It’s an oft-repeated phrase, but there really is no off-season in soccer any more, and we’re not even talking about the sport’s best players who kill time between World Cups and European championships with seemingly never-ending seasons in La Liga, the English Premier League and Serie A.
No, even the lesser lights plying their trade in Major League Soccer are expected to fulfill more and more fixtures these days, what with the league having exploded in size from 10 teams in 2004 to the 19 that will take the field next March with the addition of the Montreal Impact. One of those fixtures in particular is already giving Toronto FC headaches, fully five months before it’s due to take place, with the club breaking new ground by reaching the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
That match - against an opponent to be decided when the draw is held on Nov. 8 - will take place on either March 6, 7, or 8, days before the 2012 MLS regular season kicks off in earnest, and with weather in Southern Ontario being what it is it at that time of year, there’s a good chance the club will be forced to leave behind the raucous atmosphere of BMO Field in favour of the cavernous expanse of Rogers Centre.
“We’re looking at both options,” Earl Cochrane, director of team and player operations, said on Wednesday at the 22,000-seater BMO Field. “The challenges here are obvious.”
While the pitch is “the least of our worries,” according to Cochrane - due to the benefits of under-soil heating - it’s ensuring the safety of spectators and the viability of getting all the other game-day factors up and running that will weight heaviest in the decision, expected to be taken in the next week or so.
Of course, if TFC happens to draw the Los Angeles Galaxy - one of three possibilities, along with Mexican clubs Santos Laguna and defending champion Monterrey - holding the game at a 50,000-plus-seater facility would certainly be an attractive proposition to the club’s owner, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, assuming David Beckham returns for a sixth season in Galaxy white. But giving up the advantage of playing in nail-biting cold - which would certainly present another challenge to both Mexican clubs, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles - in favour of what would surely be a financial windfall is maybe not the kind of message TFC wants to give out just days before it embarks on its sixth season, with the MLS playoffs still uncharted territory.
When pressed, both head coach Aron Winter and director of player development Paul Mariner admitted the home-field advantage of playing at BMO Field should be the biggest consideration in the decision, with the chance to advance to the semi-finals of the tournament more important than any financial gain to be had from selling 50,000 tickets to Rogers Centre, although Winter did stress that “it is a special game and a lot of people want to watch it.”
Soccer fans in this country still remember well the impression the Montreal Impact made at this stage of the tournament three years ago, beating Santos Laguna 2-0 in front of 55,571 at the Olympic Stadium.
“That was spectacular,” Cochrane said.
But the location of that match isn’t the only pressing matter for the club these days. With Montreal joining the league next season, TFC shortly has to decide who to expose in the expansion draft, and a list of protected players has to be submitted to MLS by Nov. 21. “There are some no-brainers,” Cochrane said with regards to who would be left unprotected, “but there are other decisions that we’re thinking about that may affect that. But we’ve talked about it.”
And beyond that there is the requisite scouting to be done, with personnel being dispatched to Europe and down to the United States to observe some NCAA players likely to be available in next year’s SuperDraft.
But then, when you haven’t made the playoffs in six years, the off-season is the time to try to fix what ails you.