Archive for the ‘Toronto FC’ Category

It was like any other isolated moment between players. You could read anything into it you liked. But at a stage managed media event, with reams of boilerplate responses from earnest players staring into recorders and cameras all day, any little bit of honest interaction is an oasis. You start to look for it wherever you can, in the hope of anchoring a story around it. Because that’s all you have. I had hoped there would be more.

I cabbed it to Toronto FC media day this morning, held at the Kia Training Centre in the part of Toronto that is…difficult to get to. The driver’s GPS took us to a military reserve base, and I had visions of mortars hitting the car as we inexplicably drove through a snowy pass to nowhere. After doubling back and arriving “late,” I discovered there was nothing to arrive to save for a small room with upended chairs and a tiny backdrop for media scrums, with various players walking in and out in full kit, sometimes with cleats, with no game to play.

I’m not going to lie…I had no idea who a lot of these people were. I recognized Joe Bendik, who was pretty jovial and upbeat even after news broke earlier this morning from none other than the Brazilian national team coach Phil Scolari that national team keeper Julio Cesar was bound for Toronto FC on loan. Ryan Richter, Reggie Lambe. An impossibly young Jordan Hamilton, who seemed bemused by the whole thing, talking about the courses he was still needed to finish before graduating…high school. I pretended to take notes but was mostly eager to commiserate on the fact they had to be there at all (I’m not a good journalist).

For story stuff, not a lot of ‘there’ there. Ryan Nelsen would not confirm anything about Julio Cesar, but it was just a wink-wink nudge-nudge put on. Canada’s De Rosario remarked on the size of the scrum for a serious looking Michael Bradley once walked out nearly three hours into the proceedings. The American midfielder gave serious, rehearsed responses to questions no one will remember in a day or so.

But there was a small, sliver of a moment when Bradley walked out of the room. He spotted De Rosario, who was doing his own interview in the hall. Bradley through a hand and made a dopey face, which was followed by a knowing smirk back from the Canadian. Nothing at all really. But two midfielders, two different places in their career, two different national team players, genuinely chummy on the same MLS team doing another media day…that’s not a bad thing right? That we’re even here at all?

Toronto FC's Stevanovic battles for the ball with DC United's McCarty during the first half of their MLS soccer game in Toronto

With Toronto FC’s blockbuster signing of two bona fide Good Players in Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, it’s important to remind everyone just how far this club has progressed. What follows, in no particular order, is a list of previous players that a single football club actually employed.

Collin Samuel

Toronto FC's Collin Samuel  fights for the ball with Real Salt Lake's Matias Mantilla during their MLS soccer match in Toronto

Signed in 2007 by Mo then Toronto FC and Scottish wheeler n dealer GM Mo Johnston, apparently his 14 goals in 116 collective appearances as a striker for Dundee United were enough for Toronto to sign a cheque. Predictably, Samuel didn’t magically improve as a footballer, scoring three goals in 19 league matches. He was released in April 2008.

Johann Smith

SmithYouTube copy

Remember this guy? I sure don’t. Anyway, the three time Bolton loanee decided to move a little closer to home (Hartford) in 2008 and ended up in Toronto, where in 14 leavue games a player who is identified as a forward slash winger scored zero goals, to add to his career league goal tally of one. When a player is released by Gary Megson, alarm bells should be ringing. Pictured: actual Youtube comments from his one and only highlights vid.

Pablo Vitti

Toronto FC mid-fielder Vitti falls between Real Madrid forwards Raul and Diarra during their international soccer friendly match in Toronto

Picked up on loan from Independiente, Vitti came with a solid rep in Argentina, which was based on hope I guess? Hope. And national stereotyping. Vitti managed to score twice in 26 league appearances in 2009. He was a good dribbler, on occasion.

Ali Gerba

Toronto FC forward Ali Gerba falls trying to score against C.A. River Plate of Argentina goalkeeper Daniel Vega during their MLS soccer friendly match in Toronto

The Cameroonian-Canadian forward played for approximately 600 clubs before winding up at Toronto FC, where his Canadian pedigree and ten goals the preceding three seasons convinced fans he’d be able to piece together a decent season for TFC in 2009. Nope. Eleven league appearances, one goal. In a loss. In very Toronto FC fashion however, he scored 15 for Montreal in the next two seasons.

