The players have reported to camp, turned their heads and coughed awkwardly for the medical staff and trotted out all the cliches for the cameras at media day. Pre-season is well under way. In a series of articles over the next few days, we'll examine the state of TFC's squad, hazard a guess at what the starting lineup would be if the season were to start now, and look at where there's still a lot of work to do to bolster the squad between now and March 2nd.
We'll bookend this with a post-pre-season series as well, where we'll hopefully be able to look back at all this with a hearty chuckle from a much more confidence inspiring place. Anyway, we'll start off with an easy one; goalkeepers.
As Milos Kocic somewhat bitterly but somewhat justifiably confirmed, Stefan Frei is the man in Toronto, the undisputed number one. Last year there was a genuine contest between Frei and Kocic, Frei got the first game, then Kocic got a run of games, then Frei got injured and it all became a moot point, with Kocic taking the reins before sharing duties with Freddy Hall towards the end of the season. The fertile Serb is now of course enjoying life in Portland, and Hall is thankfully also no longer around. Joe Bendik came from Portland to fill the role of reliable back up, while Quillan Roberts will hopefully get the playing time needed for his development with the reserves, or perhaps by being loaned out to a CSL team as Kocic was in 2010.
So we're all good? Clearly defined roles, with everyone more than good enough to play those roles? Well theoretically yes, though really it's all going to come down to two things, both of which give plenty of room for doubt, the ability of the team in front of Frei, and also his ability to remain healthy for the season.
It's odd that certain players get labelled as injury prone and unreliable, and others don't, and for some reason Frei's never invited that scrutiny, despite picking up a couple of injuries in 2011, and the long season ender in 2012. Hopefully that's just bad luck that's now behind him and he can go on to play the vast majority of games this season. If he can, well that brings us to how well can he play, which is another thing that's more of a question mark than the general concensus would have you believe.
So far, Frei's had one genuinely impressive year with TFC, in 2010. In 2009 he showed a lot of potential, combined with weaknesses exposed by an often shaky defence in front of him. 2010, for the most part behind a stable defence anchored by Adrian Cann and Nana Attakora that was organised by Preki and had a teamwide defensive focus helping out, was when Frei seemed to really cement his status as a bona fide, no question, better than average MLS starter. With a defence he could rely on, he looked confident coming for crosses, a welcome addition to the excellent shot stopping he'd shown previously.
2011 though was a much different situation. A chaotic ever changing defence, marshalled ineffectively by Aron Winter led to Frei having to face what was in effect a shooting gallery, and the effect was noticeable as he was much less effective and by the summer was looking shellshocked. It's a similar thing that happened to Kocic, who after an impressive end to 2011 behind what was usually a 5 man defence, got progressively worse throughout 2012.
Can Frei rebound in 2012 and be the goalie we saw in 2010? Hopefully so, at the very least he should be fresh and eager rather than the beaten down figure he became in 2011. How long he can remain that way will probably rely on how the team plays on front of him. We shouldn't be expecting miracles from Frei, but he can be a good steady slightly better than average goalie, with a good defence in front of him, that'll work out very nicely. If Ryan Nelsen can't get an organised defence going, well Frei won't stop us from having another ugly goals against column.
As for Bendik, well this article reassures me that he can be a decent backup and come in and play a few games here and there without letting the team down, which is about all you need really. Hopefully Frei can keep fit and that is all we need him for. If so, then I'm very comfortable with the goalie situation as is. Nothing more to be done here, if only Frei would switch to wearing number 1.