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Toronto FC’s 2018 MLS season: Who’s to blame for this mess?

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Someone has to wear the goat horns. Right?

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In just seven months, why have the 2017 treble winners slipped from the top of the heap to the bottom of the barrel? What specific event transpired to place Toronto FC in this calamitous situation?

It would be nice if we could point to one single event. That way, the line of “cause and effect” would be linear and we could easily diagnose the problem and start upon an immediate remedy. But this situation is far more complex (understatement supreme). Many factors have combined, in just the right proportions, at just the right (wrong) time, to brew this indigestible swill. From management, to the coach, to the players, to the field itself, Toronto FC has been plagued by poor decisions, inaction and misfortune. This has led to a conundrum that would cause even an astrophysicist to scratch his/her head.

Management

Tim Bezbatchenko and his management team started the year poorly. The squad’s key needs were well known throughout 2017 — a defensive midfielder to allow Michael Bradley to rest on occasion and another attacking midfielder to complement Victor Vazquez. But instead of plugging these holes first, management created more. The loss of Raheem Edwards and Steven Beitashour meant that the team now needed to replace talent on both sides of the pitch, as well as find depth in the middle.

The loss of Edwards was completely avoidable. Exposing a player with that much potential, with an annual cost of only $53,000, pretty much guaranteed his selection during the expansion draft. Even if Montreal did not want him, it’s difficult to imagine that LAFC would not have taken such a low risk themselves. In my humble opinion, TFC should have exposed other first team players with less chance of being picked, particularly those with higher salaries like Eriq Zavaleta, for instance, who isn’t as young as Edwards.

MLS: MLS CUP-Toronto FC Champions Parade Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Beitashour is a very curious case. By his own account, all Steven wanted was to stay at par with his 2017 salary ($264,000). Yet, despite his valuable contributions over the two most successful seasons in club history, management offered him a pay cut. This alleged incident would have given any proud employee enough pause to question his employer’s motives, especially since raises were being handed out to most of his colleagues. Consequently, Beitashour left the club and is now plying his trade quite well at LAFC.

To replace Beitashour, management spent an exorbitant sum on Gregory van der Wiel. This is not a knock against vdW. It is a statement of mismanagement: rather than spend $835,000 to get vdW, Bezbatchenko could have had Beitashour for $571K less. That sum could have been better spent plugging one of the two holes that were first mentioned (defensive midfielder or attacking midfielder).

So, with the season fast approaching, management still had three gaps. In what can only be described as a desperation move, Bez signed Ager Aketxe to a huge $1.3 million contract. The thought must have been that Aketxe could fill two roles — play the left side with his strong left foot (i.e. a replacement for Edwards’ offence) as well as back up Victor Vazquez as a central attacking midfielder when required. This is only speculation on my part. But, why else would such an astute soccer executive offer so much to a player with modest success at the Spanish B-league level? Surely Aketxe’s contract was not based solely on that YouTube highlight package.

For many reasons, Aketxe was not able to fill either role. Between this, the overpayment for Beita’s replacement, and the inability to find a defensive midfielder, Toronto FC was no better on the field, and they had overpaid by $1.8 million to be in that position. If management had made better decisions, who knows what that sum could have bought. As examples, Ezequiel Barco, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney each cost $1.5 million. I am not suggesting that any of these players were available to TFC, but I am offering this to provide context as to what management could have done with the money that they had.

Everton v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Then, there was the inexplicable delay in resigning Jason Hernandez. The club needed depth at centre back (no kidding!), but they left that gap open right up to their first game in Mexico. Consequently, they had an aging player, with no pre-season to speak of, as their depth move to shore up the back line. The argument that they were waiting because they were targeting another player might be true. But, if signing “another player” was doubtful, then management should have hedged their bet by signing Hernandez earlier — a $65,000 insurance policy, if you will.

It was this Swiss cheese roster that started the busiest and, arguably, the most important season in TFC’s brief history. With a lack of depth across the field, players were run to the point of injury and exhaustion. The constant revolving door of players meant that it was very difficult to establish a repeatable rhythm on the pitch and the problems of injuries, fatigue, and lack of chemistry continued to bubble and simmer, leading to loss after loss and a giant pot of frustration for all concerned.

The Coach

Despite what some fans may be shouting on social media, coach Greg Vanney is not the villain in this story. But he is not innocent either. Like the rest of the organization, he has played a role in this epic descent. For starters, the coach and the general manager enjoy a tight relationship. They have stated many times that personnel decisions are made after both have consulted with each other. Therefore, although the ultimate approval for TFC’s off-season maneuvers came from Bezbatchenko, Vanney definitely provided significant input.

America v Toronto - CONCACAF Champions League 2018 Photo by Luis Licona/Getty Images

On the field, Vanney clung to his preferred 3-5-2 set-up. With far less than an “A” lineup, the players available were not right for the long-term use of this formation. From a physical and mental standpoint, playing three at the back is very taxing on defenders and midfielders. It is a dynamic strategy that requires a lot of running (especially for the wingbacks) and constant coverage for missed assignments as defensive players repeatedly push forward on offence.

The formation brought the team tremendous success from the 2016 playoffs, to the 2017 treble, right through to the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League final. Therefore, why wouldn’t it work during this MLS season? As mentioned, the lack of depth on the roster, coupled with the fatigue of the players, are the two main reasons why. The third and fourth reasons are the improved quality of most other MLS teams and the fact that most of TFC’s opponents have figured out how to beat Vanney’s system. During the very first game of the current campaign, Gregg Berhalter and the Columbus Crew showed that clogging the midfield and then striking on the counter was the way to beat the tired champions. For the rest of the league, if they had the basic talent required to pull this off, it was simply rinse and repeat.