Alen Stevanovic

Well, he sure seemed to mean well. And there was excitement—look, here’s an entire video dedicated to the man’s arrival!—and then it all kind of came apart, with Stevanovic often failing to break into the first team to make a big impact and then playing selfishly when he was on the pitch.

Laurent Robert

Oh god. Laurent. Robert. Probably the single most frustrating player I’ve ever watched in my entire life. Who did he play before joined TFC? 2007-2008 Derby County. The Derby County that was relegated in March. The Derby County for which he played FOUR TIMES. God DAMMIT.

Max Urruti

Kevin Payne’s boy! He’d been aware of him for two years at Newell’s Old Boys! Finally bagged him! Went to Portland FC immediately!

Mista

Ooh, this is a hard one. Although some in these parts believed he was woefully misunderstood by an organization with a pretty poor track record in player development and coaching (see Jeff Cunningham’s post TFC numbers), Mista plain sucked for TFC where he played 9 league games in 2010 under Preki.

Joseph Nane

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I think I will defer to his succinct Wikipedia entry heading under Career, Professional:

Joseph was drafted in the fourth round (53rd overall) of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft by Toronto FC. Joseph signed a developmental contract with Toronto FC on April 5, 2010.

Joseph made his professional debut on April 10, 2010 in a game against New England Revolution.

Joseph was traded to Colorado Rapids on November 30, 2010 in exchange for a third-round selection in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft.

Nane was released by Colorado on November 16, 2012. He entered the 2012 MLS Re-Entry Draft and became a free agent after going undrafted in both rounds of the draft.

Raivas Hscanovics

DeRo-cheque-signing1

Another Preki guy in 2010, Hscanovics couldn’t really do anything necessary to play football well.

Masai Ujiri Press Conference

In a way, you have to hand it to Toronto FC. The club is audacious. Despite being arguably the least successful first division club in the world (literally – find us a worse one), it has made offers for both Carlos Tevez and Diego Forlan this summer.

Legitimate offers for big money. The information comes from too many credible sources and is just too absurd to have been made up.

There is the silly season and then there is the certifiably insane season.

The Reds were, obviously, laughed out of the room in both cases. It’s unclear what the club could offer to two players that are both looking to be in Brazil next year and, in Tevez’ case, still with several good years left before they’d be looking to come to America.

What may not be as obvious is that it’s also unclear what TFC would have gained from bringing in either of the two players.

On the surface, the fact that it’s a blessing that the Reds are too much of a mess to attract world class players might seem ironic. However, those types of players would be wasted on TFC in its current set-up.

Just this past off-season, Torsten Frings was gently shown the door because his cap hit was too high. Toronto had all kinds of holes in its line-up and it was suggested that it would be too difficult to fill them with that type of salary burden.

Eric Hassli and, later, Darren O’Dea were moved for the same reason. Their salary was deemed too high in a tight salary cap league.

So, if Toronto is constantly dropping salary money—and constantly making reference to the salary mismanagement of the previous management—why would they start down the same road of paying large portions of the cap to a single player?

That question is especially pertinent when you consider that TFC has made all kinds of noise about the need to stay young in its current rebuild.

It’s at this point that one cannot ignore that the big signing rumours coincided with the arrival of new MLSE president Tim Leiweke. Famously, Leiweke bought David Beckham to MLS and he’s been upfront about his desire to bring a similar player to Toronto.

He went so far to suggest that Toronto has self-handicapped itself by bring in what he called second tier DPs. Leiweke said that Toronto was acting like a small market club rather than a team based in the fourth largest city in North America.

It’s unclear whether Leiweke has consulted with TFC GM Kevin Payne about his feelings on DPs. If he has and Payne has given his blessing to the strategy then it would represent a radical change in thinking. If that’s the case it would also appear that the manager, Ryan Nelsen, hasn’t been included in the conversation.

Nelsen has consistently talked about the need to get the team’s core sorted out before adding a marquee signing. With just two wins on the year, it would appear that we are still a ways off from TFC being sorted.

