Who supports the strong and free?
Who supports the TFC?
We do…..We do…. Who always has the loudest voice?
and always brings the f—ing noise?
We do….we do
Who stays standing , rain or shine?
And goes f—ing mental,
all the time?
We dooooo..We dooooooooo
(Taken from the great Simpsons episode about the Stonecutters.)
Pedigree: 4-Time Winner of the Canadian Championship (2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.)
Rivals: Columbus Crew (The Trilium Cup,) Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps.
Coach: Ryan Nelsen
Key Returning Players: DEF Doneil Henry, DEF Ashtone Morgan, and MID Reggie Lambe.
Key Additions: GK Joe Bendik (Portland Timbers,) DEF Danny Califf (Chivas USA,) DEF Jonas Elmer (F.C. Winterhur-Switzerland,) Steven Caldwell (Birmingham City-England,) DEF Ryan Richter (Charleston Battery-NASL,) MID Bobby Convey (Sporting Kansas City,) MID Matias Laba (Argentinos Juniors,) MID Kyle Bekker (Boston College-MLS Superdraft,) MID Darel Russell (Portsmouth-England,) MID Jonathan Osorio (Toronto SC,) MID Alvaro Rey (Xerez Sporting Club-Spain,) FWD Emery Welshmen (Oregon State University-MLS Superdraft,) FWD Justin Braun (Chivas USA,) FWD Robert Earnshaw (Cardiff City-England,) and FWD Jeremy Brockie (Wellington Phoenix- New Zealand but plays in the Australian A-League.)
Key Departures: DEF Aaron Maund (Real Salt Lake,) DEF Darren O’Dea (F.C. Metalurth Donetsk-Ukraine,) DEF Danny Califf (Retired,) DEF Logan Emory (Released,) DEF Ty Harden (Released,) MID Luis Silva (D.C. United,) MID Torsten Frings (Retired,) MID Ashton Bennett (Draft Pick,) FWD Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers,) FWD Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake,) and FWD Eric Hassli (F.C. Dallas.)
Key Young Player to Watch: Jonathan Osorio.
During the dark ages of my interest in soccer (sophomore-junior year of college)I was paying little attention to soccer, much less Major League Soccer. I was far more interested in girls, beer, and doing good in school. But every Saturday day, I would go to the library and pull out a giant stack of magazines and books and catch up on everything going on in the world. College is an isolated environment where very few things matter out of doing stuff and discussing Emmanuel Kant. So every once in a while it is good to be reminded that there is an outside world.
I bring this story up because I very clearly remember reading a story in an issue of Sports Illustrated about this soccer in team Toronto. While I do not remember every detail of the article, I do remember being taken aback about hearing that a.) there was a team in Canada, and b.) that there was a Major League Soccer team selling out every match. It completely blew my mind the changes that the league had made, even if it seems as simple as getting people to come to the game. After reading the article, I searched and searched for a time when I could watch an MLS match. Given that this was dawn of the internet age, so YouTube was not possible. Eventually MLS did show a Toronto F.C. match and I have to say it was fantastic. The crowd sounded like a European stadium it was that loud.
While the stadium was amazing, the team looked terrible. The sad truth is that Toronto has never been able to put a product on the field that matches the enthusiasm of their supporters. Since coming into the league in 2007, Toronto F.C. has never made the playoffs. Matter of fact: they have never actually had a winning season or won more than 10 games in a season. It would be nice to say that this season will be better, but with a record of 4-11-8 it is not looking very promising.
If you are looking for a reason as to why this team is so dreadful, the buck stops at management. When you look at the best teams in MLS the first thing you see is consistency. Clubs like Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle have long retained the same coaches, styles of play, and will only replace key cogs when necessary. Toronto has taken the opposite approach. In the club’s history there have been at least 3 major strategy changes and 8 coaches handling the squad. Toronto has time and time again hired a manager who has had some success as a player (Mo Johnston, Preki, Aron Winter, and Paul Mariner,) but has limited coaching experience. When you are rebuilding you need someone who knows how to develop players For a club that has only been in existence for 6 years that is a pretty jarring figure. With each coach comes a different style and a philosophy But when managers are not given time to develop players and get them comfortable with their strategy, then the team will continue to fail.
