Having conceded more goals than any other goalkeeper in Major League Soccer last season, a trip to face Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez and Co. might not be everyone's idea of a confidence builder. But after finishing out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, Toronto FC goalie Stefan Frei happily welcomed the challenge to train with English Premier League giant Liverpool for a week last month.
"I think it's a really good reality check to see what you need to change in your game to become a great soccer player like the ones over there," Frei said as he rejoined the rest of his teammates for the annual media day in Toronto Thursday.
Though the Swiss-born stopper has dreams of pursuing a career in European soccer at some point, his fourth season in MLS is currently his sole focus, especially with the rare luxury of continuity for the first time in his short tenure with the team. In an almost unprecedented move, head coach Aron Winter – just the second coach to last more than one season at TFC – has returned the bulk of the squad that improved dramatically over the second half of last year, reaching the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time in club history to set up a clash with the Los Angeles Galaxy at Rogers Centre in March.
Describing 2011 as a "false start," the Dutchman has set out predictable aims for the new campaign – making the playoffs, advancing in the Champions League and retaining the Canadian Championship – and the stability provided by a returning group of players will be key to achieving those goals.
"One of the struggles we experienced last season in the early stages was being able to have everyone on the same page," midfielder Julian de Guzman said. "Now, this year, I think it'll be less of a struggle now that there's a lot of guys in the core that have been involved in this for a full year."
Beefed-up back four
Toronto conceded a league-worst 59 goals last year, and shoring up the back line will be key to achieving anything meaningful this season. The acquisition of former loan signing Richard Eckersley on a permanent basis was the first step in that process, and Thursday the club also announced that it had signed Ecuadorean centre back Geovanny Caicedo from Joao Plata's former team, Quito. At 6 foot 2, Caicedo, likened to reigning defender of the year Omar Gonzalez of the Galaxy by director of player development Paul Mariner, should provide some steel at the back, and with the club also looking at signing another South American defender, Toronto's long-term Achilles heel may be a thing of the past.
After coming over from PSV Eindhoven last July, designated player Danny Koevermans gave Toronto FC the cutting edge up front it had been missing since the departure of Dwyane De Rosario three months prior. Eight goals in 10 MLS games showed the former Dutch international's class, and with a full preseason behind him, first-team coach Bob de Klerk says a return of 20 this term is not an unreasonable expectation. Given that no one else still on the roster scored more than three in league play, TFC will likely need every one of those goals.
Left-back Ashtone Morgan proved the flag bearer for the TFC Academy last season, making his debut for the Canadian national team last October after just 12 appearances in MLS. With a number of other academy members in camp, Winter's coaching staff will be counting on them to follow in their teammate's footsteps in making the jump to becoming first-team regulars.