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Opinion: Toronto FC Must Stop the Rot

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The time has come to make some tough calls.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for change. We all know that doing the same thing and hoping for a different result is the epitome of madness. This madness, our madness, has been in effect since the start of last season. The rot has set in and it must be stopped.

As mentioned in articles past, this current band of TFC’ers, playing under the current system, is relegation fodder (if relegation existed). But, with starters like Alejandro Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Drew Moor, and Chris Mavinga, how could this be? With depth players like Nick DeLeon, Richie Laryea, and Jay Chapman, shouldn’t this squad be doing better? The answer, quite plainly, is “yes”.

There should be absolutely no expectation for this team to win the Supporters’ Shield, nor should there be any expectation that they will finish close to the top of the Eastern Conference. The players mentioned above, even if put in the perfect system, can only do so much. There are too many other gaps that need to be filled before we can aspire to mediocrity, let alone greatness.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

But, we know this. TFC’s brass, even though they gave it the ol’ college try, failed in their Primary Transfer Window adventure. Pozuelo was a great find and, arguably, he is the future of the franchise. But, what about all the other chasms that needed to be filled (and still need to be filled)? These include roster holes as well as formation and tactical holes. Waiting until the middle of July/August to start making these changes will be too late. Teams need time to absorb changes, find their new direction and move forward. Complicating the matter is the sad fact that there is no “pause” button on the season. Games continue to be frittered away and, along with each dropped point, so goes the team’s chances of success.

But, what is “success” for this team? Is it an MLS Cup championship? Is it challenging for the Supporters’ Shield? Is it a Canadian Championship? Or, is it just squeaking into the play-offs? Given where things stand today, and although I am still trying to envelop myself in wisps of euphoria from the 2017 season, I have to admit that my definition of “success” for this team is barely mediocre: a mid-table finish, a Canadian Championship, and a first-round playoff home game. That’s it.

We all know what roster voids (Boyds) need to be filled. I need not bore you by reciting what has been printed too many times to count. But, before bringing in new players, management needs to address some internal short-comings. There is no sense placing new, strong structures (players) on a rotting foundation.

MLS: Toronto FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

For starters, certain players need to be asked to leave. As hard as it may be to admit, some players are just not delivering. These players are being deployed in their optimal positions, but continue to under perform. Let me preface this by saying that I like all of the players that I am about to mention. I have nothing against them. Period. But, this is a situation where emotions cannot cloud sound judgement and, perhaps, removing these players frees-up (or adds) resources that can be better used by the team.

Unfortunately, Justin Morrow, Terrence Boyd, Jordan Hamilton, Eriq Zavaleta and Alex Bono have not produced the required results for a year and a half (Boyd, less so because he only joined at the start of this season). If these players can be moved, in such a way as to free up cap space or collect additional TAM/GAM, then these moves need to be made. Waiting for Terrence Boyd to show the aerial prowess and finishing ability that he was thought to have, or waiting for Morrow to play strong defence and flutter well-timed crosses from the left, are fool’s errands. Hoping that Hamilton will produce goals on a consistent basis or that Zavaleta will, more often than not, make that key defensive play at just the right time requires a level of patience that I do not have.

Perhaps these players will bloom once they arrive in another garden. Then we can all look back and say, “we shouldn’t have let them go. What a mistake!” But, over a long period of time, these players have not bloomed in this garden and, for Club and individual, it may be the right time for a change.

By no means are these lads solely to blame for TFC’s abysmal performances. Far from it. Heck, if I had my druthers, I would sack every player on the team and start from scratch. But, as that is not practical (especially considering factors like recent, heavy contracts given to a certain injury-prone striker and a certain Canadian “home-boy” midfielder), let’s not waste our time with these fantasies.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Next is the coaching philosophy. From coach-of-the-year brilliance in 2017 to today’s patch-work quilt of embarrassment, it’s hard to fathom this precipitous fall from grace. But, game in and game out, there it is — laid bare for all to see. Not every game, mind you. But, more than enough to warrant this level of criticism. Since the opening game of the 2018 MLS season, Columbus showed the league how to earn valuable points at TFC’s expense. The formula has been identical: let TFC have all the possession they want, crowd the middle (especially the defensive 18-yard box), if TFC tries to go wide then fan out a little and ensure two defensive players force the wide TFC player against the sidelines, and be patient while looking to hit on the counter against a slow TFC defence. It’s that simple.

