When Robert Earnshaw arrived in Vancouver ahead of today's Major League Soccer clash against the Whitecaps, he knew just about as much about his new Toronto FC teammates as they already knew about each other. That is, next to nothing.
Although the 2012 MLS season ended when Los Angeles Galaxy lifted the trophy for the second year in a row last December, Toronto's preparations for the 2013 campaign didn't get serious until this week, until three months of lead-up time had suddenly become three days.
On Tuesday, club captain Torsten Frings announced his retirement from professional soccer, and in the two days that followed Toronto signed four players, including Earnshaw, before adding a fifth -- former Portsmouth midfielder Darel Russell -- on Friday.
Now, while Toronto has built the template for how not to build and operate an MLS club, this off-season was erratic even by their standards. Kevin Payne was poached from D.C. United to serve as TFC president in late November, and after dithering over the future of former manager Paul Mariner, whom he eventually sacked, he took until the second week of January to appoint a replacement.
Only, that replacement has yet to coach a game of soccer in his life and until the end of January was a defender for Premier League side Queens Park Rangers -- former New Zealand international Ryan Nelsen.
Toronto's astonishingly random approach to laying the groundwork for the club's seventh season in MLS likely indicates an end result as forgettable as the previous six, but thankfully for soccer fans in Canada there are two other clubs to keep an eye on, both of which should be competing for playoff spots come the fall.
Vancouver Whitecaps -- Toronto's opponent today (5:30 p.m., TSN) -- qualified for the post-season in 2012 and are bringing back the core of the team that was the first in Canada to make the MLS playoffs.
Manager Martin Rennie will have a handful of options in attack, including exciting sophomore Darren Mattocks, the Brazilian Camilo and former Celtic and Rangers striker Kenny Miller; and Nigel Reo-Coker -- the former West Ham and Aston Villa midfielder -- will stitch things together in the centre of midfield.
Andy O'Brien and Jay DeMerit give the Whitecaps a solid tandem in the centre of defense, and former South Korea international Young-Pyo Lee will look to chip in offensively from his fullback position.
If Seattle, San Jose and Los Angeles are the top group of teams in the Western Conference, Vancouver heads up a second trio that also includes FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Of course, one of the six won't make the playoffs.
Over in the Eastern Conference, which is likely to be propped up by Toronto, are Montreal Impact, coming into their second MLS season.
Like Toronto, Montreal made a coaching change during the winter, but unlike TFC the Impact hired an experienced, well-respected bench boss in former Basel and BSC Young Boys manager Marco Schällibaum. Multilingual, Schällibaum will be tasked with communicating to a very international squad that includes players from Argentina, France, Italy, Switzerland and several other countries.
But it's the Italian contingent he'll be most bothered about.
Former AC Milan and Italy defender Alessandro Nesta will be spending his first full season at the club, and his performances will be absolutely vital to a team that conceded 51 times last season -- the second-worst defensive record in the East after Toronto.
Nesta will have fellow Italian Matteo Ferrari alongside in defence, but several of his countrymen will function in attack as well.
Designated player Marco Di Vaio scored five goals for Montreal last season and will be targeting at least double that amount this time around while Andrea Pisanu will add a bit of depth.
Ironically, despite the international flavour in the team Montreal's most important player will be Patrice Bernier -- a Canadian. The 33-year-old was a pleasant surprise in 2012 and won the Player of the Month award for August.
Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City look to be the three best teams in the Eastern Conference on paper, but Montreal could well make a push for the playoffs and will be challenged in that regard by D.C. United and Chicago Fire.
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