There’s a view going around some local sports writery circles that Paul Mariner’s played a bit of a chum to the Toronto press, and in doing so has made them their mouthpiece in return for more “access” or whatever so they can pump out the next article on “dressing room chaos” at the club.
It wasn’t a theory I was ready to put money on, but this morning in the wake of Cathal Kelly’s Toronto Star piece on Mariner’s “battle” with Major League Soccer to sign former Aston Villa and Juventus defender Olof Mellberg, it’s kind of hard to ignore.
This was a hack job of the highest order, a major character assassination of Aron Winter (I’m too classy a guy to use the phrase “corpse-pissing”…what?), and a weaker than weak tea apology for Mariner’s dreadful record at the club which culminated in the team’s worst ever season in MLS, and that’s saying a hell of a lot.
Where to begin?
First, Kelly probably isn’t the right guy to be writing about this kind of thing. A “general sports guy,” in the past he’s made exhortations for Toronto FC to “spend more” to get better players, not really seeming to understand the single-entity nature of Major League Soccer, in which players sign contracts with the league.
But that’s neither here nor there I guess.
Anyway, let’s break this article apart, shall we?
Kelly opens with this barn-burner of an assessment:
Only now, as it ends, are we beginning to learn the full scope of how out of his depth Winter was in North America.
That is an incredible lead-in, from which we expect something telling. A cultural barrier? Misunderstanding of MLS’ inherent tactical quirks? Slow learning curve on player acquisition rules with drafts, designated players and the like? No. It’s flip-flops.
Winter’s taste for fussy discipline was already beginning to turn players against him in 2011. On the road, they were often confined to the team hotel during the evening. If they were allowed to leave, they were instructed to go out sporting full Toronto FC kit. In warmer climes, they weren’t allowed to wear flip-flops. Anything but team-issue socks and runners were verboten.
“That’s the way you treat kids in an academy, not grown men,” one source close to the team said.
Clearly, this is why Toronto FC were so terrible; Winter should never have tried to institute an atmosphere of professionalism at the club. And Kelly of course is compelled to rely on unnamed sources, the TFC beat reporter’s favourite flavour of source. Which, for comedic purposes (and for the sake of realism), we should assume is Mariner himself.
Kelly goes on to the real meat of why Winter sucked:
He was repeatedly given scouting reports on overseas upgrades. Though the team desperately required reinforcement, no decision was ever made. Winter hadn’t bothered watching the tapes.
He was too busy worrying about lengthy, pre-game video marathons that left players “looking like zombies” as they headed onto the pitch, according to another source.
“Analysis paralysis” is how an observer summed up Winter’s management style.
The losing streak to start the season got Winter headed in the direction of the plank. Ironically, it was their first league win that tipped him off it.
First, let’s be clear: Winter was clearly not up for the job. But a lot of this is reverse engineering. Many managers after all use video review regularly and to great effect. If anything, this reflects more on the intelligence and technical expertise of his playing staff.
As for the scouting reports, wasn’t this in part Bob De Klerk’s job as technical manager as of the personnel shuffle in May? And, if Winter was indeed overwhelmed with the dual responsibilities of first team coach and technical director, isn’t the overall responsibility for overseeing a smooth front office operation that of Tom Anselmi with MLSE? Did these sources alert him as to the problems? Or just blab, without giving their name, to the nearest reporter?
Anyway, what follows is either lazy or a bit of bad faith reporting on the part of Kelly. He essentially hands over all journalistic responsibility to unnamed sources at TFC (which he relies on exclusively), who paint a picture of a Kafka-esque MLS standing between them and Olof Mellberg’s signature.
But Kelly goes one further and seems to underline Mellberg’s failure to arrive as one of the main reasons Toronto FC shitbagged their way home in the half of the season with Paul Mariner in charge. Kelly writes:
Mariner took over on June 7. A week later, he watched Sweden vs. England at Euro2012. His eye drifted to Olof Mellberg, once one of the best defenders in the world. At 35 years of age, Mellberg was not young, but Mariner was thrilled by the crispness of his game. He also knew Mellberg was available.
An ill-fated courtship began.
“I want to move on from Mellberg,” is all Mariner will say of that deal now, with no small trace of bitterness.
But people with knowledge of the deal point to that saga, rather than the initial losing streak, as the nadir of the Toronto FC season.
Really? This was the nadir of the Toronto FC season? A season that ended with five wins, eight draws and twenty-one losses? While Mellberg would have been a welcome addition, you don’t need a binder of Opta stats to know it’s absolutely ludicrous to assume a single player would have made the difference, no matter the durability of the “world class centreback” meme at BMO Field.
Kelly’s incredulity at why the deal was killed “by MLS” (no questions asked) is also disingenuous. He explains:
Given the cachet of Mellberg’s name, no one anticipated a problem getting approval from the league. They were stunned when the deal hit a wall at the MLS head office in New York.
“When the league talks with clubs about signing (designated players), about a significant amount of guaranteed money, they want to make sure the long-term health of the team and the league are taken into consideration,” said a league source, trying to summarize a philosophical position that might most charitably be called unusual.
The league is in the unique position of paying all the players operating under each club’s $2.8 million salary cap. Designated players are paid outside that structure. The first $350,000 of DP money is paid by the league and counts against the cap. The remaining salary is paid by clubs and is theoretically unlimited.
What Kelly calls “unusual” is the very reason why MLS was able to whether a very shaky period in its first decade, and arguably why MLS was still around when Toronto FC joined up. Furthering the stereotype of Toronto FC fans as johnny-come-lately know-nothings who simply think we can spend our way to glory, Kelly ignores how single-entity offered a means for the league to control spending within its franchises, and in return as co-investor in its member teams, to take the financial load off the individual club investors.
From this however, Kelly pivots into thinly-veiled conspiracy theories about how MLS head office favours “big teams” like the Red Bulls. He quotes (surprise!) unsourced claims that MLS “asked other clubs” about the Mellberg deal. But the fact of the matter is Kelly and his sources greatly mislead as to the finances involved with signing Mellberg.
First, Kelly neglects to mention that word of the dead deal came after the team took on Eric Hassli in its final DP slot, which at the time Duane Rollins pointed to as one of the likely reasons it fell through.
As Steve Sandor explained on his excellent The 11 blog back in July, Toronto FC therefore had at the time of the Mellberg deal three DPs, the max allowed under MLS roster rules. The argument in favour of Mellberg at the time was that Danny Koevermans was injured, which technically did free up a spot. However, as Sandor explained, Koevermans salary still counted against Toronto FC’s salary cap:
Now, with Koevermans on the DL, TFC would technically be allowed to carry a fourth DP. If a player is out for the season, his roster spot can be replaced (hence why you can swap a DP for another DP) but his salary isn’t wiped clean. The financial hit remains.
So, Koevermans’ cap hit of US$335,000 can’t be taken off the books.
Sandor goes on to explain, quite rightly, that not only would the deal have been bad business, it would have caused an uproar in the league because of Toronto FC finagling their way to a fourth DP via a player injury.
Kelly doesn’t mention any of this of course, but cedes the entire argument to various shadowy sources within Toronto FC, which we should just call ‘Paul Mariner.’
But why is this coming out now? Months after the entire Mellberg affair, and well after we’d heard the last word on it? Why did Kelly not attempt to check the claims of his unnamed sources? Or even do the barest research into MLS’ admittedly complicated single entity structure and salary cap rules?
Why is Mariner given a total pass here? And how do other clubs of similarly limited financial means in relation to big boys manage to win things in this league, if it really is all a NY/LA conspiracy?