With the MLS season pretty much meaningless before it even began for Toronto FC, I've been all over the cup competitions. I called the games against Edmonton the biggest games of the season. The Voyageur Cup games against Vancouver were the most important, season defining games of the season. The Real Esteli qualifiers were the biggest games of the season. Again, and by the time the group stage came along, I'd lapsed into Bachelorette style parody, calling almost every game The. Most. Important. Game. Of. The. Season. All those games have been leading to this Tuesday's game against Dallas, literally a win or bust game to see who qualifies for the CCL quarter finals starting in March, so you'd think I'd be frothing at the mouth by now.
You'd be wrong. Don't get me wrong, in a way I am, as I think this could well be the most important game in TFC's history, but looking strictly at 2011, is it the biggest of this season? I don't think so.
For me, I had fairly low expectations results wise for 2011, and about all I was really hoping for was that TFC would look like they're on the right track, and be doing well enough that there wouldn't be serious off season debate about whether Aron Winter and co should be fired and we start all over again, ideally combined with a good distracting cup run. They've done that, especially since the squad reboot in July they've looked a lot better, I'm genuinely confident for next year and whatever happens, this season has remained relevant right up until the last week. Even if TFC were to lose on Tuesday, I'd like to think most fans wouldn't be writing this season off as another failure.
For me, the Voyageur's cup win over Vancouver was the most important for this season. If that had been lost, this whole CCL thing wouldn't have happened, the season would have been over with 4 months left, interest would have dwindled among supporters and there'd have been a lot less patience and belief in Winter when the squad was being rebuilt and important or well liked players like Alan Gordon, Maicon Santos, Tony Tchani and Nana Attakora were being shipped out. So, no it's not the biggest game of this season. Where Tuesday's game gets really important is what it means for next season and beyond.
Throughout it's history, TFC have been frustratingly unprepared for the start of the season and have effectively used the first few regular season games to finish off pre season and finalise their squad, wasting points in the process. In 2010, the squad was still being very haphazardly put together as the season started, letting in 10 goals in the first 4 games before Preki's defensive teachings and the presence of Adrian Cann finally led to more consistent play. This season was no different, with the Dwayne De Rosario situation dragging into the start of the season, 22 players used within the first 3 games, and Alan Stevanovic, Dicoy Williams and Richard Eckersley all arriving well after the season had started.
What a CCL quarter final to be played in early March will give TFC, is a massive incentive to finally, for once, get their shit together on time and be ready to go for the start of the season. This time it wouldn't just be 2 or 3 games out of a 34 game season they'd be potentially messing up, but the two biggest games in the club's history, not to mention a huge opportunity to grab the city's imagination and reinvigorate the fanbase.
A fifth consecutive losing playoff less season has got to have a lot of people wondering about whether it's worth keeping going, especially as MLSE seem reluctant to lower the prices to a more realistic level. If all we have to look forward to in March is just the same old same old start to a regular season, then without a major off-season signing or two, there won't really be much to get people enthused. It will be a long hard slog to win the fans back over, but if, if, there's a big game against a glamorous opponent, in the quarter finals of the Champions league for the entire continent, then that's something to get people excited about. It would be a shortcut to getting the fans back on board, and a guarantee of a big splash in the media (well, unless those damn Leafs are making a playoff run.) and is MLSE really going to let an opportunity like that pass without exploiting it to the fullest? I doubt it.
A lot of next year's preseason work has already been done with the massive squad rehaul that took place in July, but having at least two important games right at the start of the season will ensure that everything possible is done to help the management team get players signed up and the first team sorted out well before those games. Even if those games are lost, that would be a very important thing for next year's MLS campaign, and combined with the renewed supporter enthusiasm those games would bring, could get the whole club back on track after a few frustratingly lost years. I genuinely believe we're heading in the right direction, having a quarter final to plan for would be a huge boost towards getting there sooner rather than later.