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The Blame Game

Is the league out to get Toronto FC? Did Winter leave a mess that Mariner had to clean up? Consider the big picture before you decide

Is the Don against Toronto?
Is the Don against Toronto?
Mike Stobe
Does Major League Soccer have it in for Toronto FC? Did Aron Winter leave a wake of destruction in terms of player management relations that Paul Mariner, good sod that he is, had to overcome?

Those are two of the more intriguing theories advanced this weekend by Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star. Using sources, Kelly presented those views in looking to assign blame and perhaps find an explanation as to how the team went from the optimism around a 2-2 draw with the LA Galaxy in front of 47,000 fans to the miserable mess that we now find ourselves in.

Kelly reviewed the Mellberg situation, DeRosario’s departure, as well as the rumoured culture under Winter. I applaud him for bringing these issues forward.

Do you buy it? Is the league against Toronto? Was Mariner working under impossible odds stacked against him by Winter?

I have no reason to doubt the majority of the theories advanced in that article but I do think we need to look at the full picture before you make up your mind on where the blame may lie. Let’s explore each of those assertions made in the article.

League Nixed Mellberg

In presenting a theory that the league is meddling in Toronto FC business, Kelly referenced a source that claimed the league ultimately turned down Toronto’s deal with Swedish Defender, Olof Mellberg. I myself reported this same story on August 27th of this year here at Waking the Red.

I don’t know the strength of Kelly’s sources but I know who I talked to and I believe that the league did indeed nix the deal.

Even if you don’t believe the whole world of “un-named sources” you must know that of the 53 designated players signed to MLS, only 1 of them was a Defender (Rafael Marquez of the New York Red Bulls).

So, while it is most likely true that the league stepped in and said no to Mellberg, it is also true that they have said no to defenders league wide. 18 of 19 MLS teams do not employ a designated player on the backline. This is not a case of the league being against Toronto and Toronto only. To re-visit the world of sources, mine claimed that it was nothing personal against Toronto and that the league just didn’t find it a good use of a primary marketing tool.

Fair? Well, the league owns all the teams so shouldn’t it have final say in how its resources get used? Fair or not, it is a factor for everyone not just Toronto.

League Nixes DeRosario Deal

Did the team go to the league to request a contract re-negotiation on behalf of Dwayne DeRosario that was ultimately turned down and led to his exit? Like most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

The league stated a number of times that they didn’t want to renegotiate DeRo’s contract. However, TFC also clearly botched his Celtic permission issue. To understand where there might be some annoyance on the part of the league you have to understand that players moving overseas is big vindication for the league. It’s a great marketing opportunity and a moment that a developmental league relishes.

Toronto, though the permissions debacle threw mud all over this potential billboard. Would that endear themselves to the league? Probably not.

But this wasn’t exactly a happy relationship with DeRo before it got to the league. Promises were made long before the public contract negotiation. DeRo spoke out against the field turf, about player treatment (ie. finding apartments for players), and who would forget his now infamous cheque writing celebration? All were public signs that things in private weren’t going well.

Set aside all of this and remind yourself that DeRosario did win league honours last year. This year? He will have missed almost a quarter of DC’s games due to injuries. That’s generally what happens to older players. Whether the league did or didn’t help in this situation is made moot by the fact that counting on older players to remain healthy isn’t exactly a solid team-building plan. Even if the league was 100% at fault for DeRo leaving, how useful would he be to us in the press box?

Winter Created a Player Relations Nightmare

Kelly used a team source to suggest that Winter treated the players like children, with a dress code and curfews. Something Mariner would later deal with by relaxing the team rules.

Fact or fiction? I believe this to be fact based on talking with those close to the team. I will however add that if I were Winter and inherited a team with a culture and history like Toronto, I probably would have done the same thing.

Without telling tales out of school, many supporters recall a certain player seeking into a locked hotel well after curfew on the eve of a game early into the 2010 season. I have my own player “source” who, when I asked why he felt that the team missed the playoffs in 2009, replied “a number of the guys really like the Toronto night life a little too much.”

Do the players need to follow strict team regulations? When Mariner relaxed the rules it led to the arrest of 3 players in a Houston bar days later. I know there are circumstances around that but clearly, Winter was trying to instill an aura of professionalism which appears to have been lacking for some time. I can’t blame him for that.

That said, I do find it ironic that when claiming that the players don’t need to be treated like children, the current coach instructs players on throw ins as to whom the ball should be played to. Though maybe grown men like to hear “to Quincy’s feet” frequently through the game. I’d think that they can recognize that by now but that’s just me.

In the end, we are left with a choice based on these meddling theories. Do you buy that the league and odds were stacked against Mariner? Or is it simply a regime looking to distance itself from the result which clearly is not good enough?

For me, knowing that all franchises in this league are owned by MLS, I find it hard to think of some grand conspiracy to keep Toronto down. The same factors that may have hurt Toronto in its player signings are factors for the majority of teams in the league.

Not being New York or LA hasn’t hurt San Jose or Sporting KC from building impressive organizations. Non-designated defenders were signed in many markets, including Toronto where our own Darren O’Dea makes in excess of the league maximum salary. The league didn’t necessarily stand in Toronto’s way when it ranked 3rd in the MLS in terms of total payroll.

I’d suggest we’d be further ahead if we simply focus on where we are going instead of trying to assign blame to the past. In saying that, I’m making a big assumption. I’m assuming we know where we are going.