Ajax & Total Football: Toronto FC's Past AND Our Future?

Paul Giamou/TorontoFC.ca

New President and GM Kevin Payne built an organizational structure which supported Total Football. Will he do it here?

With the news last week that Toronto FC had hired Kevin Payne as its new President and General Manager, optimism reigned supreme. As we sort through the opinion and facts related to that decision, one issue remains at the forefront of the fans' interest.

What can we expect to see on the pitch in the years to come?

At the press conference, Payne gave us some clues when indicated that he:

"wanted to import some of the philosophy that we developed in Washington. The philosophy was we want to play dominant soccer. We wanted to dictate how the game was going to be played and where it was going to be played. The style was based on possession, highly technical players, kind of a Latin style if you will."

Later Payne used the "B-Word"... not that one, the other one...Barcelona...to describe the ideal system. He was also very clear that he expected player and tactical decisions to be a collaborative process and indicated that Thomas Rongen, TFC's Current Academy Director would have more input into the make-up of the first team.

What does history say about the "Washington philosophy"?

At DC United, it appears to be a consistent approach from the first team on down. For example, current Director of Youth Development, Sonny Silooy, takes an active role with supporting the first team. He also works with all of their teams when it comes to player development. In fact, when head coach Ben Olsen was asked to lead the MLS All-Stars to the pitch against Chelsea in 2012, Silooy joined him as an assistant.

I reached out to Silooy to get an understanding of their Academy program and development emphasis. Silooy was gracious and indicated that

"Like all Academies, we work to prepare the players for the First Team. Ajax is where I am from; so much of what we do is in that model."

Ajax. Ringing any bells?

Silooy played over 250 games for Ajax and earned 25 caps for the Dutch National Team. His coaching biography is impressive and no amount of paraphrasing can do it justice. He is highly regarded, experienced, and successful. This is the man that under Kevin Payne in 2011, was asked to assume the development role to support DC's overall organizational philosophy of "Total Football." This is the engine that runs DC United.

Déjà vu right?

It shouldn't be. Many MLS sides are moving to Total Football as a philosophy.

For example, consider Sporting Kansas City. This club posted the 5th best regular season record in MLS history and is modeled after "Total Football." Matt Martin is a regional scout with SKC. In an interview, I asked him about his side and what drives its success. Said Martin:

"Our idea of balance is going to be much more aggressive and much more athletic than most of our opposition, but our commitment to the 4-3-3 is reflective of who we are...it is not the numbers 4-3-3...it is the total commitment to our style within that system that makes us great..."

You'll be reading more of what Martin had to say in an upcoming multi-part look at Scouting in the MLS. We will run this series in advance of the MLS Superdraft.

And it's not just MLS teams. Remember Jürgen Klinsmann? He who gave us the original plan of "Total Football" and led us to Ajax? He too is in the process of transforming the US Soccer Federation and its developmental ranks to think in this mindset.

While it probably doesn't need to be said, I probably should say it. Total football is not simply a 4-3-3 formation. In fact, some clubs like Barcelona make adaptations and have played variations of it such as a 3-4-3 "Diamond." Even DC United employs a variation with a 4-4-2, though it too functions more like a Diamond in the middle. This philosophy represents a mind-set. It's possession based and attacking in nature. Players must fill in for other players. It is about pressing and forcing mistakes, then being in a position to capitalize with numbers going forward. To make it work, especially in North America, you need the strength of a full organization behind the shift in mind-set.

Set aside the merits of this system, what's the common thread? A philosophy with the first team that cascades through the organization. That vision unites everything they do. Whether it's DC United and their Academy, or SKC and the direction of their scouts or the USSF and their massive movement at a youth level to support the first team; there is one unifying vision and it`s something all stakeholders work towards.

Now, I'm not at all indicating that the philosophy of Total Football is the best one for this club. Nor am I suggesting that Payne is at the forefront of some revolutionary thinking when it comes to playing style. What I am suggesting is that Payne's history of putting the weight of an organization behind the philosophy is unique to Toronto.

While Mariner can suggest that he didn't abandon the pillars, how often did he consult with Rongen on player issues? Apparently since this is considered unique, not that often. Prior to Rongen, how often did Stuart Neely, the former TFC Academy Director, actually consult with the first team? Never mind the fact that for almost 4 years, TFC never even had an Academy.

Clearly, what will be different is that there will be organizational resources and the will to implement a unified philosophy. No room for competing visions. One vision. Follow it or get out of the way. This time "All for One" might actually mean something.

Like the majority of the stocks in my portfolio, I've learned that past history does not necessarily indicate future success. Payne may or may not choose Total Football as the driving philosophy of Toronto FC. But if we pull out some of the key pillars that Payne alluded to in his visionary statements such as; "possession based", "attacking", and "Barcelona", we have some insight into his thinking.

Combine that with the recent blueprint from DC, which includes hiring a very successful Ajax thinker to run his Academy and things get interesting. Add to it that Thomas Rongen, a man schooled in those philosophies exists on staff and has been asked to take an active role in player decisions, and I think we have a reasonable picture of what the future might hold.

What does this mean for current head coach Paul Mariner?

This is a tough question as I respect the man's passion. I will submit that Paul appears to be saying the right things. Given Payne is assuming his previous General Manager duties; many see this as a clear demotion for Mariner. This can't be easy for him and he deserves some credit for taking this news very professionally.

Emotion aside, Mariner is the head coach. He is part of the system now. Ultimately it is his choice if he stays on board, his performance will dictate for how long.

I do find it ironic that Mariner once talked about not trying to force square pegs into round holes when he spoke about players (he brought in) dictating the system. In the town halls he said that the more direct style we saw under him was very much an emergency measure rather than his first choice. Let's hope that's the case. One thing is clear from Payne's past history; the philosophy dictates the system and the resources go towards supporting it. If players can't support the system, they'll find new players or develop the ones they have.

I guess time will tell if Mariner himself turns out to be a square peg in Payne's organization.

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