After putting their 0-9 start behind them, Toronto FC has hit another rough patch.
As a result, supporters are looking for any light at the end of the tunnel that hints at better days ahead. One obvious positive for Canadian soccer fans is that even though Julian de Guzman was traded to FC Dallas, TFC continues to show a steadfast dedication to fielding Canadian players.
And while the team won’t make the playoffs for a sixth consecutive MLS campaign, Toronto should also be commended for its commitment towards developing the next generation of Canadian coaches. The TFC academy system currently employs eleven Canadians on the 13-man coaching staff, and two former Canadian internationals, Jim Brennan and Jason Bent, are assistants to Paul Mariner.
It’s not hard to see TFC is taking an active role in developing the next generation of Canadian players and coaches who will be vital in helping the country’s growth as a soccer nation.
“It is one thing to say that you are going to play young Canadian players. But actually doing it is a whole different ballgame. We can see how young players such as Ashtone Morgan have grasped and taken those opportunities. And for coaches to get the opportunity to learn and grow and gain experience, it is fantastic,” Bent told sportsnet.ca
“It has been a great platform that the club has given to Jim and myself in terms of opportunities to learn and further our trade.”
“It means an awful lot to the players and the coaches that TFC has a belief in what we have in our own backyard. We want to develop coaches. If you look at our academy, it is pretty much all local Canadian guys. It’s great to see and it’s great to have a club that believes in young Canadian coaches and players. Hopefully Montreal and Vancouver will jump on board with it and will give someone an opportunity,” Brennan said.
According to Bent, Toronto FC has made significant strides as an organization, even if the results have not yet manifested in terms of a playoff berth. You need only look at the construction of the new $21-million training ground at Downsview Park that is also the home of the academy program.
“It is fantastic that MLSE has invested this amount of money into giving us the home (at Downsview) that we have now. And coming in to work on a daily basis, seeing this type of facility makes you want to work and learn and just be part of the club and to try to progress the club on as much as possible,” Bent stated.
Like Bent, Brennan graduated to the senior team coaching staff after previously filling other roles within the organization, including assistant general manager and as a coach with the academy.
“In football you want to learn as much as possible about the game. I was fortunate enough that I got to go to upstairs and see the management side. I have worked with the academy, which was great and where I had my own team. And now I’m working with the first team. You don’t stop learning in this game and I have been fortunate,” Brennan explained.
While the managerial carousel at TFC has played a role in the team’s inability to qualify for the playoffs, a silver lining is that both the players and coaches have been exposed to different coaching philosophies and tactical approaches in a short period of time.
“Football is football. At the same time, you can always pick up certain things from the various coaches that have been in charge. Unfortunately, we have had that much turnover at the head coaching position at the club, but at the same time, you do try to pick up things from each one and always add in your own flair and your own style,” Bent said.
According to Brennan, TFC is in a cohesive position at the senior team level, with a singularity of vision and experience now being shared amongst the coaching staff.
“I guess you could say that, in a way, I grew up in the same school that Paul (Mariner) did. I played over there in England for twelve years and, since I was a kid, I came up through the youth teams up to the first team, so I was taught by the English coaches. I understand his lingo and what he is trying to do. Jason Bent is exactly the same, he played in England, and (goalkeeper coach) Stewart Kerr played in Scotland. We’re all on the same page when it comes to football and tactics,” Brennan stated.
Brennan and Bent, both 35, are enjoying the experience of working their way up the coaching ranks, developing their own philosophies and paying their dues with their local side. They also have a long friendship.
“Jimmy and I go back a long way — playing against each other and being teammates on the U-17 national team, Olympic team and senior men’s national team. We followed pretty much the same path going from amateur players to professionals. We have a lot of history together and it is nice to come together for our hometown club and to be able to work on the senior side of things,” Bent said.
Brennan and Bent are accomplished former players, who bring considerable European, MLS and international experience to the coaching staff, and they both believe that gives them added credibility when they deal with the players under their charge.
“It’s important because the players can look at you and see that you have pretty much seen it and done it and that you have played at a high level. They can see that you understand and can see the game differently than people who have not played the game, and that you know what players are going through as well,” Brennan explained.
Bent added: “Players want to see that you know what you are taking about. You are also speaking from experience, because you have been where you are trying to get them to reach. It does help you. Textbooks and coaching manuals can give you certain things, but especially at the top end, a lot of it is man management. When you can relate to players because you have been there, I think it gives you a little bit of an advantage.”
While Brennan, Bent, Mark Watson (San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Toshack (Portland Timbers), Pat Onstad (D.C. United) and Mauro Biello (Montreal Impact) make up a rising group of Canadians coaching in MLS, Frank Yallop ( San Jose) is the league’s only Canadian head coach.
Brennan was the first player signed by TFC back in 2007 and it would certainly be a nice story if he were to take over coaching reins at some point.
“Maybe one day, but not right now obviously. I’m enjoying working alongside Paul. But it is a funny game and you never know where you are going to end up in this game. To be fair, the organization has always been great to me. I owe them an awful lot. They have given me opportunities once my playing career ended. …. You look at our young guys and our coaches, everything we need is at our fingertips. I think they are really doing the right thing here by developing both Canadian players and coaches,” Brennan said.
Similarly, Bent was quick to indicate that while he would like to be a head coach at some point, he sees that day as a still a ways ahead in the future.
“One of my old mentors always told me that you don’t want to get a job too soon. And if you are not ready for it, it can really set you back. So for me, I’m happy to be an assistant. Each day I just try to keep learning more and more. Eventually, I would like to be a head coach at some point in time. But right now I’m not in any rush for it,” Bent stated.
Overall, Brennan and Bent expressed their satisfaction at the contribution that both MLS and MLSE have been able to make in terms of the development of Canadian soccer.
“When I first came through, as some of the young players are coming through now, there was no MLS. I was forced to go to Germany at 19 years old to try and ply my trade. I was then fortunate enough to come back and play in MLS in its infancy stages in the first two years of the league,” Bent explained.
“It was a great experience, but to now see the soccer specific stadiums that are throughout the league and going to each ground and remembering what they used to have, it’s such a reassuring feeling to know that this league is around, it’s strong, it’s backed well and it’s just progressing year in year out.”
Steve Bottjer is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and editor for RedNation Online, on online magazine covering all aspects of Canadian soccer. Follow RedNation Online on Twitter.