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TFC still undecided on where to stage CCL quarter-final match

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For Toronto FC, the celebration and glow of making it to the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) knockout stage is over, but the preparation for the quarter-final is just beginning.

There is no doubt about it, this will be a tough start to the 2012 season. The quarter is expected to be its first competitive game of the year, only days removed from training camp — and it will be its biggest match in franchise history.

From just about any way you look at it, there are a lot of questions to be answered as to how TFC approaches the game. The first question to answer will be where to play — BMO Field or Rogers Centre?

When the Montreal Impact advanced to the CCL knockout stage in 2009, the team filled Olympic Stadium with a record crowd of over 55,000 supporters in a quarterfinal match against Mexican club Santos Laguna. The appeal to do something similar in Toronto is there. Earl Cochrane, TFC’s Director of Team and Player Operations, said what Montreal achieved that year was remarkable and he will contact the Impact to discuss its experience for advice and suggestions.

“It was an enormous day for Canadian soccer,” said Cochrane. “If we could duplicate something like that it would be spectacular.”

But he admits that there are a lot of issues to consider before settling on playing in the Rogers Centre.

“We’re looking at both options,” said Cochrane. “The challenges here (at BMO Field) are obvious. The field is the least of our worries. We can get the field up and running and ready to play and be in great shape. It’s all the other stuff in and around — the stands, making sure they’re safe, plumbing, restrooms, amenities.

“Weigh that versus being in an indoor building and it’s an easy one. But then you’ve got the challenges of a different venue, we got obligations here to partners, sponsors, and all those things — so marrying the two. But we’ll be making a decision very, very soon. Hopefully by the time the draw happens, but certainly in and around it.”

There are pros and cons to either venue, but when it comes down to it the weather in March, it is just too unpredictable.

“We have to be honest, in that period in March you never know how the forecast is going to be,” said Head Coach and Technical Director Aron Winter. “And to the play here, maybe the pitch is good enough to play but when it’s going to go snowing very hard and you don’t have a crowd, that’s also not nice.

“I prefer always to play on normal pitch, on grass, but it depends on first of all on who you going to play. I think it’s a special and a lot of people want to watch the game. If it’s necessary to play in the Rogers Centre then we should do it.”

Some of TFC’s management had the opportunity to see the turf used for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills-Washington Redskins game on Sunday and they were not overly impressed. The option to bring in a natural surface brings more logistical and financial questions to answer. Whatever the team decides to choose, CONCACAF has no regulations on the turf used in games.

“These guys went and saw the surface prior to the Redskins-Bills game and it was OK,” said Cochrane. “What they can do to groom it and get it to the level we’re looking for is debatable.

“The challenge we have with natural surfaces is where do we get it from. What would it take to get up here…and all those sorts of things is going to weigh into that decision.”

When asked about choosing to play outdoors in the cold to have an advantage over its opponents who are based in warm climates, Winter admitted it could be a benefit for his club, but he is more concerned with the team being prepared as a whole.

“I think when you’re playing in a full stadium it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter if it’s here or in the Rogers Centre. It depends on how we’re doing in the preseason — how fit and … be focused is more important than where to play the game.

“Of course it could be an advantage but when you got an opponent that is very strong and an opponent that is not strong you always saying the better team is going to win. But soccer is strange. You can never say before it’s an advantage.”

Depending on the chosen venue, Winter will have to train his players according to the surface on which the game will be played. If the game is played in the Rogers Centre, Winter envisions his club training there to get used to the playing conditions.

Carolina Challenge Cup scrubbed
Regardless, the team will start its preparations in the third week of January and will once again have a camp in Orlando for two weeks. From there the club is looking to return home for two weeks for training and then play some friendlies, but the club will not return to Carolina for the Challenge Cup as in past seasons.

As for the TFC’s opponent in the first knockout stage, that has yet to be determined. The draw for the quarterfinals will take place Nov. 8 at the CONCACAF offices in New York. Since Toronto finished runner up to Pumas UNAM in its group, it will face any of the other three group winners — L.A. Galaxy, Santos Laguna or the defending CCL champs Monterrey.

Olympic Stadium was packed for the CCL quarter-final in 2009; could Toronto do the same? PHOTO: STEVEN SANDOR, THE11.CA FILE
Olympic Stadium was packed for the CCL quarter-final in 2009; could Toronto do the same? PHOTO: STEVEN SANDOR, THE11.CA FILE

Where TFC and the Galaxy may be at a disadvantage is that the Mexican clubs will have already started their regular season while the MLS clubs will have yet to play a meaningful game. For that reason and, of course L.A.’s big names like David Beckham — if he returns — Winter would prefer to play the Galaxy first.

“I think when we’re playing in the quarterfinal of the CONCACAF Champions League I think at that moment all the opponents are strong,” said Winter. The Mexican teams have done it very well if you watch the whole history in the past. They always come far or winning the CONCACAF.”

“I think for the crowd it should be nice for LA — they’ve got big names for the crowd, a nice game. They are also starting the same period of the preseason like we are doing — that’s the same…but it doesn’t matter because if you want to go further on you have to beat everybody.”

Added Cochrane, “They’re all very talented teams, obviously, the difference is that L.A. is in the same boat that we are…the other two teams are a quarter of the way or a fifth of the way into their season. For me that’s the only thing that jumps out.”

The possible dates for the first leg at home are March 6,7 and 8 while the away leg will take place on either March 13, 14 or 15. The games will all be midweek and will be either kickoff at 8 or 10 p.m. ET. The 2012 MLS season is projected to start sometime in between the two quarterfinal legs.

Despite all the questions surrounding its CCL date in March, Winter is just happy to have a normal preseason. This year he came into camp with a lot of trialists and wasn’t sure what he had with the roster he inherited. After a full season of evalauating his squad and making numerous changes, he is more prepared for the upcoming season — whether it’s the Champions League or MLS.

“It’s a normal preseason,” said Winter. “We have to prepare also with our minds that if you’re going to play the CONCACAF game or the start of the league that we’re ready to play, doesn’t matter which game.”

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