I think the news that Joao Plata will be returning to Toronto FC next year is one that all TFC fans are hoping for, but what else might we realistically, or unrealistically hope for in 2012. Over the next few days, we'll have a few different things that will make up a Toronto football fans Christmas wish list. I'll start off with this: Dear Santa, I want TFC to no longer be a punchline.
For the first few years of their existence, TFC have been very difficult for the rest of MLS to take seriously. There was Mo Johnston's 5 year plan which seemed to be based around the idea of not having a plan at all. There's been more coaches than seasons and of course there's also the ever spinning revolving door of players that saw the team reach 100 players after a mere 4 ½ seasons. They haven't been ready to start the season with a stable team yet, and many of the players who left seemed to immediately improve at their new clubs as if escaping TFC's unique brand of chaos was the best move any player could make.
There was the time they got themselves into position to take the step forward of actually making the playoffs, only to choke on the big game with a team record 5-0 loss to the worst team in the league that year. The struggles to beat USL teams to qualify for the Champions League didn't help either. Despite all that, Mo Johnston was rewarded with a new contract, and combined with Preki to take the team in a dramatic new direction in season 4, only for management to decide they didn't like Preki and can him at the first sign of trouble and dramatically change direction again.
Then of course there's that ever present with TFC, the drama. Whether it's coaches or players leaving mysteriously or with clear and often very public grievances being aired, players suddenly retiring into coaching or management jobs, or the front office managing to very rapidly turn supporters from loyal, excited and passionate into surly, mistrusting, divided and often openly rebellious, there's always been something going on to take away from any positive momentum elsewhere. All that meant that fans of other teams or open TFC haters had plenty of material to poke fun at, and never really needed to worry about TFC being a serious contender for honours any time soon.
When Aron Winter and Paul Mariner came on board this January after a magnificently long search following Mo and Preki's firing, there was renewed hope and talk of a new 'winning culture', but nothing really seemed to change. Inherited problems were resolved very messily, Dwayne de Rosario mused about going on strike, before finally leaving shortly into the season, in a trade that ended up being de ro for Andy Iro and a draft pick. Adrian Cann effectively did go on strike, and when he came back was forced into a humbling public apology, and an even more humbling appearance at Left Back.
The revolving door actually picked up pace, as TFC broke the all time record for players in an MLS season, and the 'exciting, attractive, attacking' system was doggedly stuck to despite a poor overall record that included numerous defensive meltdowns. When TFC called a big press conference at the end of June, there was talk that Winter would be giving up the coaching reins, more drama, another new coach, yet another nadir for TFC.
Instead, after 4 ½ seasons, that press conference saw TFC finally seem to turn a corner. Torsten Frings was introduced along with Danny Koevermans, and in the second half of the season, things seemed to improve. Julian de Guzman talked about how there was an increased dressing room focus on football. Matt Gold mentioned how Frings was able to represent the players side to Aron Winter and there certainly seemed a more pragmatic, less dogmatic approach to the team's formation going forward. That improvement yielded a tangible achievement as when the big game came around this time, instead of choking, they put in one of the best performances in club history to qualify for the knockout phases.
There's still a long way to go in the getting respect department. Look at the reaction to Danleigh Borman in the re-entry draft. Seen as not a big loss, and given up on as defensively hopeless by most TFC fans, a lot of MLS experts picked him as one of the best options out there. Concerns about defensive failures were met with 'yeah, but that was with TFC' as if no shortcomings exposed here could ever fairly be held against a player, until he got a chance to prove himself in more favourable circumstances with a decent team.
So that's what I want for next year; an end to the drama, and the comedy we've provided to the rest of MLS. I want Mariner, Winter and de Klerk to still be in charge at the end of the season. I want a productive pre season, with a settled lineup in the first game against LA. I want the majority of that starting squad to be still with us at the end of the season, with no need for a flurry of mud season trades. I want no more drama between players and coaches, or coaches and management, or management and fans. Blogging material be damned, I want TFC to be interesting only for how uninteresting they've become. I want the only controversy to be who'll be in net when the season starts. I want them to be a blandly run club that's recognised as tough to play against and a team where a player with the right skills can flourish. I want consistent performances, an obvious sense of progress, and yes damnit, I want a playoff place. Then I want the Front Office to not use all that as a reason for another hefty season ticket price raise.
I don't want TFC to be a joke anymore.