It hasn’t been the best couple of weeks for Toronto FC (or months, or years). With a win-less streak now stretching to eight games, and with just one win in its last 24 MLS games, the Reds are in danger of slipping even further into irrelevancy in the Toronto sports market.
For those that were around in the early years, it’s staggering to see the fall from grace. This was a club that wasn’t just the darling of the Toronto sports scene but for much of MLS for a while at the end of last decade. There wasn’t an empty seat in the stadium for almost three straight years, despite struggles on the pitch.
In fact, what seemed like “struggles” then were only a taste of what was to come. Little did TFC fans realize that those first three years would represent a high water mark for the club. They improved each of the first three seasons, finishing 2009 just one point from a playoff spot.
On the morning of October 24, 2009 Toronto FC was a middling team that was one win away from making its first playoff appearance. Fans had reason to hope.
Then, in a driving rainstorm, Macoumba Kandji scored for the New York Red Bulls just three minutes into the Reds’ final game of the year. New York, a club that was 21 points behind Toronto at kick-off, would go on to score four more goals that night to deny TFC a spot in the playoffs.
The enduring image of the night was interim head coach Chris Cummins standing on the sideline, shoulders slumped with rain pouring off his black trench coats. He didn’t even have the energy to shout instructions to his players any longer; his mind may have been on catching the first flight back to Heathrow.
Cummins remains the most successful of Toronto’s eight managers. The club has lost 52 times since that night, with only 21 wins. Along the way they have been forced to cut season ticket prices to year one levels and watched as a once vibrant and sold-out stadium turn into a cynical, often half-empty shell. What was once fan passion is now mostly anger. That is if the club is lucky. At least if the fans are angry they still care. Increasingly there is less anger.
So, what happened? How did Toronto FC become so very bad? It’s indeed puzzling, as the Reds have the financial resources to compete and ownership has invested in both players and infrastructure. Yet, the team just seems to get worse and worse.
The simple answer – and the answer most want to point to – is that the investor/owners in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment don’t know what they’re doing. It’s increasingly difficult argument to challenge, even if it appears a tad simplistic. The truth is, there has been one consistent element to the club and that’s ownership.
What’s even more baffling about that is that, in isolation, most of the moves MLSE has made to support their franchise in that time made a lot of sense. In 2006, MLSE recognized that they didn’t know how to run a soccer team and so looked to hire a guy that had the experience they didn’t. In retrospect, hiring Mo Johnston as coach and eventually director of football was a terrible idea, but at the time it was pretty uncontroversial.
When it became clear that Johnston wasn’t the right guy for the job, MLSE reached out (and opened their pocket book) to one of the biggest names in the game in Jürgen Klinsmann to assist them in the search.
Few criticized MLSE’s hiring of Klinsmann. So, when he came back with the name of Aron Winter as the right man to bring TFC back from the dead, most fans were excited. After all, this was a guy that had played at the highest levels and was part of one of Europe’s most storied clubs.
Instead, things got worse. A lot worse. So MLSE listened to the prevailing advice of the day and sought out a “MLS guy” to run the show.
Enter Kevin Payne, an experienced manager from the club that was only associated with success in the league’s earliest days. Again, next to no one questioned the hire.
It’s too early to evaluate Payne, but not to point out his similarities with other MLSE hires. Payne was an attractive candidate; he combined brash talk with a long and impressive resume. When MLSE hires someone it almost always tends to be an industry name. You rarely see the company put its trust in an internal employee, or in allowing a young executive to grow in its role.
With MLSE style seems to matter more than substance. It plays better with fans and media, but, as history tells us, it rarely seems to work.
There is a certain arrogance in the philosophy. It suggests that Toronto is too big a market to be appropriate for an entry-level managerial candidate.
That might point to the biggest problem of all – arrogance. Despite two decades of losing, MLSE continues to believe that it is a major player in North American sports. It continues to make the same errors and it continues to get the same results.
And, all fans can do is hope against hope that they eventually will learn from their mistakes and bring the city a winner, and that hope is running thin. Worse, it’s turning into indifference.