Therein lies the most concerning thing of all about these offers. From the outside it looks like the president is acting on his own to bring in a player that the manager doesn’t necessarily want, while the GM straddles the middle while talking out of both sides of his month.

It’s reminiscent of the final days of the Aron Winter v Paul Mariner power-struggle. Not everyone in the club appears to be on the same page.

The truth is that no one knows whether bringing in a big name right now would help. Although four of the six MLS Cups won since the DP rule was brought in have gone to teams without a DP, it can be argued that the 2011-12 LA Galaxy were the best MLS club of all-time. The Galaxy had three DPs, including Beckham himself.

There is more than one way to build a MLS team.

However, what’s clear is that the wrong way to run a team is to have conflicting philosophies at the top. We’ve seen it in Toronto with Winter and Mariner and Leiweke has seen it as well while he was in LA. The Galaxy only saw success once before Alexei Lalas, who was never fully on board with the DP plan, was replaced.

Hopefully Leiweke learned a lesson from that experience, but current evidence in Toronto suggests that he may not have.

FBL-WC2014-CONFED-URU-ITA

When Kevin Payne was first unveiled as the new president of MLS’ Toronto FC, I asked him if he would sort out the leaks that continued to wreak havoc in and around the club. He answered:

“I believe there should be one message coming from the club. I believe very strongly in that. That is something that we will be talking about at the team staff and the business staff level. I don’t expect leaks. I don’t expect people voicing their own opinions in some sub rosa way as a source.”

Someone watching the live feed of the press conference at that moment made a crack on Twitter to the effect that this was a sports team, not the state department. And yet not a week before, a popular American source for non-stop transfer speculation on Twitter had leaked Payne would be TFC’s next president while at least one candidate for the position was still planning to fly to Toronto to be interviewed. This person was not made aware of the decision, and potentially beneficial bridges were unnecessarily burned because MLSE employees couldn’t shut up for a few days.

The appointment of Payne was, to say the least, incompetent. But Payne would at least change all that.

Today it seems Diego Forlan may or may not be on his way yet to Toronto. The story was first reported by Steve Goff in the Washington Post, which would reasonably lead people to assume that Payne, formerly of DC United, was the source. Then on Sunday Paul Attfield, a very respectable TFC beat guy (although not one known for inveterate scooping) declared the deal “could happen as early as Monday or Tuesday, when the MLS international transfer window opens, and would make him available for selection for Saturday’s contest at Sporting Kansas City.”

Now the Star’s Cathal Kelly is rumbling on about it:

And now Kurt Larson of the Toronto Sun published an article with the title “TFC to sign Diego Forlan: Report”, which promises more details but is in fact a summary of all we know.

The Globe and Mail normally has standards for sourcing, even within its teeny-tiny sports pages, but let’s just say I know from experience that even the world’s best regarded newspapers sometimes don’t double source things in the sporting world. After all, it’s just a stupid game.

As for Kelly, he’s just repeating what he’s heard from the club. But his argument that Forlan’s quotes comprise “a non denial denial” doesn’t ring true. This is what Forlan said:

“I said I would like to play in the United States, also in the Middle East,” he told reporters on Monday, dispelling the rumors.

“But I have a contract here for another two years. I’m very happy here and I have a contract. Today you know, there are so many websites on the Internet to see if the source is right or not.

“But I would like to stay at Inter, until not only the (2014) World Cup, but until the end of the contract.”

Which sounds to me like a denial denial. Unless Forlan isn’t willing to leave.

And yet Forlan’s arrival means a lot not only for the struggling (forever struggling) Canadian team, but for MLS. Richard Farley makes a good argument:

For Toronto, Forlán could slot in behind Danny Koevermans and Robert Earnshaw as an attacking midfielder or be played in tandem in support of either forward. While his arrival may prove too late to elevate Toronto, 13 points out of a playoff spot, to postseason contention, the prospect of an elite attacker may revitalize fan spirits around BMO Field.

That may the most important part of this deal. For as promising as Toronto’s start was in Major League Soccer, the enthusiasm around the franchise has waned amid the team’s recent failings. No TFC supporter needs to be told about the franchise’s lack of postseason play, but with Leiweke and Kevin Payne willing to go out and get a player of Forlán’s caliber, there should be little debate new management intends the team to be a more entertaining if not more successful one.

