As Toronto FC continues its clumsy stumble to the finish line of this miserable season, and as the dubious records pile up and fan interest dwindles, there’s been a constant theme from those who still have faith in Paul Mariner.
And that is it’s unfair to judge him given what he’s had to work with — a poor squad inherited from Aron Winter and made worse by injuries to the team’s best players. The argument goes that when the off-season comes and a full rebuild can be done, things will improve because Mariner has the MLS experience and know how to do it right.
The evidence so far with regards to Mariner’s signings isn’t that great. Quincy Amarikwa, Andrew Wiedeman and Freddy Hall are all depth pickups, the sort of players who with a full squad would be borderline to even make the bench. At the right price, though, every MLS squad needs that kind of player, and Amarikwa is certainly affordable, earning the league minimum of $44,000 and has done enough to return next season.
Hall is a different matter. Despite also earning the league minimum, the Bermudan goalkeeper hasn’t looked the part, inspiring no confidence that he’d be ready to fill in should Stefan Frei get injured. Wiedeman has also failed to impress, and even if he maintains his Generation Adidas status, or agrees to a much lower salary, there’s no compelling argument beyond continuity to keep him on.
There are three types of players who can be signed in the off-season, with one of them being the hardest and most important when it comes to building a competitive squad.
The first category is made up of cheap players, whether they are castoffs from other MLS teams, NASL players or players brought in through the draft. Cheap and without too much expectation, it’s not that hard to find a serviceable player such as Amarikwa or Logan Emory.
The second category is high priced stars. As long as you have the cash and the will to spend it, you can attract a big name. There are good and bad examples of players brought in on designated player contracts, and there’s still plenty of debate on the best way to build a squad, if using all three DP spots is a wise use of the salary cap or not. But if you want them, it’s easy enough to get these players. Eric Hassli fits into that category and it will be interesting to see if he returns in 2013.
The other category is the middle class player, the good quality MLS player who’s not quite good enough to go overseas to a better league. Usually making six figures but not on an outrageous salary, these are players that you’re very happy to have in the first team, that will hopefully stay with the club for years and can provide the core to build around.
There are examples throughout MLS of teams that have done very well by building their rosters with third this category of players. Real Salt Lake have a great core who’ve been together for a few years, and Sporting Kansas City have a lot of these types of players, their highest salary being a mere $255,750, allowing them to really spread the salary cap wealth. Even New York, with the splashy names and salaries has valuable contributing players such as Joel Lindpere, Teemu Tainio, Jan Gunnar Solli, Kenny Cooper, Dax McCarty.
These are the hardest players to identify and develop and it’s no surprise that TFC are alarmingly lacking in this area. It seemed like Darren O’Dea was this type of player, the one undeniable improvement Mariner made to the squad. Not a DP, and not an elite MLS player by any means, but a good solid defender, and a definite upgrade and one young enough to stay with Toronto for a long time.
Then you see the numbers. He’s on a guaranteed salary of $436,250 and realize he falls into the high priced star category, and is not the type of signing we can expect more of from Mariner, but rather another of those "easy to get if you throw enough money at them" kind of players.
And when you also include Richard Eckersley’s $390,000 price tag, it turns out TFC have five players (including three DPs) taking up half of their salary cap.
That obviously doesn’t leave much money for the other 25 players in the squad, or even the 15 next highest paid that actually count towards the cap, so it’s no surprise that TFC’s depth is almost non-existent and a few injuries can have such a devastating effect.
With Eric Avila and Adrian Cann frozen out and unlikely to be part of Mariner’s long-term plans, Ryan Johnson and Stefan Frei are the only ones in the category of good first-team players who aren’t overpaid. Ashtone Morgan and Luis Silva definitely have the potential to join them in that category if they continue their development.
Whether it’s through the draft, trades or discovery signings, finding more players at this level is the biggest thing Mariner has to do over the off-season. It was already a very difficult job but now instead of O’Dea being the first of those players, Mariner has made it more difficult for himself by overpaying and further limiting his available funds.
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.