TORONTO - Toronto FC kicked off its pre-season in style Thursday.
Signs proclaiming Toronto FC Media Day decorated the Air Canada Centre as one member of the well-heeled Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment family hosted another.
Head coach Aron Winter and assistant Bob de Klerk arrived in matching suits and red ties. Away from the eyes of reporters, the slick media show continued with players being put through their paces for photo sessions and promotional videos on the arena floor.
Fans of the young, underachieving Major League Soccer franchise will be hoping the glitz off the field translates into some stylish wins on it this season.
Making the playoffs, at the minimum, is a goal for Winter. Continued success in cup competition is another.
TFC supporters might be encouraged by the fact that the well-orchestrated media curtain wasn't raised until the fourth day of training camp. The team spent the first three days going through medicals and taking in what the coaching staff had to say before having their first training session the morning of the official media kickoff.
Winter is as meticulous in his team planning as he is when it comes to his wardrobe.
Entering his second year at the helm, the stylish Dutchman is looking to further advance a franchise that has wobbled from one season to another, discarding coaches and philosophies like losing lottery tickets.
In its five years to date, Toronto FC has failed to make the playoffs. And last year, the team finished 16th out of 18 teams with a 6-13-15 record and a defence that leaked a league-worst 59 goals.
"Last season was a very difficult season," said Winter. "(But) it was completely different between the first five months and the last five months."
"Last season we ended very well," he added. "How we ended, that's the way we want to start."
The squad will be put to the test before the regular season kicks off in mid-March. Toronto will host David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 7 at Rogers Centre in the opening leg of the CONACACF Champions league quarter-final.
Winter remade his roster in mid-season last year, introducing designated players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans and others in mid-July. Gradually his team began to take shape.
Frings became the midfield leader and captain, dropping back into defence to help in some games. Koevermans found his scoring touch with his fitness.
Ryan Johnson and Joao Plata offered attack from midfielder while Canadian Julian de Guzman showed improvement in his return from knee surgery.
The Toronto FC academy also began to pay dividends, with Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson and Doneil Henry playing their part.
An injury-ravaged defence remains an issue. But Winter hopes that will change with the addition of Ecuadorian international centre back Geovanny Caicedo. Winter suggested a Chilean defender may be next through the door.
The team has gone through the roster in the off-season, discarding players — some taken on in mid-season last year as makeshift solutions — who did not pan out.
"We're very happy with the roster," said Winter.
Earl Cochrane, director of team and player operations, said unlike previous years, the squad is largely already in place.
"We're going into this season with a handful of roster places available," he said. "We've got a number of guys fighting for a handful of spots which is a vast difference from what we've had before."
Like most coaches, their hope is to have two players per position to help make it through the season.
There have not been many other additions other than Bermudian midfielder Reggie Lambe, American defender Jeremy Hall and players taken in the MLS SuperDraft and supplemental draft.
Midfielder Luis Silva, taken fourth overall in the SuperDraft, offers the team more attacking options.
"As a management team you're never totally satisfied with your squad. You're always looking for that extra player but we understand the constraints," said Paul Mariner, director of player development. "We've got a decent squad together and it's a happy locker-room."
Defenders Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams are still some time away from returning from long-term knee injuries. Cann was on the pitch Thursday but probably won't be ready to start the Galaxy game. Winter said Williams will take even longer.
Toronto FC has taken care of another issue by signing on-loan defender Richard Eckersley and Plata. Both are key members of the squad.
Who starts in goal remains an interesting question with Milos Kocic and Stefan Frei both seeing first-team action last season.
Winter and De Klerk arrived last January, inheriting a roster they didn't like and a pre-season itinerary that took them halfway round the world to Turkey.
This time, they will remain in Toronto before heading to Orlando in two weeks for a training camp and tournament that also features the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact.
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