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

At times, Vanney did switch his formation and enjoyed mixed success. The most positive result came at BMO Field, when the coach’s 4-2-3-1 produced a 3-0 victory over Philadelphia. Yet, soon after that strong performance, Vanney returned to the more familiar option — the 3-5-2. The coach must have thought that the relatively weak opposition played a significant role in the outcome of that match. Otherwise, why else would he change? For the first time in a long time, the team had looked organized, confident and patient.

Finally, Vanney has been widely criticized for his player selection: playing Bradley at centre-back, pushing van der Wiel to the left side, sticking with out-of-form players — the list goes on. But, in his defence, see the “management” section above, and compound that with a spate of injuries caused, in part, by over-use and a really bad field.

The Field

Yes. Even BMO Field is culpable. The effects of constant use by the Reds and the Argos, along with an almost non-existent off-season, plus playing games in the cold of February and March reduced the playing surface to a no-man’s land of humps and hollows. To a player, Toronto FC complained about the moonscape pitch right up until it was replaced in May. Playing on such a lumpy, uneven, patchy surface that was either too hard or too soft with a tired, depth-starved lineup, using a demanding formation, was a recipe for more injuries. As the injuries piled up, so too did the losses. With each loss, more frustration. In hindsight, MLSE did absolutely no favours by trying to build history at BMO Field during the CONCACAF Champions League.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

More than the pitch itself, the feeling in the stadium is also not the same as it was. The atmosphere is different. You can feel it the moment that you walk through the gates. The Fortress is no more, and since that Columbus game in early March, right through to today, that sentiment has only worsened. Part of it is the ever-growing loss column. Like success begets confidence which begets more success, failure has the opposite effect. We all know that. Specific to this team, when the doubt and dread permeates the stands, the players can’t help but feel that negative energy. It is a phenomenon that can’t be fully appreciated unless you experience it. It is more than just silence. It is a heavy cloud that is only lifted with a two-goal lead. Pressing for that lead, with a weak and tired roster, using an ill-suited formation, on a terrible pitch, against strong opposition, only makes matters worse.

The physical state of the stadium also does not help. BMO Field is dreary and, like its major tenants, it is tired and stretched too thin. There is nothing to inspire the fans. A poor product on the field, coupled with a poor experience off the field only exacerbates the situation. It was the same after the first few years, when the stadium had squat stands, no roof and artificial turf. The switch to grass literally invigorated the place and the team. The addition of the new stands also gave a feeling of permanence. Adding the roofs/awnings also enhanced the mood. This was true not only for the fans, but for the entire organization. Now, the time has come to add to this legacy. The temporary stands, the gaping holes at the north end, the tired scoreboard, and the dreary concourse — all of these need an overhaul worthy of a championship team. The importance of this only increases as more MLS franchises build better facilities for their clubs.

The Players

There is absolutely no question that the players are trying their absolute best each time they don their jerseys and take the field. But, this team is not the same. For the most part, the individual names are the same, but the team is not the same. Mistakes by management, mistakes by the coach and a less than ideal work environment all contribute to employee engagement and success. But, ultimately, these are professionals — successful professionals who know what it takes to be the very best. So, go out and do it!

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On the field, there are no excuses for not running back to cover on defence. There are no excuses for giving the ball away with sloppy passes through the middle of your own half. There are no excuses for missing the net from less than ten yards or allowing a weak shot from more than eighteen yards out to dribble through your hands. There is no excuse for failing to communicate with each other, especially along the back line. There is no excuse for allowing the opposition to routinely abuse your star player with impunity. These careless errors and lack of intensity rest primarily with the men in the red (sometimes white) shirts. Sure, fatigue (caused in part by the factors listed above) has played a role. But fatigue does not excuse some of the abysmal play that we have witnessed over the past four and a half months. Given the intensity of the seventeen months leading up to the start of this MLS season, the players were always going to be tired. That fatigue meant that no one should have expected them to repeat the record setting performance of 2017. 74 goals for, only 37 goals against, and 20 wins leading to 69 points, were all out of the question. But fatigue cannot be the crutch used to justify being MLS’s laughingstock in 2018. These players are better than that.

Off the field, any issues with comraderie and unity need(ed) to be dealt with swiftly and sternly. I am not saying that there are issues in the dressing room, but rumours have circulated. Perhaps this talk is just nonsense. If it is, then let’s not speak of it again. But, what isn’t nonsense is the players’ responsibility to respectfully disagree with management and the coaching staff. Should the players have felt, at any time, that they were unable to carry out the roles assigned to them under the prevailing circumstances (e.g. injuries, fatigue, unfamiliarity with proposed positions, etc.), then they had a professional obligation to inform their coaching staff and discuss alternatives. If they did this and they were ignored, then the blame is squarely on Vanney and Bezbatchenko. But, that is not the culture at Toronto Football Club. That is not how Greg Vanney has squeezed results out of this team for the past four years. If the players lacked the self awareness to admit that they couldn’t perform to the expected level, then that is on them.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So, there it is. Not one single line that knits this entire mess together, but multiple strands that need to be unravelled in time for next season and, before that, this year’s Canadian Championship. Call it a complex endeavour. Call it work in progress. Call it TFC’s string theory.