Six seasons and still without a taste of post-season soccer; it simply isn’t good enough for the city of Toronto. After another season filled with jeers and a half empty home stadium, Toronto FC (TFC) finished the season in last place with 23 points, a massive 30 points out of a playoff spot. It was the team’s worst point tally since their inaugural season six years ago and a change in management was imminent.
Despite being crowned Amway Canadian champions last season for the fourth consecutive year, Canada’s first Major League Soccer (MLS) team has found life difficult in the North American league. TFC play their home games at BMO field, located at the Exhibition Place in downtown Toronto. Players and managers have arrived and departed, but Toronto’s hopes of having a successful franchise has failed thus far.
CBC soccer columnist Ben Rycroft says TFC’s underachievement begins and ends with their owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).
“The problem with TFC is that it was run by people who either didn’t understand the game, or [didn’t] understand the game in North America,” Rycroft says.
In late November, MLSE hired Kevin Payne as the first president of TFC. Payne’s role at the club is equivalent to Bryan Colangelo’s with the Raptors and Dave Nonis’ with the Leafs. Both men are in charge of issues on the court/ice, while Payne will be involved with issues on the field and the business aspects of the club.
Payne loves to build winning sides, as evidenced by his time with D.C. United. During his 17-year tenure as president of the Washington club, they claimed four MLS Cups and a Confederation Of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Champions Cup. Now his vision is to turn this organization around and provide the fans with a successful team. TFC has conceded the most goals in the league over the last two seasons; drastically improving the defence will be the first part of his vision for the club. Payne’s former club played a possession-based style of soccer, and the new TFC president would like to bring that mentality to Toronto, along with implementing a core system the team can grow with.
Sportsnet Managing Digital Editor, John Molinaro, says Payne’s track record in DC shows he has the pedigree to be successful at the club.
“He clearly has an eye for coaching talent and I think he has a good understanding of building a team,” he says.
The dismissal of Paul Mariner as head coach would lead to the surprise of the offseason: the hiring of Ryan Nelsen, who at the time was playing for English Premier League side Queens Park Rangers (QPR). He was chosen in early January as the man to lead TFC into the future. Along with making this team playoff contenders, Payne and Nelsen were tasked with changing the way the club handles transfers.
Last season, then-coach Aron Winter, tried to implement a tiki-taka style, similar to how famous Spanish side Barcelona play. This failed miserably, as Winter didn’t possess players capable of succeeding in such a technical system. Payne’s vision is also all about building a young core of talent that can improve every year.
With TFC making changes behind the scenes and in their philosophy as a club, are they headed in the right direction, that is, a club aspiring to win trophies?
Heading into their seventh season in MLS, the goal for TFC is to make their first playoff appearance. The move by Payne to appoint Nelsen, a 35-year-old, with no managerial experience, has left many optimistic fans puzzled. Rycroft admits that he was very skeptical with the Nelsen signing because he was still playing for QPR.
“He has no experience coaching, and generally a player that becomes a coach, does best when he takes over from playing with his old squad,” Rycroft says.
Although Molinaro feels one day Nelsen will become a good coach, he shares Rycroft’s concerns.
“He’s never coached before, he’s never taken any coaching courses or acquired any coaching badges, so he comes into this quite unqualified,” Molinaro says.
“Considering where this franchise is; after six years without a playoff appearance, it would have been a better idea to bring in someone with more experience and a track record of success,” he says.
Kenny Dalglish, Pep Guardiola and Vicente Del Bosque are a few coaches that have had great managerial careers after retiring from their playing careers.
“This is a different scenario. He got his start in the league, but it has been a long time since he has played here and the league has changed,” Rycroft says.
Although the Nelsen hiring was peculiar, there’s no guarantee that his tenure will be a failure. Nelsen was arguably QPR’s best defender this season before his departure, and his experience as a player can surely have an affect on his players.
Rycroft says that Payne brings a soccer management background that Toronto FC has never really had.
“Payne has shown he has a plan, and as someone with a real soccer background you have to give him the benefit of the doubt for now,” Rycroft says.
“He has a plan and a vision, and so far has shown himself willing to make tough decisions to execute it.”
Payne has already made some key changes since joining the squad, including acquiring homegrown talents Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshmann in the MLS SuperDraft, along with allocation money.
The MLS SuperDraft is an annual event in which all teams select players that have graduated from college or have been signed by the league.
According to MLSsoccer.com, allocation money is a resource available to all clubs in addition to their respective salary budgets.
Soccer Newsday columnist Sonja Missio, says Payne is bringing all of his old chums with him, to build a team that he’s comfortable with.
