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Three questions with Waking The Red

We spoke with James Grossi of Waking The Red, SB Nation’s Toronto FC blog, about the upcoming match between TFC and the Union.

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Brotherly Game) This is the first time these two clubs have faced one another this year. What's different between this year's team and last year's team?

James Grossi, Waking The Red) It is indeed a little odd that two teams who look to be battling for the top places in the Eastern Conference have yet to meet – Philadelphia is in fact the last new team that TFC will face in 2016.

How does one sum up the change that a season makes? The beginning is as good a place to start as any; or should it be the end...

It all began with that depressing series of losses in Montreal that closed 2015. Toronto and their fans have long been desperate for a home playoff match – the city has hosted an MLS Cup, but not a TFC playoff game. And heading into the last day of the season, the club could have assured themselves one.

But instead a 2-1 loss to the Impact saw them drop to sixth, necessitating a knockout round rematch with Montreal – they could have jumped as high as third, thereby hosting the match instead.

They would go on to lose 3-0, all three conceded in a 21-minute spell. It was humbling; embarrassing.

But Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney set about implementing the lessons learned immediately.

They were quick to address needs in the off-season. Drew Moor was signed as one of the first free-agents in MLS history – Justin Mapp beat him by a day or two. Then Steven Beitashour was acquired via trade with Vancouver. And days before Christmas, yet another gift, as Canadian international Will Johnson joined from Portland.

And come January, they were still not done, adding Clint Irwin as the undisputed starting keeper.

That is the long way of saying that Toronto addressed all of their key needs – a goalkeeper, a starting calibre right-back, and a true centre-back leader – while also bringing home an MLS Cup champion twice over in Johnson, who was born in Toronto, but has led a wandering existence.

And most importantly, the club finally accepted that MLS is its own beast; to be successful in the shorter term, one needs players who know the league, instead of risking an overseas acquisition will not acclimate. All four of those players have years of experience with the intricacies, the trials and tribulations, the peccadillos and whatnot, of a league that spans the summer heat of Texas and the March bite of a Toronto winter, throwing in the eternal humidity of a Florida August for fun, all while crisscrossing a massive continent.

When Bill Manning closed last season, having just joined the club as president, he stated that the primary goal was to decrease the number of goals conceded. TFC lead the league in that unwanted figure, a whopping 58 in 34 matches, or roughly 1.71 per game. Even if Sebastian Giovinco is scoring by the bucketful, a team simply cannot concede almost two goals every time they trot out.

This season, in contrast, they have allowed just 25 through 24 matches, or 1.04 per; a much more manageable figure.

In addition to that most striking of differences, with the club's brain trust, now in their third season, more-or-less, they have built not just a first team, but a squad.

When Jozy Altidore pulled up mid-May with another hamstring issue. Jordan Hamilton and Mo Babouli, two homegrown players on the fringe of the first team stepped up and produced.

When Michael Bradley and Will Johnson were injured – in the Copa America Centenario and the final of the Voyageurs Cup, respectively – guys like Jay Chapman, Tsubasa Endoh, Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, and perhaps most vitally, Benoit Cheyrou, the sage French midfielder, filled in the void.

And when Clint Irwin hobbled off in Orlando, Alex Bono, the sixth-overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft out of Syracuse University, stepped in, barely missing a beat – there was one costly gaffe in San Jose, but that aside, he has been excellent.

There will always be injuries, so clubs need more than a starting eleven; they need depth in every position and this TFC is at least two deep in every spot.

tBG) After a bit of a slow start, Toronto hasn't lost in their last five, winning four in a row to start the streak. What's changed, and is this run of form sustainable?

WTR) Two things have really marked the last run of matches: they were largely at home and Giovinco found his scoring boots after a run of nine matches without a goal – his longest in MLS.

The first four, all of which TFC won, were at home and they outscored their opponents 12-2. Impressive, even if the calibre of opponent wasn't the most difficult. D.C. United, Chicago, and Columbus are all struggling sides; Salt Lake, the best of the bunch was the closest fought, with TFC winning 1-0.

And the most recent result, a 1-1 draw in Houston was a strange one. The Dynamo themselves are no great shakes these days – bottom of the West, but tough to beat – and TFC were up a man for the entire second half, so in many ways a single point was an underachievement, even given the circumstances of the rescheduling of the match by 24 hours.

