TORONTO — Make no mistake about it: Paul Mariner and Earl Cochrane are now on the clock.
Toronto FC is coming off one of the worst seasons in Major League Soccer history, stumbling to last place with an anemic 5-21-8 record and failing to qualify for the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
The Reds were a model of futility in 2012, losing a league-record nine consecutive games to begin the season, and then finishing the campaign with a 14-match winless run.
Things were so bad that the team was eliminated from playoff contention with six weeks remaining in the season, and the club’s owners, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, decided to roll back season ticket prices to 2007 levels for next year in order to appease a growingly frustrated and hostile fan base.
It raises a series of interesting questions: Who was responsible for the poor product on the field?
Was this entirely on former coach and technical director Aron Winter, who parted company with Toronto after a 1-9 start? Should TFC not have done better than it did once Mariner took over as coach and director of soccer operations in June? How much power did Mariner (then the team’s director of player development) and Cochrane (director of team and player operations) legitimately yield when Winter was in charge of putting the roster together?
Both Cochrane and Mariner left no doubt that they inherited this mess of a team from Winter, and that their influence over player singings and recruitment was minimal during the Dutchman’s tenure.
“It was ultimately Aron’s decision because he was at the top of the pyramid,” Cochrane told sportsnet.ca on Thursday.
“We would make recommendations, we would present him with (possible MLS trades) or players we could acquire (from outside MLS). He would have his own sources and he would decide whether to take that information, whether to go forward with it, whether to ignore, but it was ultimately his decision.
“The guys that were here after those first 10 games were ultimately his call.”
Mariner concurred, stating: “Most of them were holdovers from Aron.”
Cochrane later added: “In MLS, he didn’t have the contacts that Paul and I had, so if trades were being offered, if we had thoughts about how we could move or construct certain things, he would listen to what we have and ultimately make a decision or not make a decision or decide to go forward or not go forward. But he was making the decisions.”
That’s no longer the case.
With Winter long gone, Mariner and Cochrane are now fully and unequivocally running the show. They’ve been charged with the enormous task and daunting responsibility of setting things right for this struggling franchise.
They’re making the decisions. It’s their call. It’s all on them. They have no excuses — and Mariner is perfectly fine with that.
“It’s incumbent on all of us … to dedicate ourselves to be positive, to get the right people in and to put the product right on the field. That’s what we’ve been charged to do, and that’s what we’re going to do. I have no doubts that we can do it. Absolutely none,” Mariner said.
Winter left TFC after just one win in 10 games. A 14-game winless run (nine losses and four draws) isn’t quite the same as losing nine in a row, but it’s still pretty dreadful.
And yet Mariner isn’t the least bit concerned about losing his job, having recently talked to Tom Anselmi, executive vice president and chief operating officer for MLSE.
“I expect to be in charge of the team (in 2013),” Mariner stated.
But why should he, considering the team’s poor performance down the season stretch?
“Because I’m very good at what I do,” Mariner bullishly answered.
Really? Shouldn’t that have been reflected in the results on the field?
“Absolutely. (But) it’s difficult to win MLS games when you basically have your reserve team playing week in and week out,” Mariner pointed out.
To be fair, Toronto FC had serious injury problems this season. Starting goalkeeper Stefan Frei broke his ankle in March and missed the entire campaign, while all three of the team’s designated players — Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans and Eric Hassli — spent significant time sidelined with injuries.
Still, the Columbus Crew had injury issues, and almost made the playoffs despite losing 257 “man games” to injury during the season.
If the Crew could be competitive while dealing with a rash of injuries, why couldn’t TFC?
Mariner explained the difference was that Columbus’s two key players — forwards Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta — stayed healthy.
“They were competitive because they didn’t go deep into the squad (and) they have two difference makers who stayed fit in Higuain and Arrieta. In this league if your difference makers are your DPs or your forwards, you tend to put your chances away. We got chances but we didn’t put them away,” Mariner said.
Cochrane believes that TFC’s 4-2-4 run under Mariner when he immediately took over was a more accurate portrayal of where the team stood this season, rather than the 1-9 start and the 14-game winless skid.
“That’s a better picture of who we were,” Cochrane said.
Things may look bad from the outside, but Mariner has genuine hope for the future.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn. It really is. I’m so excited, so energized about putting this right because this is a fantastic club. … Working for MLSE, everything is there,” Mariner offered.
Cochrane echoed the Englishman’s sentiments, suggesting that this team doesn’t need a complete overhaul, but just a few tweaks.
“Now we add a couple of pieces, three or four (starters), some quality depth with guys with experience,” Cochrane said. “(Add to that) the learning some of our younger players have gone through this year, we think we’re going to be alright. We think we’re going to be in a position to challenge for a playoff spot.”