Is Paul Mariner taking things in the right direction?
The most successful businesses are ones that can anticipate future trends, utilize their resources and adapt to a changing market. Those that resist the need to change often find themselves obsolete. Never is that more true than with the current direction our Reds are on.
Toronto FC won it's 3rd game in 9 tries this weekend in New England, showing signs of progress. Yet for many supporters, the victory itself is hollow. Paul Mariner's new system, endorsed by Tom Anselmi, is ensuring that Toronto is "competitive." They aren't getting blown out and have grabbed 13 of 27 available points. They are improving on Aron Winter's record of 1-9-0 in MLS play for 2012. All seemingly good things.
However, at the time of the coaching and system change, TFC were 10 points out of a playoff spot. After 9 further games they are now 12 back. They were 5 points out of last place in the East when Mariner took over and as of today have managed to gain just 1 point, as they still sit 4 points back of Philadelphia with the Union holding 2 games in hand. Looking at it objectively, they are clearly not losing any further ground on a playoff spot. That signals progress for eternal optimists but the sad reality is that this team's prospects are worse than they were based on this new direction.
I'm not talking about their odds to win the next game, or overcome what could be a career ending injury to Danny Koevermans. I'm simply talking about their desire to swim against a very powerful current and their complete inability to commit to long term change with the "market."
The market that Toronto FC operates in is called Major League Soccer, which could also be called the United States Development League based on its stated development goal and position in their development pyramid. Combined with International play, the league feeds the United States Men's National Program which has big ambitions to get better.
In the most simple of explanations, the United States Soccer Federation who oversee all aspects of US soccer, decided to hire Jurgen Klinsmann to oversee their programs. Not surprisingly, they will adopt a 4-3-3, attacking, possession style of football. This development means a full scale press to adopt and support this direction. From youth clubs to MLS Academies to MLS teams themselves the US is committed to focus on producing technically sound, 4-3-3 capable players.
We are already seeing the transition to attacking football in MLS play, albeit with mixed results. One team, Sporting Kansas City, after a few years of pain, leads the Eastern table. Others are not as immediately fortunate, as we saw in Toronto. After early struggles of their own the Philadelphia Union hacve dramatically improved since firing Piotr Nowak and going to a 4-3-3 based style. Observers suggest that at least 10 of 16 MLS sides have experimented and/or have begun to implement variations of Klinsmann's 4-3-3 model.
Results aside there is one undeniable fact. This is where the US Soccer Federation is taking their country. Do you doubt the competitive drive of the Americans to try to become excellent at something?
This new style is evident in virtually every MLS Academy. Sebastian Salazar of dcunited.com offers just an example of the thought process and resources that are pouring into the US Development streams to implement Klinsmann's view. In an interview with DC United Academy coach Tom Torres he recorded the following:
"Everything we do in the academy, whether it is in training or on game day, has to do with the 4-3-3 element and Total Football," Under-16 coach Tom Torres said from his office in RFK Stadium. "Ball possession and high-paced wingers that are getting in behind the back line, there is no doubt that those influences are there."
The influence Torres refers to comes from the most successful youth program in the world, that of fabled Dutch side Ajax Amsterdam. United assistant coach Sonny Silooy played in over 250 matches for the legendary club and works hand in hand with D.C.'s academy coaches in creating a system aimed at producing future professionals.
Sound familiar? Recall that 2011 represented an opportunity for Toronto FC. They too had hired Klinsmann to set their vision, the same man who is leading the United States. Not surprisingly, he recommended attacking, possession minded football.
Strangely though, despite this overhaul in staff TFC also kept cushy jobs for executives such as Earl Cochrane and gave them a traditional English style man in Paul Mariner to help implement it. Not surprisingly, it was a bit of mess. Who was signing who? Words put in people's ears. You know, the same infighting that Anselmi has appeared to have allowed to fester forever.
We all know what happened next. The results didn't come, at least in the MLS table. Winter's team struggled and the 1-9-0 start was too much and Winter was replaced in June with Paul Mariner. Though I suspect the decision to remove him came in mid-April based on timelines and Mariner's 3 year extension on May 3rd as reported by Duane Rollins. Regardless, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment wasn't happy with short term results and they sought to make a change.
Did they seek out a replacement that was experienced with attacking, possession minded, 4-3-3 football? Even when they had Rongen, an attacking, possession minded and experienced MLS Coach, a former MLS Coach of the Year, in their ranks? No. Did they look to support Mariner by keeping experienced 4-3-3 thinkers on the sideline? No. They moved Bob de Klerk out and brought Jim Brennan up.
TFC essentially abandoned Klinsmann's blueprint and went back to an old English style which has obviously brought England all kinds of International success (sarcasm) but like the NHL trap, can ensure that you might win a few and not get blown out in the process. Possession is trending in the 30% range. Passing accuracy is down. The team has been outshot in 8 of 9 games. The numbers tell the tale that many analysts are seeing, the different styles are very evident.
Did they think that by making this change in vision they could make the playoffs? No. Not even the new coach is talking about playoffs. And it couldn't be about capitalizing on the very large scale momentum that is sweeping the United States nor could it be about the goal of furthering progress on implementing attacking, possession minded football. It is in the complete opposite direction.
The only speculation that I can offer is that the new coach was put in place so that you and I would think that 13 of 27 points is a sign of improvement and we would renew our tickets. It's the cynic in me but really, what other goal could there be?
What impact will this massive shift in the United States have on TFC? Well, under MLS Roster rules, teams can fill out a 30 man roster. Three of those spots have to be Canadian. Eight are International spots depending on trades which leaves up to nineteen available spots to Canadian or US players. That's 2/3 of our roster that will potentially be influenced by this Total Football development shift in the United States. Coaches, players all following the same plan we had but opted to abandon over the short term.
What if we wanted to return to it? Speculation from where I sit would seem to indicate that we'd need a new coach and manager. Even if Mariner produces a one year miracle and the team makes the playoffs, is he really capable of leading a 4-3-3 system? He has never played it. He certainly has never coached it and when given a chance to continue to build on what Winter had started to implement, to make the minor tweaks he talked about when announced as the new boss, he went back to a very traditional model. He removed 4-3-3 thinkers from the mix and brought in those that support his vision.
Knowing that, will Mariner bring in players that will play a system he isn't experienced at teaching? That would seemingly be somewhat of a career limiting move. Will he keep Total Football visionaries on staff or simply replace them with his own, like minded choices? Will they like Aron Winter, simply opt to leave the organization entirely?
While I have referenced Mariner's name often in this blog, I don't see him as the bad guy per se. I think he is genuinely interested in getting results with the team that I love. He is bringing to the game what he knows and what he believes in, and is doing a decent job at that, results have certainly improved. He will try to find resources to support his view and do the best he can in the way he knows how. That, I respect. I feel that the focus should be on the big question, which is this.
If the United States is embracing Klinsmann's model and TFC has done an about face and are moving in an opposite direction, what confidence do we have that Tom Anselmi knows better?
We are in very real danger of becoming irrelevant for many, many more years or at least until a new leader above Mariner is found. Whichever comes sooner.