First, there was Danny Dichio’s looping volley which gave Toronto FC a last-minute equalizer against the New England Revolution. Then, Rohan Ricketts scored an impressive brace in a 3-2 win over the Chicago Fire in an entertaining, if futile effort to save the year. After that we had that 5-0 implosion away against the New York Red Bulls with everything on the line, and the next year, the season ended with a headline-generating housecleaning, with Preki and Mo Johnston fired in dramatic fashion.
This year? A limp, predictable collapse to the finish line. No moral victories, just the lame hope the CONCACAF Champions League will offer some glimmer of glory, and the bittersweet consolation that their fellow Canadian MLS franchise has fared no better. And, of course, the promise that we will see 2012 transform Aron Winter into Guus Hiddink and Toronto FC into a 1970s Ajax (a 2011 Ajax would do just fine).
Yes, Toronto fans have now taken for granted the Reds will, for the fifth year in a row, not participate in the MLS post-season.
Canada’s soccer intelligentsia has been looking for the lodestone of blame for the last five years with little luck. Few want to say it’s Toronto sports Super Villain MLSE, because that’s the fan whipping boy of choice and we are, after all, professionals. So, we look at management, and Aron Winter is it.
The thought that after such a dramatic shift in managerial thinking from the front office would end in another season of terrible football is too hard for many to bear. Here came our Dutch dream Winter bearing the promise of an slow-growth Orange miracle in our own backyard. Visions of Jedi-like eight year olds working on the Coerver method at a state-of-the-art facility at Downsview have silenced some of the press criticism this season. No one however will wait beyond 2012 before yielding their final verdict on the Winter regime.
Yet the sad fact is it’s still well within the realm of possibility that Aron Winter isn’t up to the task at hand. Major League Soccer is built on the old American liberal ideal that as long as we’re all given the same start position, talent and hard work can take you to the top. This is a single-entity league immune to Euro-style financial doping. The old “blame the spendthrift chairman” excuse won’t fly in this league because all the chairman are spendthrifts, and all roads lead to Don Garber anyway.
Which means success in this league very much comes down to management, whether the role is split in two between player selection and coaching or not. This is a point well-illustrated by Sigi Schmid’s MLS career, epitomized now in his current season with the Seattle Sounders. This is a team Toronto should very much want to be; still alive in three competitions, dealing the cards that are dealt to them without scattering the pack all over the poker table.
So why aren’t we? Well, Sigi Schmid is taken, for one. But there is another problem, which comes down to an obsession with “vision” from the people doing the hiring. First we had the brutish English mid-table approach with Mo Johnston and then John Carver. I have no evidence for it but it often seemed as if the club wanted to exude a “pwopah” old fashioned First Division approach in a league that had almost nothing in common with the Charles Reep eighties, if it ever did.
Then there was the Preki appointment, which seemed like a brief attempt to Major League Soccer-ize TFC, and was an abject failure. Then Winter, Bob de Klerk and Paul Mariner arrived with talk of 4-3-3, possession, Barcelona, Ajax, Johann Cruyff, youth set-up, the works. Wiping the long-ball slate clean, music to a football aficionado’s ear, perhaps. But the question of whether a grand vision for a long, triumphant future of technically elite football was necessary in a league where the financial sky is almost certainly not the limit is still unanswered.
Or rather it has been answered, by Schmid. And by Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis. And Bruce Arena. No one talks about an “American vision” with regard to these coaches. They talk about the more banal but immediately-satisfying concept of winning. And you don’t need bells and whistles to win in MLS. You need leadership, the ability to get the best out of the players you have at the right time, luck, and belief. Whether Aron Winter has those in his pocket for 2012 is for next year; but we saw scant evidence of them in the here and now.