Larson's TFC and MLS 2015 preview

VANCOUVER -

A few minutes of reflection and you realize how pitiful Toronto FC was two years ago when it opened the season against the Vancouver Whitecaps here in British Columbia.

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Then team president Kevin Payne was left scrambling at the 11th hour following a downright frightening 2013 pre-season under inexperienced bench boss Ryan Nelsen.

Desperate signings were made, with Robert Earnshaw appearing out of thin air to start in a 1-0 loss that day, while rent-a-players like Hogan Ephraim and John Bostock were also late, stop-gap signings to start the season.

The Reds’ roster was bad. Their pre-season preparation was poor. And it didn’t take long for Toronto FC supporters to realize what was in store.

Two years later, the revamp of the revamped Toronto FC arrived in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday afternoon with a much different, much more respectable, much more professional look.

When I asked TFC bench boss Greg Vanney about the the ‘revamp of the revamped’ Reds upon arriving at Vancouver International, he offered a brief smirk, saying: “This is the start of something”.

Looking back at the roster the Reds brought here two years ago reminded me of that clip in Major League, when a pair of construction workers look at the Cleveland Indians roster before blurting out: “Who are these (expletive) guys?”

“It’s extremely different,” Vanney said of Toronto FC roster compared to last season. “The group we have this year creates a different level. We’ve created another level of expectation.

“We’re excited about where we’re at. It’s the first game. It’s not going to be perfect, but we think we’re very much moving in the right direction.”

That much is clear. At this point, it’s almost undeniable — keeping in mind that doesn’t guarantee anything.

“It’s a proper team,” a former MLSer who was with the Reds back in 2013 remarked to the Toronto Sun this week.

When he was here, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close, actually.

How’s this for an opening day (2013) midfield: Kyle Bekker, Hogan Ephraim, Terry Dunfield, Reggie Lambe, Jeremy Hall.

Looking back, Earnshaw’s International Transfer Certificate didn’t even arrive until a few hours before the game.

Club staffers still reminisce about John Bostock failing to make the game day roster due to paperwork.

Vanney, on the other hand, confirmed to the Sun he’ll have a full selection of players to choose from Saturday afternoon.

The big guns — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Giovinco — were with the team when their Air Canada flight touched down.

A few players weren’t, which speaks volumes as to the depth the Reds have accumulated over the last few months.

Mark Bloom, Daniel Lovitz and Jackson — all pencilled in as starters at one point this off-season — were passed over for selection.

For those on the game-day 18-man roster, the games — at least by TFC’s previous standards — don’t get much bigger.

“Obviously, it’s a rivalry so we’re going to talk some of the new guys through this and make sure they see it as the same rivalry the fans see it as,” Vanney said.

The Whitecaps are expecting a capacity crowd at BC Place (TSN 4, 6 p.m. EST.) for their only meeting with Toronto this season.

If last year’s stunning 2-1 season-opening win in Seattle taught us anything, it’s never get too high or low based on early- season performances.

“It’s the first step in what we feel is going to be a great process,” Vanney told the Sun.

“If we do all the things we want to do over the course of the year it will be a good outcome. We know it’s one game at a time, one step at a time.”

The club is leaps ahead of where it was exactly 24 months ago, which only begins to come into focus when you compare rosters and staff.

EASTERN CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

1. D.C. United

KEY ADDITION: Jairo Arrieta

THE SKINNY: I don’t feel comfortable putting anyone here, but United set a precedent last season when it cleaned up the Eastern Conference en route to a worst-to-first finish. It’s a squad of MLS veterans — Fabian Espindola, Bobby Boswell, Chris Rolfe, Chris Pontius, Sean Franklin. Knowing how to win in Major League Soccer can’t be overstated.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 8/1

2. New England Revolution

KEY ADDITION: Juan Agudelo

THE SKINNY: Replacing defensive stalwart A.J. Soares will be key for head coach Jay Heaps, but his all-star calibre back four — Andrew Farrell, Jose Goncalves and Chris Tierney — remains mostly intact. If Lee Nguyen has another big season there’s no reason the Revs can’t return to MLS Cup.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 8/1

3. Toronto FC

KEY ADDITION: Jozy Altidore

THE SKINNY: All told, Toronto FC’s revamped — again — starting lineup is loaded with experience. The midfield partnership of Benoit Cheyrou and Michael Bradley is among the most experienced in the league. Ahead of them, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore offer the best one-two punch in the conference. TFC improved on defence, too.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 14/1

4. Orlando City

KEY ADDITION: Kaka

THE SKINNY: The main draw, though, is undoubtedly Brazilian legend Kaka, who looked motivated this preseason to carry the load up front for a club that lacks a featured striker. Younger players like winger Brek Shea and Honduran Designated Player Bryan Rochez could be fun to watch. Lack of steady defenders remains top of mind at the moment.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 20/1

5. New York City FC

KEY ADDITION: David Villa

THE SKINNY: Four names give this 2015 expansion side a decent chance of finishing inside the top five: head coach Jason Kreis, Spanish striker David Villa, English midfielder Frank Lampard and American playmaker Mix Diskerud. I just can’t bet against a club with this many high-profile names.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 14/1

6. Columbus Crew

KEY ADDITION: Kei Kamara

THE SKINNY: Federico Higuain is

back for another season but after that, there isn’t much. Homegrown midfielder Will Trapp had a sniff with the U.S. national team over the winter and will be expected to step up in a big way. Out wide, the addition of Kei Kamara should help production up front. In the end, this is a still largely a side that lost three times to Toronto FC last season.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 16/1

