As new MLS season kicks off, Toronto FC’s promise of accountability must start at the top

bill-manning

Toronto FC's President Bill Manning attends a news conference in Toronto. (Chris Young/CP)

Has a season opener ever been met with more indifference than the upcoming clash between Toronto FC and FC Cincinnati, the MLS Supporters’ Shield holders, this coming Sunday?

First, a disclaimer. I’m a fan. I’ve worked for the club in the past and even have an outfield Júlio César jersey — yeah, I’m not sure why either. So why the indifference? Let’s start with 2023.

Ask a TFC supporter about last year, and vaping on planes is an immediate discussion point. Big-money designated players Federico Bernardeschi — the vaper (vapee?) in question — and Lorenzo Insigne performed well below their standards.

Head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley was fired during the season. His son Michael, the captain and player most credited with establishing a culture in Toronto that other teams in the league envied, retired. Behind the scenes, many of the staff that helped lead TFC from expansion purgatory to treble winning glory in 2017 had gone as well. The club with the highest roster salary in the league finished dead last and Bernardeschi led the Reds in goals with a total of five. It was all incredibly grim.  

So, we start anew. John Herdman is the head coach and local product Jonathan Osorio is the captain. Herdman galvanized a country when he helped the Canadian men’s national team get back to the World Cup after a 36-year hiatus. In terms of stories worth celebrating, Osorio’s is hard to top. From trialist to squad player to unsung hero to captain, Osorio’s path is what we dreamt was possible when TFC’s MLS journey started on the shores of Lake Ontario — when BMO Field was about half its current size — in 2007. 

As for on the pitch, Herdman is prioritizing defenders in the final days before the season begins, with Birmingham City’s Kevin Long putting pen to paper on a contract with Toronto on Tuesday and Richie Laryea returning from Nottingham Forest. Imagine the following: a bounce-back season from Latif Blessing combined with leaps from youngsters DeAndre Kerr and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty plus the Italians “caring” could mean that TFC isn’t bad, but even actually good in 2024. 

If that scenario feels optimistic and even simplistic, that’s fair. As much as things changed during the offseason, some things did not. Bernardeschi and Insigne both contemplated leaving, according to reports, but found proposals from potential suitors less lucrative than their current deals. And most importantly, Bill Manning remains president of the club. 

“John has sent a very clear message that we’re not going to look back and we’re going to go forward,” Manning said at the end of 2023. “But there’s going to be a certain accountability that he’s going to hold players and he’s going to hold staff to.

“This was one of those seasons where everything went wrong that could go wrong,” Manning continued. “But also some of that was of our own doing as a club, whether it was players or staff or so on. John wants to wipe the slate clean but he’s also saying enough’s enough. We’ve got to look in the mirror.”

I agree with Manning and that’s why I find myself ambivalent about the start of this Toronto FC campaign.

Though Manning has helped the Toronto Argonauts reach the pinnacle of the CFL in his role as president, he has not been held accountable for TFC’s many mistakes in the aftermath of Tim Bezbatchenko’s departure for Columbus in 2019.

Since then, Bezbatchenko has established the Crew as the league’s best in class while TFC pivoted from disaster to calamity at breathtaking speed. There was Greg Vanney leaving for Los Angeles and the hirings and firings of Ali Curtis, Chris Armas, Javier Perez and Bradley. As an aside, check out the soccer administration staff for Columbus. Fans should recognize more than a few names from Toronto’s old front office.

The club’s academy, its foundation the source of immense pride, hasn’t been the pipeline to the first team Manning envisioned. In fact, players are finding better options once they leave. Canadian Jacob Shaffelburg’s departure from Toronto rebirthed his career in Nashville, where the 24-year-old has carved out a valuable role under head coach Gary Smith. The hope is that the youngsters still here — Kerr, Marshall-Rutty, Kobe Franklin and Kosi Thompson — see a pathway to important, competitive minutes.

There’s also chasing the signings of Insigne and Bernardeschi in the first place, two players that didn’t fit the model of previous European-based players that had found success in MLS. 

“I actually went to the Transfermarkt website and I looked up the Italian national team on what players were coming out of contract,” Manning said when Insigne was signed. 

A part of me found the anecdote endearing (I like browsing Transfermarkt as well), but there’s a reason that quote was derided in every corner of the soccer world.

During that press conference, Manning said Insigne’s arrival would have a commercial impact on the market and serve as a ‘transformational’ signing. It was a bold claim, especially considering the trials and tribulations (and bloody big deals) TFC encountered before landing the DP trident that would finally mesh in Toronto — Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. The Insigne splash felt like a move forced on by the pandemic and a lack of ‘buzz’ for Toronto FC in the market. It was a marketing play first, soccer decision second.

For these reasons (and the replacement referees set to take charge, yes for real), I’m finding my excitement level for the upcoming campaign muted. Watching Herdman navigate the pitfalls of club coaching will be fascinating and seeing Osorio with the armband captivating, but Manning’s continued missteps do not sit well with this fan.
 
The size of Toronto FC’s footprint in the city has decreased, with Canadian Press senior sports writer Neil Davidson’s image of a handful of media at 2023’s end-of-season media availability serving as stark proof. The pandemic did not help, but when asked why there is a lack of buzz in Toronto for the Reds with the season opener only days away, I point to the sagging leadership at the top of the organization.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.