Editorial Note: Pretty sure I have written an entire article's worth of editorial notes lately, but here is another one. Please welcome Michael Leach to the Waking the Red team. Michael covers Toronto FC, and soccer in general for 680 Radio. He will bring some professional experience (what is that?) to this blog as well as another press box perspective.
That's the sixty -four thousand dollar question for everyone involved with Toronto FC. It seemed like the shackles of history had been removed when super Seba swooped in from Rome to score the winner against Eastern Conference leaders, New York Red Bulls to seal a first ever playoff spot for TFC.
Three games after that collective sigh of relief, the landmark season came crashing to a halt in an ugly way. Three convincing defeats against the clubs most hated rivals, Columbus and Montreal saw TFC score just one goal in 270 minutes, while seven goals were shipped the other way. The offensive ineptitude was uncharacteristic, but the defensive calamity was an par for the course in 2015. The joy of the clinching win against New York melted into an all too familiar despair in the blink of an eye that left fans feeling like it was the bad old days all over again and wondering where things go from here.
The first order of offseason business for a huge chunk of the fan base would have been to show manager, Greg Vanney the door. A defender by trade, Vanney's beleaguered backline conceded an astonishing 58 goals in 2015, a total that had the reds tied for the worst goals against in Major League Soccer. That is a head scratching stat for a defensive minded head coach.
He was badly out managed in the most critical moments of the season. Those moments highlighted Vanney's lack of managerial experience at this level.
Vanney knew that the heat was on the moment that the season ended with a thud at Stade Saputo. He emphatically told reporters following the 3-0 playoff embarrassment that, "at the end of the day, it's not the same old TFC. We made it into the playoffs." It's not what people wanted to hear, but it is the truth, Toronto FC achieved more in 2015 than it ever has before.
For a team that has offered up manager after manager with only futility to show for all of the upheaval, Vanney's limited success and the stability of going into consecutive seasons with the same manager is a potent argument to keep Vanney around. Ultimately, newly minted club president, Bill Manning chose to keep Vanney around. He did make it clear that improvements, particularly at the back will be necessary for Vanney to keep his job through the 2016 season.
The decision to keep Vanney around is unpopular with fans, but it is the right course of action at this time. The team did make the playoffs, albeit in a weak Eastern Conference. That said, every TFC fan is well aware that the East is perennially weak and Toronto has always found a way to be on the outside looking in. This year was different. The playoff defeat was humiliating, but it was a step in the right direction. Stability and continuity are hallmarks of championship teams and are two words that have never been associated with Toronto FC. Keeping Vanney on, for now shows that the club is serious about bringing an end to the revolving door front office and the culture of losing.
The major focus on leadership this offseason has been squarely on Greg Vanney, but what about Michael Bradley's leadership? Bradley's work rate can't really be questioned. He is a fiery competitor, who at times shows an ability to take the team on his back and carry it to a result. He has moments where he can take the ball on his own side of the halfway line, bulldog his way through defenders and slot home key goals as he did in a 1-1 tie at Gillette Stadium back in May. He also has games like the playoff loss in Montreal in which he looks out of place and out of sync, an island unto himself. He was unable to provide adequate support to the backline. At the same time he couldn't quarterback an attack that could break down the Montreal defense, which effectively took Giovinco and Altidore out of the game. When Greg Vanney spoke of players being hesitant in that game, he was taking a long look at Michael Bradley.
As a leader on the pitch, the stats would suggest that his impact is minimal in terms of results. In fact, the argument can be made that TFC fair better without Bradley in the lineup. In 2015, the reds went an uninspiring 12-14-2 with Bradley as opposed to 4-3-2 without him. Those stats aren't enough to strip him of the captain's band, but it is somewhat alarming that there seems to be no difference in results with or without Bradley in the lineup.
Bradley's impact on the pitch hasn't had a dramatic impact on the team winning percentage, but he seems to have the backing of the locker room. Midfielder, Jonathan Osorio chimed in at the end of season media Q and A that Bradley is a lead by example kind of leader.
Dealing with the media comes as part of the territory for a team captain and it's a role that Bradley has cautiously accepted. He always makes himself available to the press following matches, but rarely does he truly open up to the media. He is guarded and calculating with his words and often leaves you wondering whether he's really giving an honest answer. His coldness toward the media is unlikely to change next season. It's his personality and as long as he's not ducking media responsibilities, it's not a damning trait. If fans haven't figured it out yet, they should learn to take what Bradley says with a pinch of salt.
The fact that TFC made the playoffs makes it difficult to make major changes to the leadership group. They've earned the opportunity to continue on with the process of taking this team from a perennial MLS doormat into a contender. The management team was upfront with the fact that just making the playoffs this year was the ultimate goal. That was a pretty low bar to set when you consider that two established teams made way for two expansion sides and an extra playoff spot was up for grabs in the East. Toronto, especially with the talent at its disposal should have been a shoe-in to make the playoffs. The goal needed to be more ambitious than just making it into the top six of a very weak conference. It's an underwhelming achievement that warrants nothing more than the soft endorsement that the brain trust got from the incoming president.
Toronto FC is smart to avoid massive change at this point. The club needs to make minor tweaks to bolster the defense in order to get to Manning's goal of 45 or fewer goals conceded in 2016. TFC should be in the market for a competent MLS calibre central defender and a true holding midfielder to provide more protection to the backline. Getting Justin Morrow's signature on a contract should be another priority. Morrow was one of the few bright spots and the lone constant in the defensive corps last season and could be a key cog in an improved defense next year.
The worst thing that Toronto FC could do this offseason would be to go through another massive overhaul. This team isn't as broken as it appeared to be in the playoff loss at Montreal. Minor changes should be the recipe for improvement in 2016. If, however, it becomes apparent early next season that the team isn't moving forward, then expect changes to be made at the top.