Of course, when you have that kind of turnover, it is inevitable that there will also be a high turnover in players. While some clubs would take rebuilding as an opportunity to play younger players, Toronto has often drafted poorly or traded their picks. In the club’s seven year history, only one of their first-round picks (Maurice Edu) could be seen as a success, while it is too early to tell on Luis Silva (2012,) and Kyle Bekker (2013.) That is only 3 picks in 8 years, and only one of those players is currently on their squad (Bekker.)
They have also made some very curious player management. For example, this season the aforementioned Mr. Silva was traded to D.C. United for allocation money. While allocation money might be good for a club that is in the playoff hunt, a club Toronto F.C. needs to hold on to its young players (Oh, and since coming to D.C. United Silva has scored 3 goals in 3 matches.) Toronto’s history is littered with really poor personnel decisions like dropping the likes of Dwayne DeRosario, Jeff Cunningham, Edson Buddle, Sam Cronin, Connor Casey, and Marvell Wynne players who were all playing for Toronto F.C. during the prime of their careers and all of whom would end up better players after leaving Toronto. All of these players, with the exception of Cunningham, are still playing in MLS and are starters for their respective teams. While many teams swing and miss on players Toronto has a history of it and that is a large reason why they are not successful.
Perhaps the best acquisition that Toronto made this past offseason was signing Kevin Payne to be their General Manager. Payne was a major part of building the original D.C. United squad and has helped turn around their fortunes in recent years. He understands the model that has succeeded in places like Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle and I think in time he will succeed in turning this around.
But I am very concerned about the choice of Ryan Nelsen as manager. Nelsen was always a solid player for D.C. United, Blackburn Rovers, and Tottenham, and was a tremendous captain for New Zealand during the 2010 World Cup. But this feels like the same broken record for Toronto F.C. –hire a manager who is a name player but has very little coaching experience (Johnston, Mariner, Preki, and Winter) and make tons of acquisitions in the offseason and the regular season and demand your team make the playoffs. Once again Toronto spent their offseason trading away young assets like Ryan Johnson (6 goals for Portland Timbers this season,) and Joao Plata (21 appearances for Real Salt Lake) for lesser value.
It would help Nelsen if he had a strong veteran goalkeeper from which to build his team off of. Unfortunately, he does not. While the club for years had been looking at Swiss Goalkeeper Stefan Frei as the future of the club, he has been saddled with leg injuries the past two years. At 26, he is still the future keeper of this club, but leg injuries can destroy a goalkeeper’s career.
Their backup, Joe Bendik, has actually performed pretty admirably in relief this year. While he was essentially the throwaway piece in the trade that sent Ryan Johnson to the Portland Timbers, he has actually done an admirable job in goal. Though Toronto ended up losing to Seattle last week 2-1, Bendik ended up keeping Toronto in the game by making some strong saves. You can tell that he is definitely inexperienced (which can be said of many of Toronto’s players,) but his play has improved. Watching him in the April 6th match against F.C. Dallas and watching him last week you can see his confidence has improved by leaps and bounds. While many in the media have criticized Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey for missing a good chance at goal on Saturday, it was actually Bendik who made the quality save.
Toronto’s problem has not been with their goalkeeping, it is with their defense. Although Toronto general runs a 4-4-2, in certain circumstances it almost seems like it is a 0-4-2. While they are able to get numbers behind the ball, they do not really do anything when they have the advantage. On Seattle’s first goal, you can see about three defenders near Sounders midfielder Mauro Rosales when he shoots just watching the ball. They also had trouble handling very basic 1-2 touch passes, which Seattle ran on Toronto all game. These are very basic tactics that show the inexperience of the TFC defense and their coach.