Yet, there has been no answer from Greg Vanney and his staff; at least, no consistently successful answer. The coaching staff can point to a lack of roster infusion as the reason for its failures. Doing so, however, is a mere distraction technique. The fact is that it is their job to get the best out of the players that they do have. For far too long, that has not been happening. For a season and a half, TFC has routinely dropped points to teams with less talent which speaks, in part, to the coaching staff’s inability to properly use/motivate their squad.

For example, this team does not have the talent, speed or stamina to effectively play a 3-5-2 any longer. To quote Austin Powers, “that train has sailed”. Even playing four at the back, and looking for width to be provided by the full-backs, has not worked well for this team. Allowing the star midfielder, who has more miles on him this year than a rented mule, to roam the field aimlessly has produced absolutely nothing since his initial adrenaline rush wore off. Playing Zavaleta and Ashtone Morgan in a back three in the rarefied air of Rio Tinto Stadium gave the game away before it even started. The list goes on.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

In too many games this year, from players and coaches alike, the expressions on the TFC bench have been ones of frustration, exasperation and confusion. By contrast, successful teams, including TFC’s 2017 outfit, have looks of resolve, determination and competitive anger.

The perplexing thing is that, in speaking with, and listening to, Greg Vanney on many occasions, his keen football mind hasn’t dimmed. He is quick to analyze in-game situations and he is usually right on the mark when he predicts the opposition’s tactics days before the match. But, something continues to go terribly wrong between the time of his analysis and the opening whistle. Too often, the starting formation and line-up seem counter-intuitive. The players go out, dominate possession, become tired, allow a goal on their first or second shot against, and become demotivated. Then, everyone shuttles along to the next week and the same thing happens. Again, this is not just the theme of the past ten games. This is a theme stretching to that opening match against Columbus in 2018.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Motivating this team means more than just having them say the right things in a two-minute sound clip. It means instilling a belief in their abilities that translates to results on the field. This was not done effectively in 2018, and that failure spread to the 2019 CCL. Now, that failure has clearly infected the 2019 MLS campaign. Exasperated, forlorn looks from the sidelines tell a story. Exasperated, forlorn looks on the field tell the same story — this team does not have any workable solutions at the present time.

Arguably, they haven’t had any true team-based solutions since the lost CCL final against Chivas. Since that fateful night in Guadalajara, this group has waited for scattered moments of individual brilliance from a handful of players to lead the team to success. History has proven that the correct approach is having a brilliant system that engenders team success through the coordinated contribution of individuals. All of this is the responsibility of the coaching staff.

Changes, on both sides of the sideline, need to be made. The continued exasperation and frustration tells us so. Given the timing of the upcoming transfer window, the changes to the coaching staff need to happen before any mass player departures. But the player changes need to be right up against the July 7th opening. Starting now will lay the required foundation with a little more than half the season available to affect meaningful change. As a side note, “coaching changes” need not mean that all of the individuals leave the organization entirely. Perhaps some of them can/should be redeployed, either to the front office or within the Academy. Possibilities for the required player movements involve trades or loan deals (Morrow, Hamilton and Bono) — as mentioned, whatever it takes to free-up cap space or collect some additional TAM/GAM. In some instances, however, the required solution may be an out-right release (Zavaleta, Boyd) in order to free-up a roster spot for the new-comers.

But, who needs to be brought in? Although I have some favourites in mind, let’s leave that to the brain-trust that gets paid quite handsomely to make these decisions for a living. (Nevertheless, if TFC would like to hire me as a special consultant, I am available.)

Regardless of who makes the required decisions, the fact is that the rot has set in and something must be done to stop it. As mentioned several times, all changes must be made with a mind towards laying a foundation for whatever is going to happen during the Secondary Transfer Window in July. This means that the July plans must be finalized now, so that the team can hit the ground running. Otherwise, even my pretty mediocre definition of “success” in 2019 will be nothing more than a mad fantasy.