Toronto FC's season is finally over and that meant for the players there were only a few final things to sort out before they could return to their respective homes for the offseason. On Tuesday, most of the team were around to clean out their lockers and face the Toronto media one last time. For the most part the interviews are players saying what they are supposed to, avoiding the tough questions, and occasionally providing an update on their contract status.
This year it seemed that half the fun of watching the interviews was trying to figure out who was going to be back next season, who actually wanted to be back next season, and who basically did not care as long as someone was willing to pay them to play come the new year. There was also at least one notable absence from proceedings as Torsten Frings remained in Germany to continue his recovery from season ending surgery.
The end of season interviews will be the last time fans will see the players for a while in a formal setting (the TFC Pub Crawl being quite informal) but it is not the end of business for the club. There remains the small matter of many of the players having to meet with the management team to discuss the option years that they have coming up for 2013. In MLS, all option years are held by the club so it will be up to TFC to decide who they want to renew and who they plan to release into the many MLS drafts.
Several players indicated that such a meeting would take place for them over the coming days and Earl Cochrane suggested that the majority of the roster was actually going into option years and that left them with a lot of flexibility in regards to the cap. Flexibility is going to be key as it seems that we are looking at another fairly major overhaul of the squad this offseason as Mariner finally gets to build his team and improve on having, in his opinion, only seven MLS quality starters.
The day kicked off with team MVP Terry Dunfield taking to the stand all by himself. After fielding some depressing questions about his rough year with Canada and TFC results wise Terry pointed to the fact that between playing in three competitions, injuries, Winter's style not working in MLS for why it was such an up and down season and why things went so badly.
Dunfield tried really hard to make the season sound positive stating that they played with every team down the stretch and that they are not that far away from being competitive if they get players back fit. He did admit that they need some key signings. Terry will meet with management some time this week to discuss his option year for next year but he does want to stay in Toronto after a good year personally.
He was the first of many players on the day to express 100% confidence in the coach (like there was another option) but in the case of Dunfield it was actually almost believable. He had lots of nice things to say about the fans and their dedication to stand with the team through some rough periods and that they do deserve better.
Next on the stand were Quincy Amarikwa, Eric Avila, and Ryan Johnson. All three players would go into the group of players that you have to wonder if they will return for next season. The group talked about the loss of Danny Koevermans and how it hurt them but it was a lot more talk about staying strong and how the team is only a few pieces away from turning that corner.
Avila took some time to talk about his up and down season and you could sense some of the frustration about playing under 5 different coaches in his 5 year career and the lack of impact he made this season. When asked about his lack of playing time Avila said that he did not get an explanation from Paul about his lack of playing time down the stretch. He was diplomatic in his answer but again it was clear that he is not happy being a bench player and wants to fight for a starting role.
Johnson admitted that by the end of the season he was frustrated and did not want to talk to the media about the same situation over and over, and added that he wanted to be back because of the great city and the great fans but he feels "it could go a lot of different ways" clearly leaving the door open -- he also added a poke at Mariner, saying he wasn't sure if Mariner was the right man for the job.
He did point out that he is a great guy and he would play his heart out for him if he is the coach. He also pointed out that Mariner needs more time to show if he is the right guy for the job and to be able to shape the roster the way that he wants to. Amarikwa added that he was happy to come to Toronto because he felt it was a place where he would get his chance to play and impress despite not being involved in a single league win since arriving at the club.
Whenever Milos Kocic gets to speaking his mind you know there is a good chance that he will have something interesting to say. Today it was the fact that his triplets are doing well and the daughter will be home from the hospital soon. More seriously, Kocic commented that he had a rough couple of months but plans to be back stronger and to challenge for the top job next season. He did admit that Stefan Frei was the first choice of Mariner and that he would have to work hard if he is back next year.
He was joined on the stand by Freddy Hall who felt the competition was a good environment and that he also planned to push for the number one spot if he is here. Kocic pointed to clubs that have built successful teams and used Real Salt Lake to illustrate how with stability and belief they managed to build a very good team over five years. He was the first player to point that there is a process to building a team up and that it is not just about bringing in a couple of players and making it all better.
He then showed frustration about the way that the team conceded goals this season on counter attacks, set pieces, and late in matches which cost them this season. He pointed to Houston who win off defending set pieces and scoring when they get the chance as an example of how they could improve just by doing the little things right. The keepers pointed to a lack of self-belief in the team that cost them in terms of late goals.
They moved on to the coaching situation to which Kocic bluntly replied he does not care who his coach is, he is always going to work hard for whoever the coach is that the team puts in places. For him the unity seemed to be more important than who is actually the man in charge, while Hall on the other hand was willing to say that Mariner is the right man for the job and he was just handed a bad situation when he came in.