Forlan is not Max Urruti. Despite being 34 years old, he’s an undeniable global star. Many Toronto FC fans excitedly declared they might consider returning to BMO Field (although that’s just anecdotal). This signing could have been among the most ambitious in the club’s history.

Some believe this back-and-forth is all just a strategy to force the player’s hand, but if so, it’s one that Toronto attempted before, and failed at. I’m more inclined to believe it reflects Ben Rycroft’s op-ed from May on Payne’s tenure as TFC president so far:

As this 2013 season quickly devolves into an extended 2014 pre-season, messaging, and as a result, trust, become tremendously important if they’re going to keep the dwindling constituents of BMO Field engaged.

Otherwise, as it is, politicians will often get four years – soccer executives should be so lucky.

If this thing fails to go through, several journalists will have been made to look like fools, the club will further shore up its reputation as a failed negotiator, MLSE will be made to look even more ridiculous in the eyes of the league, and hopeful Toronto FC fans will fail to take anything from the front office seriously ever again.

Here’s hoping it goes the other way.

Never mind the names.

After every poor Toronto FC performance—and their 3-3 draw with the Montreal Impact last night was by no means “poor” in the sense of what we’ve seen in the past from the Reds—fans commiserate by trading names.

“Well, at least Jeremy Brockie looks like he’s legit.”

“Thank god for Steven Caldwell, amirite?”

“O’Dea is terrible, but at least he’s trying. Nice goal.”

It’s perfectly acceptable to praise/criticize players after an individual performance, but the name-talk has led to some skewed thinking from the TFC faithful: consistently maintaining the club a few guys away from being a good overall unit.

The problem with assessing players after a couple of games involves regression to the mean. Some guys are going to have good nights, maybe even a couple of good nights. Other guys are going to suck for a bit and then play okay, maybe even great once or twice. A lot of this is just noise; what matters are there career numbers, which should ideally reflect a level of consistency above your average journeyman player. If Toronto isn’t acquiring guys like that, they’re not going to do much better than they are now over the course of a whole season.

If you’re going to look at sign posts, check career stats, not single good performances. And if you’re going to assess the health of Toronto FC as a club, there are any number of sign posts. The club has scored 17 goals and conceded 24. Not terrible, but by MLS standards this season, not great. Have they been affected by bad luck?

I don’t have accurate MLS shot statistics, but extrapolating from whoscored data, we can roughly surmise that Toronto FC’s PDO is ~991. So, near enough to the mean that we can’t say the team is suffering from some bad luck this season. Their TSR is .434. Using this metric is dangerously preliminary as we don’t really know with confidence how TSR correlates to table finish in MLS, but in a European league, this would be fairly mediocre. Based on shots taken and shots conceded, Toronto is where it should be.

Can a few good players change that around? Of course, pending some intelligent coaching. But those players can’t be acquired based on a good feeling, but with sensitive, forward thinking scouting that ensures the team won’t be waiving them along as soon as they arrive. If that’s happening at Toronto FC, I haven’t seen the evidence.

Manchester City v Norwich City - Premier League

You’ll have to thank our friend Armen for digging up this find, from Calcio Mercato. They took the story from Brazilian site Lancenet, which, to be fair, hasn’t always been packed to the brim with utter garbage. Here’s the Google translate edition, dated May 25th:

Tevez’s exit from Manchester City, and already have on hand motions for two clubs to play in the second half. The Argentine has been placed on the list of tradable by English club and received an offer from Toronto, Major League Soccer, or another of Monaco, which has just gone up to the French First Division.

The value that Toronto offers the City’s $ 10 million (£ 20.4 million). The contract offered Tevez to three years and would have totaled $ 85 million (U.S. $ 174.1 million) between wages, gloves and gains in marketing.

Monaco’s proposal has similar values. However, the Argentine is likely to accept the offer from the French club. The key issue is the preference Tevez to live in Monaco.

Manchester City to overhaul their squad for next season, and this process would be the departure of Tevez.

I’ve sent an email to Toronto FC and am awaiting comment on the story.

Independiente Argentina v Toronto FC

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.