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Feb 28, 2009

Upgrade in talent has Toronto eyeing playoffs

Editor's note: This is the seventh of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. Chivas USA will be previewed Monday.

2008 record and finish: 9-13-8

Key additions: M Dwayne De Rosario, F Pablo Vitti, M Sam Cronin, GK Stephan Frei, F O'Brian White, D Adrian Serioux, GK Stefan Frei

Key losses: D Tyrone Marshall, F Jarrod Smith, D Julius James, D Todd Dunivant, D Hunter Freeman

Three questions facing this team:

1. Will the defense be good enough to get TFC to the playoffs?

TFC managed just one shutout after the All-Star break last year, a sad number considering the seven shutouts posted before the break. What was different? One could point to international fixture dates leaving Toronto short-handed, but what explains all the late goals Toronto allowed during the year? TFC allowed an astonishing eight goals in the 90th minute or later.

Has Toronto addressed the issue? TFC did go out and deal away Jamaican defender Tyrone Marshall and bring in Canadian defender Adrian Serioux, which is an upgrade. The club is on the verge of signing a central defender, which is key because a tandem of Serioux and Kevin Harmse wouldn't exactly instill fear in a stacked Eastern Conference.

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2. How well will Dwayne De Rosario and Amado Guevara work together?

The arrival of hometown hero De Rosario has fans buzzing about what that might mean to the TFC attack, but the real question is how De Rosario's arrival will affect Guevara, a former MLS MVP who has been known for struggling to share the spotlight.

Guevara enjoyed a solid first season in Toronto, and all signs indicate that he is more mature now than he was during his time with the MetroStars, when he sometimes had trouble sharing the spotlight with French star Youri Djorkaeff.

De Rosario is expected to provide a major boost to an offense that struggled badly at times in 2008, but it should be noted that he's coming off a disappointing year by his standards. Whether it was the fatigue of a loaded fixture list for Houston and Canada, or the signs of age, De Rosario will need to get back to his MLS Cup MVP-winning form in order for Toronto to go from playoff outcast to serious contender.

3. Who will score the goals?

When your leading scorer manages just five goals, your team has a problem. That was the issue with Toronto in 2008. There was no go-to goal-scoring threat like a Juan Pablo Angel, Alejandro Moreno or Brian McBride for other Eastern Conference rivals. The 2009 forward crop looks familiar to last year's, but the new faces could have an impact.

Chad Barrett is one of the players back, but he is also a player who tallied a respectable four goals and three assists in 13 games. He was one of the few bright spots in the second half of the season and could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Toronto's loaded midfield.

If there is a leading candidate to emerge as the team's top goal threat, it is Argentine striker Pablo Vitti, who joins Toronto on loan from Independiente. A fast and skillful striker, Vitti has bounced around a bit, with a loan stint in the Ukraine his most recent excursion, but he has the talent to make an impact. He was a member of Argentina's team that won the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Danny Dichio led Toronto with five goals last season, but concussions and injuries limited him to 17 starts. The big Englishman is still a handful in the area and could flourish with steady service from De Rosario, Rohan Ricketts and Guevara.

Biggest X-factor: Pablo Vitti

For all the team's question marks in the back, one can argue that Toronto's biggest X-factor will be whichever central defender the club signs before the start of the season. For now, the focus goes on Vitti, who brings special traits to the forward position that none of the other strikers in the group possesses. Will Vitti actually deliver on that ability? Or will he wind up showing TFC fans why he hasn't settled in at Independiente?

Breakout player to watch: Sam Cronin

It isn't often that a rookie central midfielder steps in and makes a big impact. Toronto has had one of those in its young history in U.S. national team midfielder Maurice Edu. Now TFC could have another in Cronin, whose poise, vision and intelligence on the field should help him make a smooth transition from college to the pro game. The No. 2 pick in the 2009 MLS Draft, Cronin won't be called on to do much creating, but if he can work his way into the starting lineup, he could provide the perfect partner and occasional replacement for standout defensive midfielder Carl Robinson.

John Harkes' Take:
"Another set of underachievers with the best set of support groups in the league. I think No. 1: Dwayne De Rosario. That's the first thing you have to list. Putting his presence into the lineup is going to help them immediately. Of course they have [Amado] Guevara, but whether or not he's going to be playing alongside of him, or what role he's going to play, we're not sure. They also have Sam Cronin, who I'm a big fan of. He's a rookie midfielder coming in this year, played for Jay Vidovich at Wake Forest. I've been following his career in college for the last three years, and I think he's a fantastic player. Keeps it very simple, good vision on the field, plays defensive midfield quite well. So that should give them some stability down the middle of the field as well. And then Rohan Ricketts as well -- he's exciting, but it's got to be a little more consistency with them. They've had so many teams score so many goals against them; their defense has to be a little more organized."

One player who could wind up having a major impact in the second half of the season is O'Brian White. The No. 4 pick in the 2009 MLS draft, White is still recovering from ACL surgery but is expected to be back by the summer. Before the injury, White was considered the best player in college soccer, with blazing speed and nifty moves. If he can regain those strengths after major knee surgery, he could provide a much-needed boost down the stretch.

Outlook: There is plenty of reason for optimism in Toronto. The club landed prodigal son Dwayne De Rosario and recently added another Toronto native in Adrian Serioux. Add that to an impressive haul at the MLS draft and the arrival of Pablo Vitti, and TFC is set for a playoff run in the loaded Eastern Conference.

Toronto has the makings of a playoff team because it boasts talent like never before and is built around a strong and deep midfield. If Carver can get De Rosario, Guevara, Ricketts and Robinson to work together, and if Cronin can live up to the hype surrounding his arrival, TFC could easily boast one of the best midfields in the league.

So what should the team be worried about? The defense is the biggest concern. The Marshall-Harmse center back tandem just wasn't good enough down the stretch. Serioux is an upgrade over Marshall, but upgrading the other center back slot is crucial if Toronto is going to be serious about not only making the playoffs but also challenging the upper-echelon teams in the East like Columbus and Chicago.

Toronto also needs one of its forwards to emerge as the focal point of the attack. The chances should be there with De Rosario and Guevara providing the service. It will be up to Barrett, Vitti or Dichio to give the team a double-digit goal scorer.

A lot of things still need to be resolved as Toronto heads into 2009, but the revamped roster should give Carver and Toronto a fighting chance to reach the postseason. If things don't come together, it will likely be the last chance for Carver and for director of soccer Mo Johnston. If things do come together, TFC will be not only a favorite to make the playoffs for the first time in team history but also a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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