John Molinaro at Sportsnet scored somewhat of a coup earlier this week by getting former Toronto FC head coach and technical director Aron Winter to go on the record defending his record against accusations from both Paul Mariner and Earl Cochrane that he left the club in total disarray.
Winter paints a different picture, claiming that Mariner and Cochrane had greater influence than they’re letting on. As an example, he pointed to the acquisition of Geovanny Caicedo, a defender from Ecuador, who the club signed in January but parted company with two months later before he even played in a regular season game.
Caicedo wasn’t up to snuff and Winter didn’t want to bring him in at all, but he claims it was done at the behest of Cochrane. Several other questionable trade deals and prospective player signings presented by Cochrane and Mariner were turned down by Winter.
As ever, the far more fascinating aspect of this story can be found in the shift in tone from reader comments, many of whom are quick to defend Winter’s regime and wonder if things might have changed had he had more time. Others point out that Winter cherry picked a single example with the Caicedo deal, and didn’t own up to several other bad acquisitions that have his fingerprints all over them.
Many Toronto FC fans, tired of the meaningless back and forth, veterans of years of coaching and managerial turnover and therefore not content to simply blame Mariner for everything, have shifted their attention to another position at the club: Toronto FC president. I actually think there is something to this, although it’s important to clarify exactly what the club would need in that role, most recently filled by the now promoted Tom Anselmi.
On the surface, the club certainly doesn’t need another Anselmi figure, whose experience prior to joining MLSE in 1996 was limited only to arena architecture and design with a bit of broadcasting, with no solid experience in running a sports franchise. Why Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment decided to go down this route with TFC when their other major league properties—the Raptors and the Leafs—have single positions enveloping both GM and president is unclear. Perhaps they felt the culture in soccer was different. The real reason may have had to do with the redundancy and cost of having two positions—GM and President—when their other franchises operated well with one.
Say what you will about Colangelo and Burke, but they arrived with applicable experience in their respective sports, the former having worked with the Phoenix Suns and the latter having spent his life in professional hockey. At Toronto FC, the sporting and business sides are kept apart. The business of running the club—driving revenues, overseeing the operation as a whole—have been in the hands of someone who had no experience in successfully running a Major League Soccer club, a league with its own peculiar culture and history.
That in my opinion is one of the major problems with how Toronto FC is run, and why it has failed to succeed in MLS. The lack of an experienced MLS president in Anselmi’s role has led to several major missteps, starting with the clubs fixation on Europe, whether during the disastrous Mo Johnston period, or when MLSE decided to outsource hiring of their new manager and head coach to Juergen Klinsmann’s group, which led to Aron Winter’s apparently unhappy partnership with Mariner.
Moreover though, it has soured the club’s relationship with its fans, who have had almost no say in how the club has been run. How often did Tom Anselmi reach out to contact supporters’ groups? How many podcasts has he appeared on? Where is MLSE’s presence among the fan community? Fostering a solid, on-going relationship with fans must start at the highest level, and the role has been entirely left to the soccer side of the front office, with disastrous results.
Perhaps they didn’t want an outsider in control of the financial side of the club. But MLS is a unique league, and there are many precedents for success. Instead, the club has been run in secrecy, with a president hiring an FO that has lurched from one radically different football philosophy to the next with no consultation with supporters, and let fan excitement slowly melt into fan anger, and now, likely, fan indifference. That president oversaw a team in which various figures leaked discontent to the media, and which was the focus of constant rumours of dressing room splits.
That positions Toronto FC in a terrible place ahead of next season, and the seasons after it. Unless MLSE is willing to let someone from the outside in on the business side of the operation, someone with proven experience in building an MLS club with strong ties to its fan base, it will find itself holding on to a very unpopular asset, regardless if the club manages to turn its fortunes around.