They wrapped up by talking about contract statuses for the players and Kocic avoided discussing his status and said that all he wants is to be the number one somewhere even if that is not in Toronto and Hall didn't even get the chance to answer.
Next up was the trio of Canadian defenders in Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry, and Adrian Cann. Henry and Morgan both discussed signing new deals with the club and that they are focused on developing here and not looking towards moving elsewhere for now. Morgan then discussed the pain of watching Canada get blown out in Honduras and commented that he felt it was now time for the next generation to step up and improve the team.
Cann talked about how the team did not do enough to learn from their mistakes when it comes to late goals. He did not say much more as he was away from the team a lot this season because of injuries and that it was not up to him the style of play that they employ and it was up to the coaches to address the issues. Cann admitted that he was excited to get back from his injury but physically he still had issues until until the last month and a half.
He seemed unaware as to why he got so little playing time but felt that as a professional it was just his job to be ready to play and he did not need an explanation as to why he was not playing. Cann all but came out and said that his time in Toronto is over as the team seems to prefer other players they have brought in and he wants to be playing games. He is not sure where he will be next season but will meet with the coaching staff tomorrow about his future. He would love to stay with Toronto but understands the business side of things.
Henry then discussed his injuries over the course of the season and how Mariner might have been protecting him from further injury. He admitted that he was never 100% fit but he did want to play down the stretch.
Eric Hassli and Richard Eckersley then took the stage and the first question was about Hassli's future with the club and if he would come back on a non-DP level deal next season. In his less than fluent English he replied that he is not sure but that he is happy here and we will see if he is back next season. He felt he was under a lot of stress and had a lot of injuries since joining Toronto and that left him disappointed that he could not play very much for the team.
Eckersley then looked back on the season saying that they have to grow and learn from the experience and that next year would be very vital for the franchise. He addressed the fact that he played out of position this season saying that he felt the pressure to do more to stop the back four from leaking goals. Later in the interview he addressed why he felt next season would be vital saying that things need to turn around and they need to grow as a team to be in contention for the playoffs.
Things then moved back to Hassli who commented that he feels he could work well in a system with Koevermans as well as Silva and Johnson. For him Koevermans is a top player and he can play with anybody and score anywhere. Ecks continued to stress that it will be key for the players to look back on the season and to continue to learn from what took place. He also added his support to Paul Mariner saying that he is the right man for the job and was just thrown to the fire when he took over. The big talking point from the pair was Eckersley saying that the team was lacking fitness this season more so than quality.
He added that fitness is a full time job for a player and they have to always be looking at what they are eating and doing. He felt the preseason was not good enough for fitness and that may have been a big factor in the season. He also said that for him to give his best for the team he needs to return to being a fullback next season and that this year he had to do a job for the team when asked by Mariner to play CB. Hassli threw in his two cents on Mariner saying that he is the right guy for the job and can't wait for preseason to prove this team has what it takes.
Next up were Luis Silva, Aaron Maund, and Reggie Lambe who all looked back on their first seasons in the league. Lambe was happy to come in and play so many games for the team and is looking forward to more next season. Silva was happy he got to play some minutes, score some goals, and get used to the physical environment of the league. Maund was happy to get some experience and get used to the grind of playing at this level despite the on field results.
All three players felt that it was easier to face a team the second time and they learned from each game. Maund pointed to situations like going to Santos for the second time in the season and how they were better able to deal with things like crowds and altitude. Silva then added that he is looking forward to hopefully playing around a group of great attackers next season in the likes of Johnson, Koevermans, and Hassli.
He plans to focus on staying fit in the offseason back in LA so he can come back stronger and faster for next year. When asked about being around a player like Frings, Lambe said it was about watching the things he did in training and around the game and learning from that. For Maund it was important to watch how he positioned himself to learn as he transition to the midfield role while for Silva it was more about learning to be smart and efficient with his movement off the ball.
Silva was then asked about the roles that Mariner played for him this season commenting that he felt he was a big help and support for him through the things that he went through this offseason. To wrap up the interview Lambe commented that Toronto FC was turning into Bermuda's team and players down their look at it as a chance to go professional by moving to Toronto. He added that their is another Bermudan on trial with the team right now.
The morning continued with Jeremy Hall, Andrew Wiedeman, and Logan Emory all talking about their contract statuses for next season. Hall has an option year for next season and will meet with the coaches later in the day. He added he wants to be here and hopes all goes well with those talks. Wiedeman also has option years remaining on his deal and would like to stay in Toronto pointing to a number of positives that the club has going on and his increased playing time since coming over from Dallas.
