The players have reported to camp, turned their heads and coughed awkwardly for the medical staff and got a few training sessions in, and this year were spared the whole media day thing. The lucky bastards are off to Florida and 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 and formation would be if the season were to start now, and look at where there's still work to do to bolster the squad between now and March 15th.
We'll bookend this with a post-pre-season series as well, when things will hopefully look clearer after the dust has settled, players have come and gone and a preferred first team and formation will be apparent. The 'it's nice to have a more or less full squad to start pre season for a change' jokes have almost become cliche (and are actually a bit harsh to the 2012 off season), but it's true, there does seem to be decent options for almost any position and some genuine competition and selection quandries to be figured out in the next month and a half, with the option of a loan to Wilmington Hammerheads (whoever ends up going down there, I hereby propose we call them loan sharks.) being an extra wrinkle to figure out.
Not really today though, as I'm starting with an easy one, Goalkeeper.
With Stefan Frei taking his big contract off to Seattle, there's no debate at all here. Joe Bendik took his opportunity last year and ran with it, proving he's up to the job of being the number one. Hopefully his salary is improved, just not improved too much, and he can be that number one option for a few years. Frei's 2 1/2 season run from 2009 to halfway through 2011 is still sadly the closest TFC have had to having a stable, safe option back there like a lot of good teams seem to have.
The improved quality ahead of him should help Bendik, at least in one way. TFC should be playing with a hell of a lot more attacking intent than they did last year, keeping possession more, scoring more goals and generally making life easier for whoever's in goal. Add in a theoretically improved defence and Bendik's workload should be considerably decreased and the goals against should go down nicely, giving all the fancy new players up front a real chance to win plenty of games.
Somewhat counter intuitively though, to me at least, it may end up making Bendik himself look worse, and not just in the obvious sense of being less noticeable, with fewer highlight reel saves to be made, but also as far as his stats go. This article by Ben Massey at Maple Leaf Forever looks a goalie stats and the effect of the number of saves on a goalie's save %. There's a looooot of words and numbers and fancy graphs, all very interesting if you're into stat analysis stuff, but here's the crucial sentence for this paragraph.
...a goalkeeper will generally be flattered a bit if he has no help from his defenders, and he'll be a bit underrated if he's behind an excellent defensive team.
The stats (without a way of taking into account the quality of chances faced) show that facing a higher number of shots generally leads to a better save%, which makes Bendik's actually quite poor 65% from last season (only Dan Kennedy and Carlo Cudicini were worse among those that played regularly, check out Massey's article linked above for a graph (the one entitled save percentage of regular MLS goalies 2008-2012) that shows just how poor 65% is, historically speaking) a bit worrisome, TFC's shooting gallery should have helped him, not hindered him.
Hopefully there'll be a lot more games when Bendik doesn't need to be the hero, and he'll be able to have a mediocre, quietly effective season behind an improved team. We'll see.
It should be very interesting to see if Bendik improves in the one area everyone saw as a weakness last year, his distribution. I very much believe all the long balls were him following orders from Nelsen, and my thought was that it was simply a case of needing to play that way, the overall lack of quality making the 'hoofball' a better and safer option than trying to pass our way from the back. I think it's safe to say that Bright Dike won't be starting up front, and neither Gilberto or Jermain Defoe are your classic target man up front, and there's also a lot more skill players to be playing a more refined game with, so hopefully there will be a change in tactics and emphasis and Bendik will be making a lot of shorter passes to his defenders this year.
Behind Bendik, well Chris Konopka is set to be the understudy faithfully sitting on the bench awaiting his chance, maybe getting some games in the Voyageurs Cup. But then of course that's we all figured Bendik's role would be last year, so there's few guarantees really.
Quillan Roberts is 3rd on the depth chart, and probably a prime candidate for a season long loan to the Hammerheads. That will partially depend on Wilmington of course, would they accept the idea of giving a lot of playing time to a teenager in goal? If not and he's only going to be training there, then he may as well stick with TFC. Either way though, this won't be the year he makes it to the matchday 18.