The biggest problem is that whenever the Toronto defenders get beaten or confused they make very reckless tackles. With 316 fouls, Toronto currently ranks second only to Sporting Kansas City for the most in MLS. Their defenders have accumulated 24 Yellow Cards and three Red Cards on the season, the most of any team in MLS. The worst perpetrator of the reckless challenges has unquestionably been Doneil Henry. It seems like in every match he plays in he makes a really dangerous tackle. To me the worst one was the tackle that he took against Real Salt Lake defender Tony Beltran in their June 30th match. Mr. Henry is lucky that he only has 4 Yellow Cards and 2 Red Cards. Their other young defender, Ashtone Morgan has 5 yellow cards as well. It is one thing to make smart professional tackles when you know that your team is able to come back from a goal or being down a man. Toronto cannot do that so making silly tackles is inexcusable.
The lone bright spot on this team has been their midfield. Despite making an array of very poor moves this past off-season, the club did make a few good choices. While Bobby Convey may never live up to the hype of being the next great American soccer player, he is a very capable midfielder who can go back on defense as well. Convey, who started out in Major League Soccer at the age 15 with D.C. United, has come back from a career in England (with stops at Chivas USA and Sporting Kansas City along the way) and still looks like he has much to give. In the New England two weeks ago, he was always giving instructions to the Toronto defenders, explaining to them positioning and yelling at them after stupid tackles. I also really like the young Argentine midfielder Matias Laba. Laba, who was responsible for the game’s only goal against New England, is a high energy player who sticks with a play to the very end. Toronto needs more of these types of players to be able to overcome their problems.
Unquestionably the player with the highest potential with Jonathan Osorio. What is funny is that with all of Toronto’s high priced veteran signings the past few years, their best addition has actually come from their academy. Mr. Osorio came into this season with very little attention, yet has proven to be one of the club’s better players. While watching the match against Seattle last week, the first thing that I noticed was how aggressive he is when he has the ball. But he is not reckless, but calculating. In the second half of the match, Toronto played a much more focused, aggressive style which led to the first goal by Osorio. The confidence with which he was able to stop, make the defender miss then bury it past Marcus Hahneman shows that he has the killer instinct that all attacking midfielders need. He still needs to work on his finishing touch a little bit (in the May 8th match against the San Jose Earthquakes he missed a few quality opportunities,) but he should improve this with time.
Much like their defense, the Toronto FC offense also leaves a lot to be desired. While Forward Robert Earnshaw does have 6 goals on the season, most of his goals were chip-ins or very easy goals. He has been hindered by a hamstring injury and looked very potent working in tandem with Osorio in the Seattle match. He does not seem like he will be a bust in MLS, but I am not sure if he is a better, more affordable option than Ryan Johnson.
The biggest problem that Toronto has on offense is finishing their chances in the final third. Among all teams in MLS, Toronto has taken the least amount of shots on goal in the league at 74, and have taken the second fewest total shots as well (224.) In the New England match, the Toronto midfield provided numerous crosses and opportunities into the box for Jeremy Brockie but he either would be offsides or not be able to finish. They also struggled to get the tying goal in the Seattle match either unable to get the ball into Seattle’s final third or being able to finish their chances when they had them. Toronto has been missing their Designated Player Danny Koevermans for most of the season due to tearing his ACL.
It is very hard to look at this team and see the positives. While Bendik has been a pleasant surprise and Osorio looks like he could be a future star in the midfield, there are far too many problems with this team to think that a playoff spot is in their future . It all comes back to management and coaching. Reckless defending, poor finishing, and poor chemistry are a direct result of multiple coaches being fired and multiple changes in philosophy over the past 8 years. Their fans deserve better than what has been put out on the field. Before Toronto F.C. can be a winning team, they need to figure what type of team they are.