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Toronto FC 2011 half season report. Could do better.

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How are you liking the season so far Captain?
How are you liking the season so far Captain?
Before the season started I wrote a season preview that included what achievements would make the season a success for TFC. I wrote "TFC are basically an expansion club again, and seem to be thinking a bit more long term than they have before, so my expectations for this season are appropriately low. Making the playoffs would be a huge success, what would be satisfactory? For me, I'd say whatever's considered good enough for the new management group to retain the confidence of supporters and management so we don't have to start all over again, again. To give some realistic targets, I'll say any 2 of reaching 40 points (probably not good enough for even the new easy playoffs), finishing above Vancouver, or retaining the Voyageurs cup and then making the Champions League group stage would be considered successful."

We’re now 17 games into the MLS season, exactly half way, and thanks to some fortunate lightning, we’re still halfway through the Voyageurs Cup final, so what better time to check in and see what progress we’re making towards those less than lofty goals.

The Voyageurs Cup and CCL qualification will be the first to be decided, with the replayed second leg rescheduled for just a week or so from now. With a 1-1 tie and an away goal in the bag from the first leg, TFC might be considered favourites, but I for one am not optimistic, though I haven’t seen any Whitecaps games since the firing of Teitur Thordarsen, they have at least managed to get another win under Tom Soehn, and the fact that Eric Hassli seems to have his mojo well and truly back is cause for concern enough for me. TFC have been outrageously lucky to still be in with a chance, and I can’t help but think that we’ll need some more to get past Vancouver. After that there’s still the home and away series against Nicaragua’s Real Esteli before we’d be in the group stages, but we really should be able to beat them.

Finishing above Vancouver? Well for now we’re ahead of them in the standings so I suppose you can say we’re on track to achieve that one, but really that’s only because the Whitecaps have been one of the few teams worse than us so far. However, from the few of their games I’ve seen so far, they look much more likely than Toronto to break out of their early season funk and put a few wins together, so I’m not confident that we’ll be ahead of them when the full 34 games are done.

The easiest one to quantify is the points, and we’re clearly behind the pace in that one, with only 15 points from the first 17 games, leaving us needing 25 from the remaining 17 to reach that arbitrary 40 point mark. Add in the fact that we’ve definitely had an easy start to the schedule, with 10 home games and 7 away, and it looks even bleaker. "Ah, but" you say, "we’re rebuilding the team, new signings will be arriving soon, and everyone’s been learning the new system so far, they’ll get better at it as the season goes on. Winter as well is new to this head coaching lark, he won’t make the same mistakes again, the only way is up, we’re bound to improve". Well yes, but every other team will also be bringing in new players, finding out who their trusted players are and developing their tactics, and pretty much all of them from a better starting point.

That would also be assuming that TFC have a steady base to work from, which is quite clearly not the case, in fact the club seems closer to collapsing than moving brightly forward. Injuries have already reduced the squad to the level where academy players such as Doneil Henry and Oscar Cordon are getting more minutes that they should. Alen Stevanovic, Winter’s most high profile signing so far just went back to Italy with his tail between his legs, after no goals and very few good performances in TFC red. Our best defender Adrian Cann is done for the season, and the man who’s been one of the few good surprises so far, as well as our best forward, Alan Gordon seems unable to put together a string of matches without aggravating a previous minor injury of picking up a new one.

All the above doesn’t suggest we’ll be seeing any significant improvement in the second half, so I doubt we’ll be hitting that 40 point mark either, but that’s ok, those were all arbitrary targets, the main thing for me was to have enough confidence to keep going with Winter and get some kind of continuity going for once at this club. One area where it would be very fair to judge Winter on in that respect, and the one other area that will have an effect on the rest of the season, is that ever present of life at TFC, the drama.

