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Mar 24, 2010

Preki takes on rebuilding project in Toronto

2009 record and finish: 10-11-9, 39 points

Key additions: D Ty Harden (Colorado), F Jacob Peterson (Colorado)

Key losses: F Danny Dichio (Toronto assistant coach), F Ali Gerba, M Amado Guevara (CD Motagua), D/M Kevin Harmse, M Rohan Ricketts (Diosgyori VTK), M Carl Robinson (New York), D Adrian Serioux (Houston), D Marco Velez, F Pablo Vitti (San Martin)

Key questions:

1. How soon can coach Preki make this his team?

Carl Robinson and Adrian Serioux were the first to go, traded for draft picks. Less than two weeks before the start of the season, Ali Gerba was banished from training camp. Gerba produced only one goal in 11 appearances last season, but previously had impressive strike rates at the club and international levels. Preki said later he wanted a different type of forward, sending a message to the remaining players that he would be demanding all-around play.

2. Goal scoring, anyone?

In six preseason games against MLS teams, Toronto scored only once. Ugandan trialist Vicente Kayizzi provided two of the team's three preseason goals. The scoring drought was especially noticeable since none of the team's forwards produced a goal.

3. Roster depth?

Toronto barely survived the preseason, partly because of injuries, and players noted it would be difficult to succeed in the regular season without more reserve strength. Strikers Chad Barrett and Jacob Peterson both were out for most of the preseason, but Peterson returned to training and is expected to be available soon.

4. Is the grass greener?

When the BMO Field was constructed, Canadian national-team players objected about the artificial surface; several said they were unwilling to join Toronto FC because of it. Now a grass field has been installed, and it should suit the style of players such as Julian de Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario.

MLS team previews

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC
Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas

Biggest X factor: Newcomers

Preki was confident of adding defender Adrian Cann and midfielder Martin Saric, who both performed in key roles as preseason trialists. If Cann comes through, he could help settle the defense. Saric could solve some of the team's midfield problems after the loss of Robinson.

Breakout player to watch: Julian de Guzman

Possibly the best midfield creator in his country's history, de Guzman was the first Canadian to perform in Spain's La Liga, becoming Deportivo La Coruna player of the year in 2008. De Guzman moved to Toronto as a designated player last season, but he was not around long enough (five games) to make a major impact. De Guzman and Robinson failed to mesh from the start, and Robinson is gone, leaving the midfield director role to de Guzman, who will be expected to choreograph the team's destiny and also be the face of the team off the field.

Outlook:

Toronto has been transformed in a year. The coaching situation always seemed unsettled under John Carver and Chris Cummins. Now, Preki represents relative stability, because he has been with the MLS as a player or coach since 1996. But Preki has been cutting and pasting since arriving on the scene, starting with the departures of Robinson and Serioux, continuing with Gerba. The defense in front of Stefan Frei will be built around Nick Garcia, a former Preki teammate in Kansas City. Marvel Wynne has been up and down at right back, but his speed and ability to threaten in attack can change the dynamic of games. Nana Attakora and Ty Harden also figure into the defensive mix.

De Guzman should hit the ground running this season, supported by Sam Cronin, Gabe Gala and, possibly, Saric in midfield. There is little doubt of de Guzman's ability to set up strikers -- now all Preki has to do is find finishers. De Rosario, who scored 12 goals last season, is not a pure striker, but he is effective playing off an experienced forward. De Rosario's free kicks and long-distance threat are among the best in the league. O'Brian White adds speed up front, but Toronto will be counting on the recovery of Barrett and Peterson.

The feeling is that Preki's building project is far from finished. Preki was among the most dynamic offensive threats in the history of the MLS as a player, but his Chivas USA teams emphasized defending and organization, becoming a combative group that concluded last season in a brawl after being eliminated by the Galaxy. Preki is building Toronto FC from the back, and he has one of the league's best goalkeepers in Frei. The next Preki priority is to find a forward to replace Gerba.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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