016 MLS Cup title, it’s Montreal.
“We have a big target on our back,” Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush told The Canadian Press this week. “Obviously, we have one of the marquee players (Drogba) in the league now. So every time we play anybody they're going to be focused on shutting us down and shutting down Didier as an individual. We’re going to need to be even more unified and go into games with the right mentality.”
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, have to contend with a tough Western Conference. Striker Darren Mattocks is one of the best forwards in the league. Couple him up top with Blas Perez, who came during the offseason via Dallas, and one of the best striking duos could be in the making. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to move the needle and get this team into the final. The players hope a tighter defense and strong offense is enough to do it.
“For all professional (players), the goal is to win a championship,” said Whitecaps defender Pa-Modou Kah. “We made the semifinals last year and we hope to do better than last year and perform better. ... We need to play like last year – or even better.”
Fellow defender Tim Parker said this year’s roster is better than last year.
“For sure (since) there is (depth) everywhere,” he said, referring to new additions like Perez.
Montreal and Vancouver aside, Toronto is arguably the strongest team in this trio. Coach Greg Vanney needs to bank not only on Altidore staying healthy, but also hoping he has a strong season. In midfield, Michael Bradley remains the heart of this team and a big reason why Toronto remains a playoff-contender. Indeed, Toronto’s hopes rest largely on Altidore and Bradley, as well as having Giovinco replicate his fabulous 2015 form.
Toronto travels to New York Sunday to play its season-opener against the Red Bulls in what is expected to be a tough match for both sides. For Altidore, who got his pro start in New York, the game is the beginning of what could very well be a championship run – something he told reporters this past week that the club is aiming to achieve “in the next year or two for sure.”
Some observers aren’t so certain that goal is attainable. Bobby McMahon, an analyst for Canada’s Rogers Sportsnet, said he doesn’t think any of the country’s three teams can win MLS Cup this season. Furthermore, he said it would take multiple championships by one of these clubs to make soccer a big deal in Canada.
“It would mean a lot to the winning city and the team’s supporters and it would provide a short spurt of media and public interest, but in the long run, it would mean very little for soccer in Canada,” he said. “Repeat or three in four years, then we might see a positive effect. But a one off – very little impact.”
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