7. Montreal Impact

KEY ADDITION: Laurent Ciman

THE SKINNY: Despite adding an experienced centre back in Belgian international Laurent Ciman, his partner, Bakary Soumare, has proven to be a liability in recent seasons. While a midfield of Ignacio Piatti, Nigel Reo-Coker and Justin Mapp is solid, this team might not have a 10-goal scorer up front.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 50/1

8. New York Red Bulls

KEY ADDITION: Sasha Kljestan

THE SKINNY: The Red Bulls lost French legend Thierry Henry to retirement during the offseason and shipped one of the league’s top centre backs, Jamison Olave, back to Real Salt Lake. The Red Bulls still have enough quality to make another playoff run when you consider last season’s Golden Boot winner, Bradley Wright-Phillips, is back for another season. The question is whether he’ll be nearly as productive following Henry’s departure.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 14/1

9. Chicago Fire

KEY ADDITION: Shaun Maloney

THE SKINNY: Head coach Frank Yallop went out and picked up a few of intriguing pieces this offseason, including former AIK striker Kennedy Igboananike and Scottish attack Shaun Maloney. But the back end is simply a mess. Yeah, this is largely a team that managed to draw 18 times in 2014, but how many of those could have been losses?

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 40/1

10. Philadelphia Union

KEY ADDITION: Fernando Aristeguieta

THE SKINNY: A roster that lacks, well, just about everything. The Union might be the only Eastern Conference club without a legitimate shot of making the postseason in 2015 — and that’s saying something in a conference that has been wide open for years. U.S. international Maurice Edu is the main attraction in midfield, but doesn’t have the right pieces around him.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 50/1

WESTERN CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

1. Seattle Sounders

KEY ADDITION: None

THE SKINNY: Expect Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey to continue terrorizing overmatched defences on a weekly bases. The club’s veteran defensive core — Stefan Frei, Brad Evans, Chad Marshall and Leo Gonzalez — should be solid once again. Is this year head coach Sigi Schmidt finally reaches another MLS Cup?

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 5/1

2. L.A. Galaxy

KEY ADDITION: Steven Gerrard

THE SKINNY: Not bad when you can replace a U.S legend with an English legend, is it? Winners of three of the last four MLS Cups, the Galaxy will once again be paced by league MVP Robbie Keane.

MLS CUP ODDS: 10/3

3. Real Salt Lake

KEY ADDITION: Jamison Olave

THE SKINNY: The loss of Joao Plata (broken leg) for a few months will hurt things, but the Rocky Mountain club still has Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales in the attack. It will be crucial this year for young midfielder Luis Gil to step up next the Kyle Beckerman. Salt Lake lost veteran defender Chris Wingert to New York City, but gained man mountain Jamison Olave.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 10/1

4. FC Dallas

KEY ADDITION: Dan Kennedy

THE SKINNY: If anything, Dallas is going to be exciting going forward with a collection of offensive talent that includes Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo, one of the more exciting young players in MLS. Will goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, who was pummeled for so long at Chivas, push this side over the top?

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 20/1

5. Sporting KC

KEY ADDITION: Roger Espinoza

THE SKINNY: Kansas City is excited about new goalkeeper Luis Marin and re-tooled its midfield with Honduran international Roger Espinoza. Can Dom Dwyer be a 20-goal scorer again? What should be make of rumours KC is closing in on signing Dutch international Rafael van der Vaart? Is Ike Opara an everyday centre back?

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 20/1

6. Vancouver Whitecaps

KEY ADDITION: Pah Modou Kah

THE SKINNY: The Whitecaps bulked up their back four by introducing Pah Modou Kah to a defence that already sports big body Kendall Waston. The wide fullbacks — Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey — also bring a wealth of experience. Head coach Car Robinson’s midfield remains solid, but the club hopes it finally has a proven goal scorer in Octavio Rivero.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 28/1

7. San Jose Earthquakes

KEY ADDITION: Innocent Emeghara

THE SKINNY: Head coach Dominic Kinnear has returned to San Jose and brought Marvel Wynne over from Colorado with him. The centre back pairing of Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson is solid and they’ll be expected to score with Chris Wondolowski working hard for new Swiss international Innocent Emeghara up front. Don’t forget the ‘Quakes are opening a new stadium, which always seems to give teams a bump.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 50/1

8. Portland Timbers

KEY ADD ITION: Nat Borchers

THE SKINNY: A club in the midst of an injury crisis. One of the league’s top attacking midfielders, Diego Valeri, continues to recover from a torn ACL while Canadian international Will Johnson is still fighting his way back from the broken leg he suffered at BMO Field last year. To make matters worse, Johnson’s stand-in, Ben Zemanski, tore his ACL in one of the team’s final tune-ups.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 25/1

9. Houston Dynamo

KEY ADDITION: Erick Torres

THE SKINNY: New head coach Owen Coyle’s roster just isn’t that good. MLS legend Brad Davis is another year older and Will Bruin -- a second-tier striker -- remains the club’s featured goal-scorer until Torres arrives from Mexico midseason. Give new management at least another offseason to turn things around.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 50/1

10. Colorado Rapids

KEY ADDITION: Marcelo Sarvas

THE SKINNY: An average roster at best. The Rapids are in that unenviable spot where most of their starters would be bench players everywhere else. Third-year player Dillon Powers is a player to watch. Next to him, former TFC midfielder Sam Cronin will provide a steady head. There are a few other veterans on this roster, but nothing worse salivating over.

BODOG MLS CUP ODDS: 50/1

*Top six teams in each conference make the playoffs, with the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds receiving first-round byes.



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