Giovinco has seven goals and four assists over the run, an impressive feat, no doubt.

And much of that was accomplished without the services of several key players. Both Altidore and Bradley were reintroduced to the side. Bradley starting the last two and Altidore getting the start in Houston after a run of substitute appearances – the oft-criticized Altidore has three goals and an assist in 186 minutes of play and looked the best player on the pitch in Houston.

As to whether the run can continue, that remains to be seen. Both Johnson and Irwin are nearing returns – Johnson was on the bench in Houston – though the club did pick up a few new injuries, which have Justin Morrow and Mark Bloom potentially sidelined for Saturday.

Getting such important pieces fresh and healthy for this crucial stretch can only be a good thing, while the rest of the squad has had plenty of playing time to get up to pace if called upon.

One aspect playing in their favour is that, due to the extended road trip to start the season – eight matches to be precise – the club will play six of their remaining ten games at home.

A lot is weighted in their favour for a strong finish, but it is up to them to get it done.

tBG) Toronto seems to be developing a lot of homegrown talent. Talk to me a bit about the TFC Academy - the history, the players that have come out of the Academy, and what the future holds not only for the Academy but also how that relates to the future of TFC and Canadian soccer.

WTR) That's a big question...

Canada can be a funny place sometimes. Full of contradictions and peculiarities.

The U.S. is a big country, full of wide open spaces with dense population centres. Canada is the same, only more so. The country is bigger by 160 000 square kilometres (apologies, metric system) – only Russia is more vast, but Canada has one-tenth the population of the States.

The population density south of the border is roughly 33 per km2 , whereas Canada's is less than 4. Only Australia is less dense amongst the larger nations.

Furthermore, the majority of the population is clustered around the southern border – as anybody who has seen the movie Canadian Bacon is well aware. 75% of the populace lives 161 km (or 100 miles) from the border.

In Ontario, the province that contains Toronto, 94% of the population lives in Southern Ontario, accounting for roughly 35% of the total Canadian population.

That is a long way of saying Toronto has a lot to choose from in a close proximity, while also exhibiting some of the structural challenges that have made developing the game difficult.

Those numbers are likely why TFC's exclusive zone, the area where they have sole rights to a player is limited to a 50-mile radius around their training ground, whereas Vancouver gets all of Canada minus TFC's zone and the province of Quebec, while Montreal gets the whole province of Quebec to itself, as well as shared rights with the other two in Atlantic Canada and the rest of Ontario. The Impact get a whole province exclusively, the Whitecaps get four, and TFC has just that tiny radius.

It is that sheer space that has made developing a national program so difficult. The distances involved in a provincial team, let alone a national one, can be daunting.

It manages to work in hockey because of the sheer numbers involved in the youth game, feeding into various larger and larger regional leagues, all building towards the CHL, three independent leagues (the OHL, the WHL, and the QMJHL – Canadian, Ontario, Western, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues for those not hip to the acronyms).

That is something that soccer may look to replicate in the future, but without a true, recognizable pathway to the professional game, it has been difficult to establish those links. Never mind the politics of youth sports devolving into fiefdoms.

It has slowly been changing with the introduction of the MLS clubs to the Canadian scene starting with TFC in 2007.

For the first time since the demise of the Canadian Soccer League in 1992 there is a top level, professional presence – the good CSL, not the match-fixing one.

Founding an academy was high on the club’s list of things to do when the club was awarded in 2005, but due to the need to build the entire infrastructure – like Philadelphia, TFC were starting from scratch – it was not until 2008 that the club finally began fielding academy teams. They would play in the CSL, the bad one, for a few seasons, as it allowed the players to maintain amateur status, thus not jeopardizing any potential college scholarships.

It was initially a small project, fielding two teams, one in each of the two CSL divisions, where the young players would play against semi-professional men of a wide range of ages.

Since that day they have grown in leaps and bounds, although not without the occasional setback. There were difficult times, what with previously established clubs disgruntled at losing players, and whatnot.

It really began to take flight with the building of the KIA Training Grounds, which are home to most, if not all, of the sides – to various extents.

When the match-fixing allegations caused the CSL to lose its Canadian Soccer Association sanctioning in 2013, both Toronto and Montreal removed themselves from the league.

