Gareth Wheeler is the host and color commentator for Toronto FC on Canada’s TSN. He was the first columnist dedicated to Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun newspaper and has covered the team from the beginning.
As they prepare for tonight’s Eastern Conference final first leg in Montreal, Wheeler gave us a look at the state of the team and his career. Thanks to Gareth for speaking with us!
JON NELSON: Looking back at the semifinals, Alexi Lalas called what NYCFC did a "complete capitulation." What was it like to see it happen in front of you like it did at Yankee Stadium?
GARETH WHEELER: It was a complete capitulation. There was a lack of energy, ideas and desire from the group. It was shocking to watch. This was a team dangerous in attack all season that refused to change their tactics. They continued to try to build out of the back with very little movement elsewhere. Toronto FC pressed high, limited time and space, and New York had no response. As well as Toronto played, NYCFC was equally poor. It took the crowd out of the game and it was the travelling support that made it an occasion. I expected Toronto FC to advance, but not that easily.
JN: Did it surprise you at all?
GW: Yes. But not that Toronto FC advanced. The team has grown in recent weeks. The change to a 3-5-2 formation has worked wonders. And the addition of Armando Cooper looks to be the missing link. But the lack of push back from a team of experienced, very good players was a shock.
JN: And the offense is seriously clicking right now... nothing like having a healthy Giovinco around for the stretch run...
GW: Giovinco is the best player MLS has ever had. He’s in his prime and motivated. But it’s not just about Giovinco’s talent. The team around him is balanced and compliments his skill set. At a time very few teams play two up top, Toronto FC does so with expertise. Jozy Altidore is the ideal partner in attack, having the power and finish that works well with Seba’s work on the ball. Altidore has 13 goals in his last 17 games. Put jozy and Seba together, and it’s a real problem how to stop this team. They haven’t been shut out away from home since May.
JN: Jozy also seems to be clicking right now as well. He seems to be taking it to another level entirely.
GW: He’s finally healthy. There was no doubt a regular run in the team would do wonders. Give the Toronto FC training staff credit: they eased him back into the team, gradually building his fitness. The patience has paid off. He’s confident, gets on with his teammates well and has a great relationship with Giovinco.
JN: From what you have been able to see, what's the vibe right now in town with the ECF on the horizon?
GW: The city is excited, but if I’m going to be honest, the international break has been confusing and hurt the momentum. The team has had time to sell out the stadium, and even fill extra seats in the stadium, which is a good thing. But people have stopped me on the street asking me what’s going on and why they haven’t played. It’s a bad thing if casual fans need to ask questions. The league needs to make things easier. I would recommend they find a way to have MLS Cup Final before this international break. It happens every year. The scheduling isn’t easy, but it’s better for everyone if it’s wrapped up before. But make no mistake, the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal is heated and will be taken to another level over the next two weeks. It’s going to be loud and a great advertisement for the North American game.
JN: And having it be the Impact takes it to another level of intensity as well...
GW: There is a lot of banter going on between support right now. I laugh when Montreal media and fans try to bait me on social media. I’m not going to bite. I’m not sure why there is chirping about what club is bigger, better, etc … The Eastern Conference Championship is great for Canadian Soccer. Period. It’s fantastic for both fanbases. Each club has been built in a different way. And that’s fine. Both, IMO, are deserving of being where they are. It’s the perfect game for MLS. Fans can travel to attend the game in numbers, even on a weekday. And the fact Montreal beat Toronto the way they did last year in the playoffs adds a little more spice. I can’t wait.
JN: To pin Montreal down, it won't be easy with Piatti taking charge in the offensive third.
GW: Piatti is a wonderful player. No player in MLS has caused Toronto FC more problems in recent years. The way he uses space from the wing, coming outside-in, nobody does it better. The one thing Toronto has going for them is the 3-5-2. Montreal has never faced Toronto playing in that system. Steven Beitashour is no longer left isolated on Piatti, instead having Eriq Zavaleta in support. This system should work better. They shut down Jack Harrison and Chris Pontius in recent games playing this way. It won’t be easy, and Piatti is certainly the player on Montreal to watch. But Toronto is much better suited to deal with him.
JN: So, to play a little "Match Game..." To beat them, TFC will have to "Blank..."
GW: … score in Montreal.” An away goal is huge. Toronto has scored 14 goals in their last 5 away. If they find the back of the net in Montreal, they will win the tie.
JN: And how much will home field play into this since it's BMO and The Big O when you travel?
GW: The turf at Olympic Stadium is awful. It’s a shame they are playing on it. But the profit to be made playing in a stadium that seats almost 3 times more than Stade Saputo was too significant to ignore. It’s a cash grab on carpet. It will play a role. Montreal has experienced success playing in the Big O in the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League. So it plays into their favour. BMO will be electric. There is no better crowd in the league. The place will be jumping and will also play a role.
JN: And, to wrap up, for those not familiar with your personal story, there's a new indie mini-documentary out there that you're involved in that everyone needs to pay attention to for a variety of different reasons. How are you? And what's the biggest takeaway for you from the project on the whole?
GW: I’m doing well. I’ve been battling malignant melanoma for 10 years. After going stage III in 2012, I made drastic changes with dietary/lifestyles changes while utilizing naturopathic and alternative medicine. My tumours shrunk and there is no detectable active melanoma in my body because of it. I took a chance moving away from convention, taking my health into my own hands. You can watch my Indie Cancer doc here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbhz8wAiLtg&t=8s