Emory was only on the first year of his contract this season and still has options remaining on the deal for the coming seasons. All three players seemed to think that the team is just a few pieces away from being competitive and they just need to put it all together with the things already in place. Wiedeman was hopeful that he did enough this season to show that he deserves to come back next year and have a full season to settle in and get used to the team.
Having the full preseason with the coach and the group of players will be key for getting on the same page and improving going forward. Emory confirmed that he will have surgery on his shoulder this week to repair the damage and he expects he should be fit for January and fully ready to play by the end of preseason in terms of contact and playing in matches. They then moved on to the standard question about Mariner and all three were on his side saying that the team is close under him and that with a full preseason he will show that he is the right guy for the job.
Next were the two injured players in Danny Koevermans and Stefan Frei. Koevermans said that he is training every day and will continue to train in Holland so that he can com back as soon as possible but was not willing to set a date for his return. Frei is still not 100% but he has started to do some keeper training in recent weeks. He is being patient with his ankle and is putting his plans to go to Europe and train on the back burner, but expects to be at 100% in plenty of time for the preseason.
Frei commented that it was very difficult to watch the team struggle this season and it was hard to not be able to lead by example or help in any way. He addressed the comments from Kocic about who is the number one keeper for the club saying that he feels that every job is up for grabs and feels that Mariner values players who give effort.
Koevermans commented that he feels the team did make some progress under Mariner and points to the early games as a sign of improvement before all the injuries took a toll. He is confident that Paul is the right coach to lead the team forward because he is a genuine guy and is a good coach. Koevermans addressed his own fitness coming into the season saying he did not want to look back to that time but felt that the win against LA might have raised expectations too high.
He was unwilling to talk about what Aron and Bob did in the preseason while Frei did not have much more to add as he spent most of his preseason working with Steward Kerr away from the team. He added that it will be vital for Toronto to finally challenge for the playoffs and not have to start over again as the fans have been waiting a long time for success. Koevermans felt that everything needed for the club to be successful was already in place from the facilities, to the staff, and even the food and the only thing lacking was the results.
Frei talked about the need for consistency in the back four allowing them to know each other and their preferences. That only comes from playing in game situations together. As the longest serving member of the club Frei looked back on having to play a variety of different situations and how playing for a coach like Winter helped him improve his foot work and adapting to a new coach without making a fuss is just part of the job.
The day ended with Earl Cochrane and Paul Mariner taking the stage for the longest and probably most interesting interview of all. They started with questions about Frings, for whom they say all is fine, and they expect him to return with a vengeance next year to make up for lost time -- however, when they were asked about where the surgery was, they could not recall. But at the end of the day they say Frings wants a storybook ending to his career in Toronto.
Cochrane admits that it's vital to have a playoff worthy product, and says that TFC is close to it: He says there are three to four major pieces are missing, along with some depth -- something that we've been sorely lacking for years -- to manage us through games. And there's also room in the salary cap for it, but the decision on who to remove to make room for those pieces is still to be decided. And when pressed on who he'd take instead of Luis Silva last season, he refused to answer.
As for the draft, Cochrane says that they're still looking for the person to take with the first pick. They've also been looking for players to use the first allocation order slot. They're also going to be checking in with Joao Plata, who's had and-down season in Ecuador. Meanwhile, Mariner tries to distance himself from Winter's lineup, especially the signing of Miguel Aceval. He's confident that they've got some pieces on the way, though, and knows that the lineup can be settled by the start of training camp. They are looking for younger people, of which Mariner says are Europeans, who are starting to see MLS as a viable alternative.
The injury bug was unkind to TFC, and Mariner admits it fully. He does say he has met with Tom Anselmi and knows that he will be back. He twice repeats the fact that Koevermans' injury was the turnabout point of the season, but then singles out players like Ashtone Morgan who had struggled with illness and injury, and cites his recent performance in the Champions League. But when pressed on the fact that Columbus had similar injury troubles and was still able to press for a playoff spot, Mariner angrily points out Federico Higuain as their keystone.
As for the season, Cochrane says he knows how frustrated and jaded supporters are. Mariner says he says he takes no solace in this season, other than the fact that the team was not being blown out in the last 14 games, and they did it on a reserve squad that currently includes just seven MLS starters.They say there is no tension between them (a possible poke back at the alleged dramas between Mariner and Winter), and this will help them find out.
To wrap up, they do understand that they are now on the clock, but using an old adage "the darkness before the dawn.", they both expressed optimism that they can turn this around.