Ah drama, the one thing TFC have proven themselves masters of. Mo Johnston obviously left behind a few ticking time bombs as well as an overall stench of mistrust and disrespect, so it was always going to be difficult for Winter and Paul Mariner to change things and bring in the ‘winning culture’ they talked about at the start of the season. It would be quite harsh to blame them for the messy resolution to the Dwayne DeRosario saga, it was probably for the best to cut ties and move on there, but there’s been enough problems in the first half of the season to suggest that things aren’t really getting better, that that winning culture is still a long way away.

There seems to be an authoritarian, almost petty, my way or the highway stance that Winter is taking repeatedly, as if trying to stamp his personality on the club and make sure everyone falls in line behind him. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, and in the right situation I’m sure that style of management can work wonders, but in MLS? At TFC? There’s going to have to be some compromise along the way. Winter came from a club, Ajax, which is right at the top in Holland and very close to the top levels in world football. Players want to be there, it’s a pinnacle many will have dreamed of reaching and very very few would have legitimate aspirations to move on to better things. Anyone at this level, especially the better players who’d you’d ideally be trying your hardest to keep happy and at the club, has many options to be playing at a similar or better level for a similar or better wage. If the "my way" in the my way or the highway equation is particularly unpalatable, there’s really very little incentive not to take the highway, and yet Winter seems bent on forcing players to make that decision.

De Rosario obviously decided the highway was the way to go and ended up in New York. Another bit of early season drama ended with Adrian Cann blinking, giving up on his wage demands and, via a humiliating public apology, being accepted back into the team. Highly touted academy prospect Kevin Aleman, currently at the under 17 World cup with Canada was unceremoniously let go along with a couple of other academy players for refusing to commit to TFC until after the World Cup was over, presumably because he hoped to catch on at a bigger club. I can understand where Winter was coming from there, but why drop him completely? Shouldn’t the TFC academy be a place where kids are encouraged to work towards better things? What if he doesn’t catch on with a bigger club, would you not want one of the top young players in Canada back in your academy? If he ends up signing with another MLS club's academy, especially god help us Vancouver, that would be a huge black eye to the club.

All that brings us to the two players whose dramas are unresolved and could have a very negative effect on the rest of the season. Nana Attakora’s contract situation still isn’t resolved, with length of contract apparently being the sticking point, TFC wanting to lock him up for longer than Attakora wants to commit to, and with his current contract very close to ending. A contract dispute isn’t that bad in and of itself, this is professional sports, these things happen to the most professional of clubs and players. But the puzzling decision to keep Attakora on the bench for most of the season certainly seemed to be more of a punishment for not signing than a legitimate decision based on injuries or poor form in training as Winter insisted. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of goodwill left in the tank at this stage so if the contract terms aren’t satisfactory once negotiations are done, there’d really be no reason for Nana to take a hometown discount to stay at BMO Field. More than likely, TFC will end up losing one of their better young players, and no matter how it ends up, the indecision will hang over the team until then and really not help.

The other unresolved situation is one that it would be unfair to pin on Winter, and that’s Julian de Guzman. Things have just never worked out for De Guzman since his move here back in 2009, and if rumours are to be believed, the situation is slowly winding to an ignominious end. There’s reports that he hasn’t returned to the team since Canada were knocked out of the Gold Cup over a week ago, and talk of a contract buyout being negotiated. So it seems we won’t be able to rely on him to help out in the rest of this season or in the future, a sad end to what at the time seemed like a very positive signing.

In the end it won't be the results that determine if this season has been a success or not, after 4 years of turmoil, most fans would be willing to accept a poor finish result wise. 2011 has always been sold as a rebuilding year, so most of us would be able to settle for positive signs that the rebuild is happening, something definitive that we can point to and say that yes, this is why next year will be better, this is something to build on. Above all, fans will be looking for signs that, behind the scenes, the club has changed to something more professional, respectable and respectful. That would be the start of the winning culture that could enable us to become a consistently succesful club somewhere down the line.

It's the absence of those signs, much more than the absence of wins and points so far that would make me say that this first half of the season has been a failure. Unfortunately, the only real option open to TFC fans is to just wait and hope that things will eventually get better, so far there's precious little actual evidence that they will.