There’s a very clear pattern here: a steady improvement over the first three years and an equally steady slide backwards over the next three years, to the point where TFC are now statistically worse off than they were as an expansion side.
This isn’t to criticize Paul Mariner, or even his predecessors Aron Winter and Preki. This is all very squarely on the directionless and reactionary upper management team that has no clear long-term plan to be followed even when bumps in the road may necessitate changes further down the chain of command.
For all the criticism he rightly received, at least for the first three years under Mo Johnston, the team was more or less haphazardly following the same plan. Though Johnston replaced himself as head coach with John Carver, who was then replaced by Chris Cummins, the basic playing style remained basically the same.
Though the surrounding players came and went at an alarming rate, the core of the team (Greg Sutton, Marvell Wynne, Jim Brennan, Carl Robinson, Danny Dichio) stayed the same, gradually evolving with the additions of Amado Guevara, Dwayne de Rosario and Julian de Guzman and the emergence of youngsters such as Sam Cronin and Stefan Frei. They weren’t a great team by any means, and there were clearly off the pitch problems. But TFC were gradually getting better.
That 2009 season ended of course in that 5-0 loss in New York, and as heartbreaking as it was at the time, it’s the still continuing chain reaction that game started that has really wrought havoc on the club.
Preki was brought in and in what was apparently a shock to Johnston and the front office, began dismantling that core and started remodelling the club. The gutting is always the easiest part of a regime change; the rebuilding is something that takes time.
Preki of course wasn’t really given that time, fired at the first sign of poor results when injuries showed up the lack of depth. He obviously alienated a lot of people both above and below him, so maybe it was a necessary firing, but the switch to Aron Winter and a totally different style of play was where things really went wrong.
Without having time to fully recover from Preki’s squad gutting, Winter went about radically changing things again, with predictable early results. A late season, post-transfer window improvement and the good Champions League run masked a lot of things, mainly an unsurprisingly continuing lack of depth in the squad, and when that was exposed by injuries at the start of this season it led to the nine game losing streak. Winter was of course also fired and now here we are with Paul Mariner, and once again a different playing style has led to a new purge and a rebuild cycle, leading to the crippling inability to deal with injuries.
A step back to reset is by no means always a bad thing, if the overall plan is given time to work and it can be followed by a series of smaller steps to end up ahead of where you started. Three big steps back in three seasons has led TFC to this point, all the way back past their early advancements to being worse than they were as an expansion side.
One would hope whoever steps into Tom Anselmi’s former role would be able to learn from history, that consistency and stability are what TFC are crying out for right now.
Mariner may succeed in leading the team to the playoffs next year, or he may not. At the very least, we should see an improvement over this season as the squad talent and depth is steadily improved.
Let’s hope that if he does have to be replaced, management makes an evolutionary change rather than revolutionary. Another big step backwards to reset is the last thing TFC needs.
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.