Chris Young | The Star.com
The club that has had no trouble selling out its stadium since day one, but nowhere near that success establishing itself beyond BMO Field, has a wide-open chance to grab the spotlight. (If you’ve watched them at all this year, those wide-open chances aren’t easily converted.)
First there’s the home half of a two-leg qualifier versus the USL’s Puerto Rico Islanders tonight, with the away tie next Tuesday in San Juan. Throw in an MLS date in suburban Boston with the New England Revs on Saturday, and finally Cristiano Ronaldo & Co.’s visit here on Aug. 7. Those two BMO dates especially stick out, against two distinct opponents, with different stakes, in front of two very opposite sets of fans. The best-case scenario would be for TFC to wake up from this run in a healthy daze, with newfound respect, a few extra supporters and a spot in the relatively rarefied air of the CONCACAF Champions League’s final 16.
Worst case? Aches, pains and more grumbling about their surface, surely a topic whose expiry date has passed.
Chris Cummins apparently didn’t think so, with a remark last week that, had it come from his opposite with the Leafs, Raptors or Jays, would have garnered headlines and recriminations. «I think the lads prefer to play away with the grass pitches and things like that,» he told the house TV station, thus making it official. After a first year of operation in which it was taboo to even mention the turf issue, everyone from Mo Johnston and Dwayne De Rosario on down to the stadium janitor publicly loathes it. Upper management’s plan to replace it with fescue is on the record and vigorously put forth, but no one among the hired hands appears ready to deliver a vote of confidence. Meantime, it sits there, everyone’s crutch.
Cummins explained himself some yesterday. It’s hard to train on the aging surface, he said, limiting what can be done. There’s «a spark» that shows up in the team on grass – never mind that their season record on such, three wins in 10 tries, is pretty sparkless. «Don’t get me wrong,» he said, «I’m not saying we don’t like playing at home. We love playing here with 22,000 fans here. But would we love to have grass? Yes. Is it going to happen? Yeah. Eventually.»
We get it, coach. And actually, they will get a grass field – for Real Madrid, one time only, with a matching, unreal sellout crowd, the hardcores having been priced out or fled away disgusted. Much more event than contest, TFC management sees it as a chance to make a little dough and perhaps convert MLS non-believers and Eurosnobs (good luck on that), perhaps even a Real supporter, after they pay up the wazoo for a local appearance by C-Ron, Kaka and the rest. Los Blancos will even practise the day before, «for the kids,» according to the press release, with entry $15.
To the soundtrack of ringing cash registers and with flashbulbs on maximum pop, that Real night figures to offer the third-year MLS team the most exposure globally it has ever received. But after the show ends and the Madrilenos’ specially ordered carpet leaves town trailing rose petals, it’ll be back to reality for TFC: an incomplete squad lacking in defence and stamina, in need of every advantage it can possibly get. Including the home field’s homely surface.
KICKOFF: 8 p.m.
TV: GOL TV RADIO: FAN 590
TFC PROBABLE STARTING XI
Frei, Wynne, Garcia, Gomez, Brennan, Robinson, Cronin, Vitti, De Rosario, Barrett, Gerba
TFC INJURIES: D Nana Attakora (hamstring, out); D Adrian Serioux (knee, doubtful); MF Amado Guevara (ribs, out)
ISLANDERS INJURIES: None
With Amado Guevara out for TFC, Pablo Vitti‘s midfield role will expand, while Sam Cronin returns from duty with the U.S.’s Gold Cup squad. And although coach Chris Cummins wasn’t saying anything officially, 18-year-old Gambian Emmanuel Gomez, who started against River Plate, could get the nod again. He was with the first team partnering Nick Garcia in the centre of defence during a short scrimmage at practice yesterday.
After staggering out of the gate with one win in their first six games, the Islanders have come back to sit third in the 11-team USL Division I standings with a 9-5-8 record.
Cristian Arrieta was the USL’s defender of the year last season, and leads the Islanders this year with seven goals. Arrieta and 2008 USL-1 ‘keeper of the year Bill Gaudette sat out Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Puerto Rico, coached by former Northern Ireland international Colin Clarke, is playing its ninth successive away game. Over those past eight road games, they’ve won two, lost two and played four 0-0 draws, so expect a cautious approach from the visitors.
A slightly new look at BMO Field tonight: a 900-seat aluminum grandstand has been erected over the site of the north-end beer garden, which has been moved back behind the stand.
Winner of this home-and-home advances to the group stage beginning Aug. 18-20 against MLS’s Columbus, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica and the winner of the Cruz Azul (Mexico)-Herediano (Costa Rica) qualifier.