TORONTO – So, now what?
What happened to Toronto FC? What’s next for the Reds? Where do they go from here?
Those are just some of the pressing questions being asked in the aftermath of a 2-1 home loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday evening, a result that officially eliminated TFC from playoff contention.
There’s a lot of soul searching going on within the corridors of BMO Field at the moment over a debacle of an MLS campaign in which the Reds have conceded a whopping 60 goals, have come from behind to win a game on only one occasion, and have posted consecutive victories just once – once! – en route to missing the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
Is the year a complete write-off? No. A third consecutive Canadian Championship and an appearance in the Concacaf Champions League final (where they came achingly close to becoming the first MLS team to win the continental competition) can’t be overlooked. Those are significant achievements that shouldn’t be dismissed or minimized.
To be sure, TFC had many issues in MLS in 2018, foremost among them a litany of injuries that prevented the club from finding its rhythm and having any kind of continuity. Balancing its Concacaf commitments with league responsibilities proved to be too much. Miscalculations were made early on when TFC fielded B teams in MLS – with the thinking being it could make up the ground later on – so it could focus on Concacaf.
Two incredibly short off-seasons took a physical and mental toll. Coach Greg Vanney often got his tactics and player selections wrong, most notably playing Michael Bradley in defence when he had other options. GM Tim Bezbatchenko didn’t properly reinforce the roster over the winter – the signing of Ager Aketke proved to be a big mistake.
Those are just some of reasons for TFC’s failures in MLS. Reasons, not excuses. There’s a difference.
Let’s not sugar coat it, or mince words here. There are no excuses for this team’s failure to make the playoffs. None.
Toronto FC has the highest payroll (by some distance) in MLS, and is reputed to have the deepest roster in the league. It also enjoys the backing of MLSE, and the club made full use of that support in putting together a 2017 campaign – the greatest in league history – in which it won a historic treble.
Was it realistic to expect the Reds to match what they did a year ago this season? Maybe not. And it has to be said, outspending everybody else doesn’t guarantee success, especially in a salary cap league such as MLS.
But the bare minimum requirement on the MLS front was to qualify for the playoffs. TFC didn’t manage that, and that’s totally unacceptable considering all the resources they have at their disposal.
As a result, Toronto FC faces its most interesting off-season since the fallout from the “Bloody Big Deal” year, an off-season that must include honest introspection.
The process of brutal self-evaluation actually started weeks ago when Bradley laid the sobering truth bare following a 5-2 home loss to LAFC.
“You run out of things to say. For me, it’s very simple. We have an incredible year last year, but Champions League aside, this year we have not had enough people in this club from the top to all the way down to the bottom, and everybody is included – we have not had enough people who have understood how hard it was going to be, what it was going to take to navigate through another season where we had to play every week like our lives depended on it,” Bradley explained.
“Last year, that was the mentality. Last year, that’s what we were able to do. But when you win everything like we did, then you have to understand to come back and do it again it’s going to be even harder. Through 27 [MLS] games this year, it’s not even been close. Not even close.”
That, in a nutshell, explains how and why the MLS season went horribly wrong for Toronto.
Last year, everybody in the organization was focused and committed every day, in every training session, in every game, in every moment. This season, there seemed to be a sense of entitlement, the feeling that the same effort and commitment didn’t have to be exerted because the title was owed to them. If the 2018 campaign reinforced anything for TFC, it’s that success must be earned.
Bradley’s comments diagnosed the problem, but didn’t hint at the cure. Whatever the club’s future plans are, they should include Vanney. Mistakes were made this season – he’d be the first to admit that. But you don’t suddenly become an inept manager overnight after winning MLS coach of the year honours. Vanney has played a major role in turning this team around during his tenure. He should be part of the solution in correcting what went wrong this season.
Which bring us back to the original question: Now what?
I’m not sure a wholesale culture change is needed. But a change in attitude is needed. More important than any roster moves or player signings it might make this winter, the club has to get back to the mindset it had last year when every play in every game mattered, and when, as Bradley put it, everybody played as though their lives depended on it.
Then, and only then, will Toronto FC be able to scale to the very top of MLS mountain again.