“It’s clear that Payne has a vision in mind, I’m just suspicious as to what that vision is, and is he flexible to change it if or when it doesn’t work?” Missio says.
“It’s not just about winning games, it’s how he will, can, or should assist in the development of Canadian soccer culture in Canada,” she says.
In their six-year existence, despite the few good moments, TFC has consistently underachieved. The club has gone through seven managers in six seasons, and none have managed to win more than 50 per cent of the games during their respective tenures. The club is coming off its worst season since it was founded, recording only five wins, and their average home attendance decreased by 2000 tickets.
Former TFC goalkeeper Milos Kocic stated in a January 2013 interview with the Globe and Mail that some of his teammates would laugh after games, even after defeats.
“It’s better for me to leave, to go somewhere else where I’m going to be appreciated,” Kocic said in the interview.
Aron Winter being tactically inept – not realizing this players needed a simpler system to operate in, Paul Mariner’s inability to cope with injuries to veteran players Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings, and some questionable decisions regarding player sales from MLSE, including homegrown heroes Julian De Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario all played a factor in TFC’s recent poor form. Over the years, TFC has lacked experience, vision and stability behind the scenes.
While the players and coaching staff certainly deserve most of the blame for TFC’s downfall, Missio says MLSE didn’t properly assess the team they possessed.
“It’s like a family getting a puppy for Christmas and not being able to take care of it come February,” she says.
“Oh sure, it’s fun and exciting at first, but you have to know how to look after it…MLSE had all the best intentions, but they were in over their heads,” Missio says.
The introduction of a president has been a bright spot for the club. Payne has done a great job handling one of the club’s main issues recently, bringing in effective Designated Players; most have been well past their prime and not worth the expense. Heading into the new season, TFC was faced with decisions to make on these players, and Payne handled the situation well.
According to the 2012 MLS rules, the Designated Player rule allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges.
This is where the allocation money gained in the draft comes into play.
Payne told the Toronto Sun, “The allocation money will allow us to potentially bring in a small Designated Player– a younger player but one with some real upside,” Payne says.
“We can now potentially bring them onto our team not as a DP any longer because we can buy their contract down with allocation money,” he says.
Last season TFC had three DP players, in captain Torsten Frings, 36, Danny Koevermans, 34 and Eric Hassli, 31. Hassli was brought in to provide depth in attack but spent most of the season sidelined due to injury, Frings, is the best midfielder on the team and Koevermans is the prolific goalscorer.
Former Toronto FC midfielder Torsten Frings
The question Payne had to consider was, could the oldest combination of DP players in MLS lead this side to a playoff appearance in the near future?
The answer was no.
Hassli pushed for a move away from the club, and Payne was willing to let him go for a second round draft pick. Considering he was making $790 thousand US, roughly $370 thousand of which was affecting the club’s salary, it was a smart move.
Frings announced his retirement in February due to a hip injury suffered last season. He felt stepping away from the game was not only better for his health but also the team’s development.
Koevermans’ future still looms in the air as he recovers from an anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered last season. Considering the limited options upfront, it would be suicidal for TFC to trade their most prolific striker. Since joining the club in 2011, Koevermans has netted 17 goals in 26 league appearances. Bringing in two young DP’s more likely attackers, and retaining Koevermans, and the experience he brings, would not only save TFC from more financial woes, but could also benefit the club in the short and long term.
There’s a lot of pressure, expectation, and optimism as the new MLS season unfolds. Die-hard TFC fans will be hoping to see the club do much better than last year’s dismal campaign.
Daniel Kwasny, a member of TFC’s supporter group, U-Sector, says that Payne and Nelsen will succeed, if MLSE don’t interfere with their plans.
“I feel that Payne and Nelsen’s arrival is a positive move for the club, and if MLSE allow them to see out this project, the team will be an MLS contender in the next three years,” Kwasny says.
TFC will need to perform at a higher level to gain back the large number of fans who have turned their back on the club, but the pressure will certainly lie on Payne and Nelsen’s shoulders.
“From what I’ve seen thus far, TFC have improved tactically, their work rate has increased, and we’re competing against the top sides in the league,” he says.
This new era can end in two ways: the first being that the team improves and potentially fights for a playoff spot. This would give the fans an incentive to back these two men and would certainly mean their long-term vision is working.
On the other hand, this season could turn into a nightmare, with similar results and continued struggles between coach and players. This would result in fan backlash; not only would we see more empty seats and fewer supporters, but it would also put a blemish on Payne’s outstanding track record.
“I would only expect them to be a bit more competitive this year and improve on what they did last year,” Molinaro says.
“In 2014 they need to be not only challenging but also making it into the post-season, because by then Kevin Payne would have had enough time to implement his plans fully,” he says.