With preseason about to start for Toronto FC, and having already started for some teams, it's time to start seriously looking forward to the 2012 season, not just the shiny distracting baubles of the Rogers Centre and the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, but the team itself and what we can expect the squad to look like and how well it may or may not do. So over the next few days, to mark the opening of preseason we'll be looking at the squad, who the first choice players would be, what sort of formations TFC will be able to pull off, where they still need improvements all that sort of thing. Hopefully preseason will clarify a lot of those questions, and we'll do a similar series of posts in early March to bookend the preseason.
I'll start today with the goalie question. This is the easy one as we'll obviously always play with just the one goalkeeper, so no formation quandaries here, it's just one straight forward question: Stefan Frei or Milos Kocic?
Frei or Kocic? Kocic or Frei? At the end of last season, common wisdom seemed to be that TFC had 2 goalies who could handle the starting job, and in a salary cap world and with plenty of holes to be filled elsewhere in the squad, that was an unnecessary luxury. Surely one of them would be moved on, the end of season press conference interview they shared suggested they thought the same thing themselves, and most people presumed it would be Frei as that would clear the most salary cap room, and potentially bring back the better player in any trade.
Who knows if TFC even tried to do that, but of course it hasn't happened yet so we're now left with the question of which of the starting quality goalies will be the luxury bench warmer when the season starts. That there's even an argument to be had is testament to the good end to the season enjoyed by Kocic in 2011.
The first thing to look at is, is it really a luxury to have two good goalies, one of whom is sitting on the bench? Well, not really, if you look at the salary cap side of things. This is using the base salary figures released by the players union in September of last year. Now obviously stats are shaky at best, and these figures would be influenced by pro ration, ie Frank Rost didn't play the full year for New York so his full salary didn't count towards the cap. Disclaimers out of the way, the following amounts are the base salary of each teams top 2 goalies last year (3 for FC Dallas as they had 3 goalies making $100,000+, whereas most teams third goalie was making a very small amount that probably didn't count towards the cap.)
NY: $513,250 (Rost at $335,000)
Only D.C United and Houston spent less than TFC on goalies last year. 5 teams spent more than double what TFC did. That $142,000 figure was made up of $100,00 to Frei and $42,000 to Kocic, even if there's raises or renegotiations that might take it up to say $200,000, that's still towards the lower end of the scale, so really there's no reason to say that keeping them both would be hurting the teams ability to maximise the salary cap. Now I've unequivocally established that TFC can happily keep both goalies, and going with the theory that yes, competition's great and all that, but it's always good to have an established number 1 (24? 30? damn squad numbers) which of them should be getting the start in the skydome?
Both goalies obviously have their strengths and weaknesses as displayed last season, and what may end up seperating an obvious first choice is how well they can work with new goalie coach Stewart Kerr to overcome their weaknesses. That would probably be more difficult for Kocic than Frei as his relative weakness when compared to Frei is in his save making ability, which is probably a lot more to do with instincts and natural ability than something that can be taught.
Stefan Frei is clearly the better instinctive shot stopper of the two, but in 2011, admittedly behind a very shaky defence for most of his time in net, he took a real step backwards in other aspects of the game. Coming out for crosses and corners seemed a real adventure for Frei, and he never really seemed to have the same control of his box and organisation that Kocic displayed later in the season. Despite his good shot stopping, he let in a lot more goals, which is a factor of just how many shots he had to face, but it would be wrong to absolve him of all blame for that amount of shots. Frei may be the better goalie, but TFC were a better team in front of Kocic last year, his confidence in coming for balls crossed into the area is something that would really help the defence in front of him.
If Frei can improve that part of his game, and if long awaited but still not yet confirmed defensive improvements arrive, then he will hopefully get back to the form he showed in 2010's more defensively proficient team, which would put him back among the very best goalies in MLS and a clear number one choice.
The main reason I'd say he deserves that chance is seniority. He'll overtake Jim Brennan as TFC's all time appearance leader this year and will probably become the first TFC player to hit the 100 appearance mark and until he was injured in 2011, he was clearly TFC's first choice in goal. While it made sense last year to go with momentum and keep playing Kocic, this is a fresh season, and you have to at least start the season with your main man in goal.
If Frei falters, or gets injured, then TFC would have a capable and competent backup ready to go in Kocic. It's a good luxury to have, and as long as the price doesn't get too high, it's one that's well worth having. Goalkeeping is probably the one area where there aren't big question marks to be resolved over pre season, or improvements needed.