The academy sides, which now reach down to U11, play in a variety of leagues, including the PDL, League1 Ontario, the Ontario Soccer League, etc. And there is now the USL side TFC II, providing yet another link from youth to first team.

Both Chapman and Babouli spent significant time with the USL side last season, while a smattering of other first teamers have gone down on short-term loan stints, including both backup keepers, Bono and Quillan Roberts.

The first player to make the leap from the Academy to the first team was Doneil Henry, who signed in 2010 – he is currently at West Ham United, though has been troubled by injuries since the move.

Depending on how one counts, twelve players have signed first team contracts out of the Academy – Osorio is a peculiar case, reportedly signing a homegrown deal, but is not necessarily considered amongst the twelve; he would make it thirteen. The homegrown rule is a murky one, it has gotten better, but details can be difficult to come by.

Of the initial six, only two became regulars – Ashtone Morgan and Henry – while a third, Nicholas Lindsey, had his promising career cut short by knee injuries suffered in a snowmobile accident.

Of the next six, all but one are still with the club, including Chapman, Babouli, Hamilton, Roberts, and Chris Mannella. And, of course, there is Osorio.

Aside from those who made the jump internally, many players have gone on to college and beyond from the Academy, including Russell Teibert, now with Vancouver, and Michael Petrasso, currently with Queens Park Rangers in England.

Morgan, the club's longest serving player, has made the most appearances in club history – 123 to date (all competitions), but Osorio is hot on his heels, with over 100 appearances in MLS alone already.

Not bad, especially considering all the turmoil that the club as a whole has gone through over its existence.

And it can only get better.

They announced a renewed partnership with the OSA (Ontario Soccer Association), placing the TFC Academy 'as the top option for players of distinction in the province' – fun fact: Steven Caldwell is the front-man liaising between the two organizations.

When up at the training grounds, one often sees these kids rubbing shoulders with the first team, exposing them to a professional environment can only bode well for the future. And reportedly, there is a lot of talent to be developed in the area – some rank it up with New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia, of course (home of Dan Gargan), as one of the best available in MLS.

And Danny Dichio, club legend that he is, coaches one of the teams.

Consider this: Osorio, Chapman, Henry, and Cyle Larin, as well as Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence of the Women's National Team, not to mention Atiba Hutchinson and Junior Hoilett, all come from a community north of Toronto called Brampton with a population of slightly more than 500 000. In other sports, Tristan Thompson (NBA), Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin (NHL), and Milos Raonic (tennis) also hail from Brampton.

Something is going right there.

There is something special about having a local lad to cheer for out there on the pitch. During the dark times, it was often the sole redeeming quality.

Innumerable players have walked through the doors at TFC, worn the jersey for a season or two, but those who came up through the system will always have a special place in the hearts of Toronto fans.

Just watch how Osorio embraces the crowd and they him in return.

The days of a team fielding a group of local lads are gone, but the benefits of the homegrown system are myriad. Players can develop in a professional environment, hone their skills against the best in their age group, and then constantly test themselves against higher levels.

And in a salary cap world, the discount and off-cap consideration can be such an advantage. The majority of a team is unlikely to be homegrown, but a healthy smattering of productive squad players and the occasional star is a great place to start building a squad.

But the importance of the academy system it is not just about TFC, or about the financial boon that selling a player can provide, it is about pushing the game forward in this country.

If the Canadian National Team is to ever become a force in CONCACAF, let alone on the world stage, it will be the academies in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal that lead the way.

Injuries, suspensions, etc.) OUT: Clint Irwin; Will Johnson; Benoit Cheyrou QUESTIONABLE: Eriq Zavaleta; Mark Bloom; Justin Morrow; Daniel Lovitz

These may be a little out of date, though aside from Johnson, it's about right. No suspensions, though the DisCo is always lurking...

Predicted lineup: Alex Bono; (4-4-2 – from right to left) Steven Beitashour, Josh Williams, Drew Moor, Ashtone Morgan; Marky Delgado, Michael Bradley, Jay Chapman, Jonathan Osorio; Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco.

NOTE: I'm terrible at these, it's entirely possible that Vanney opts for his 3-5-2 formation with Nick Hagglund coming in at the back and Chapman dropping to the bench with Morgan and Beitashour as wing-backs. Then there is Endoh to consider. It's great to have depth, but it does make this way more difficult.