2012. A year of hope and despair. Toronto FC’s most TFC-esque season ever.
It had everything that makes up a proper Toronto FC campaign: failed high-profile signings, injuries, the defensive comedy, roster changeover, a coaching change, off-field drama, protesting supporters, and of course the losing.
Oh, the losing. A nine-game losing streak to start the season, and a 14 game winless streak to finish it off.
What made this season worse, aside from the heavy cumulative effect of the five seasons of struggle before it, was the genuine existence of hope to start things off. After an improved ending to 2011, the same managerial team was in place from the end of that season, bringing rarely seen stability as Aron Winter moved smoothly into Year 2 of the plan laid down by Jurgen Klinsmann.
The return of Richard Eckersley and Joao Plata were secured and supporters also had a full season of Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans to look forward to. Chilean international Miguel Aceval surely had the skill and experience to be the answer to the long standing centre back problem, and Stefan Frei was back from injury to fight Milos Kocic for the number one goalkeeping spot.
Everything can seem straight forward in the off-season, as supporters of any club can convince themselves they’ve made the right moves. But expectations were seemingly confirmed when the Reds knocking off the LA Galaxy to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. TFC actually were good! Time for MLS to start taking them seriously.
But as soon as the league season started, it all went wrong. A tough opening game in Seattle ended in defeat. Nothing to be alarmed at, but the big moment was Frings limping off with an injury. Frei also went down injured early on in the season, and Aceval clearly wasn’t the answer in the middle of defence, and neither was Logan Emory or Ty Harden.
The presumed spine of the side was gone, and the depth just wasn’t there. Meanwhile upfront neither Plata nor Koevermans could find the form they showed last year and once again that familiar feeling of despair set in.
Things spiralled out of control, and very quickly came the calls for Winter’s head. A desperate attempt to solidify the defence with park the bus tactics was described as unbearable by Ryan Johnson, while Koevermans bemoaned the record of the worst team in the world. Despite a hilariously baffling win, once again denying Vancouver the Voyageurs Cup that still doesn’t bear their name, and finally a league win against an equally inept Philadelphia team, Winter left and thus began the Paul Mariner era.
The squad underwent big changes, Plata and Julian de Guzman the biggest names leaving, both with their share of controversy and harsh words. After deals for Alessandro Nesta and Olof Mellberg fell through, Darren O’Dea was the latest to audition for the role of centre back saviour, and Eric Hassli was brought in as a hasty replacement for the injured Koevermans.
The improved form from May continued into mid-July under Mariner, and with Frings and Koevermans back to their best, a very respectable 16 points were garnered from his first 10 games. While it was too late for the 2012 season, it did offer a brief glimpse of hope.
It didn’t last long and instead there was another plummet back down to despair, despite the reality battling positive statements of Mariner. Hassli and O’Dea weren’t enough to turn things around, with neither player featuring in a win, and after 14 winless and often desperate games, when the end of the season came, with a team record lowest points total no less, it was a blessed relief.
But time is a great healer, and it’s been almost two months since our last grim reminder of how far TFC have to go. So with the 2013 season looming, once again supporters start the long slow drag up to the peak of the rollercoaster, to hope, and not without reason.
Off the pitch, there have again been changes, the biggest one the arrival of Kevin Payne to oversee the whole thing, a man with a proven track record of success and a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs, peculiarities and oddities of MLS.
His arrival gave an instant shot of credibility and extra benefit of doubt to the moves made. Many players have been released or traded, some have been re-signed and the biggest newcomer is Danny Califf.
Amid the untested optimism of pre-season, he can be seen as the experienced head to bring organisation to a talented young backline, in much the same way that Gale Agbossoumonde is bound to finally realise his potential, and the first and third overall SuperDraft picks will no doubt bring players who’ll make a difference.
If that is the case, and if Frings, Hassli and Frei can start the season healthy and stay that way, and if Koevermans can return and find his goal-scoring form quickly and some other as yet unknown players can come in and play a big part, well then maybe TFC can find themselves in the playoff hunt.
It’s a lot of ifs to convince yourself of and probably not all going to happen, but for me, I’d settle for some of them happening and some concrete steps to long term respectability. With the bar set that low, I’ll get back to hoping again, though after being fooled once in 2012, I’ll need a lot of proof before making the leap to believing.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.