Aron Winter says next season won’t be a failure for Toronto FC if they fail to make the playoffs. Mr. Winter’s been right about a whole heck of a lot since he began his tenure at BMO Field. But is he right about this?
A Goal.com article about the Dutch master states that “Winter is adamant that next season won’t be considered a failure if the club doesn’t make the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year.”
Partly it’s a function of who Aron Winter is and what he’s set out to do with Toronto FC. So, in footballing terms, Winter’s right: His is a long game, and he has the patience and — it looks at this point — the vision to build something properly without cowing to any short-term gloryhunting. Success for Winter means the MLS Cup in a few years rather than the playoffs right now.
In man-management terms, he’s probably right, too. Toronto’s players hold Winter in very high esteem, and are willing to operate along his timeline.
But he’s wrong when it comes to the fans. The honeymoon between the Reds and the people of Toronto is long over. Attendances have slipped, and the novelty of having an MLS club to watch has worn off, replaced by the ugly reality of having a not-very-good team. Success, not trendiness, is now what will draw people to BMO Field.
Winter got a pass last year, everyone willing to buy in to the idea of a transitional phase. But another playoff-free year in 2012 won’t be seen as anything other than a failure by fans who are six-years-starved of post-season spectacle. It’s that simple.
Winter speaks often of a three-year journey to becoming a contender. The path would be long and hard, TFC fans were told, but the club had both a plan and the men in place to see it through. First step: Toronto FC needed demolishing and building anew from the ground up.
And Winter set to work with vigour. Forty-two players either joined or left the Reds last season — the likes of Dasan Robinson and Tony Tchani actually did both. Winter brought in top-class talents such as Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, and found a way to get the most out of a long-sputtering Julian de Guzman. Academy graduates were promoted and found surprising traction with the first team. Academy development plans were finalized and funded.
And, by the end of the season, Toronto was starting to look better. They weren’t Barcelona yet, but Winter’s boys were playing his total football game with enough success to finish the season with just two league losses in their last 11 matches. What’s more, TFC pushed through the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, dramatically earning a spot in the quarter-finals for the first time in team history.
So, by the end of the season, there was a positive glow around TFC. The plan was working: the first half of the campaign was a write-off, but the second half showed that team was improving. The Champions League success confirmed the side’s growth, and handed supporters a happy distraction from not making the playoffs.
But next season will be different. Hopes are up, and expectations are raised. Failure won’t be overlooked like last year. And Toronto’s CCL success — and, indeed, any further success, pushing any deeper into the continents top club competition — far from distracting from league failure, will make it stand out all the more starkly. Fans will have to wonder “if we’re good enough for the Champions League, why can’t we make the playoffs already?!?!” And they’d be right.
And they’ll remember the end of last season, when Toronto FC was playing so well and looked so much like a playoff team and wonder if the team hasn’t gotten worse. And they’d be right. And they’ll look at Koevermans’ huge contribution of goals and Frings’ huge contribution of everything else in the latter part of the 2011 season and remember thinking, “If we had these guys for a whole season, we’d be set.” And they’d be right.
Winter is by no means under the gun this year, fan unrest or not. But those fans will see failure in yet another season with no playoffs. So if, at the end of the 2012 season Toronto FC fans face another early winter, they’ll certainly see it as a failure. And they’d be right.
But Aron Winter might look at the same season and see another set of steps taken towards a longer-term goal, and call it a success. And, according to his own set of metrics, he’d probably be right, too.
Jamie Doyle is a Toronto-based writer, who is also a senior editor for Sportsnet Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter.