By Paul Gardner
The longest, most drawn-out, most difficult to understand mystery in MLS has finally ended. The guys at Maple Leaf Sports up in Toronto have finally had their fill of Mo Johnston, and have given him the old heave-ho.
And you have to wonder what took them so long. Johnston has been with Toronto FC since the very beginning in 2007. That Johnston should go to Toronto made a lot of sense -- his background as the man who had broken the “no Catholic players” barrier at the Protestant Glasgow Rangers gave him almost legendary status among Scottish fans -- of whom there were reckoned to be plenty in Toronto.
Plus the fact that he had been a wonderful player, almost a holdover from the days when Scottish inside-forwards were renowned as technically superior creative players. Plus he had playing experience in MLS with Kansas City. Plus he had coaching experience in MLS as Bob Bradley’s assistant at the MetroStars.
Or did he? Those of us who were around that team for the three years that Johnston was there might have had some doubts about that. Nothing was ever heard from Johnston, and very little was even seen of him. Bradley ran the show, for sure.
When the MetroStars fired Bradley late in the 2005 season, Johnston took over. Doubts about his coaching credentials surfaced quickly. The team did not improve, and Johnston got into a public spat with the team’s No. 1 star, Amado Guevara. As for recruiting new players, Johnston rushed off to -- you guessed it -- Scotland, and came back with Peter Canero, who was signed at a salary of $143,000. Canero quickly proved to everyone that he wasn’t very good. He played in only 9 games, a total of 278 minutes, which meant the MetroStars were paying him about $500 per minute on the field.
Both Johnston’s soccer savvy and his business sense looked shaky. The MetroStars fired Johnston after a lackluster 2006 season, and Johnston quickly turned up in Toronto. Where he continued to specialize in questionable Brit signings -- Andy Welsh, Rohan Ricketts, and the aging Danny Dichio and Carl Robinson -- and produced a pretty awful team.
Which was when it seemed likely that he would get himself fired -- after all, the Toronto fans were turning out in their thousands and surely deserved something a lot better. But no -- far from being fired Johnston was given what was described as “an expanded” role, and made Director of Soccer. But his Brit influence continued -- the next two coaches were both English imports, John Carver and Chris Cummins.
In January 2008 the Brit signings took on a ludicrous air as Johnston announced the arrival of Paul Winsper, who had been “lured from England” where he once “worked to improve the form of England star David Beckham.” Winsper, said Johnston, “will make us stronger on and off the field.” He didn’t, and by the beginning of this season, with Toronto FC having played three MLS seasons without making the playoffs, the decidedly non-Brit Preki was brought in as coach. But Johnston still, somehow, hung on to his job.
Not any more. And you really do have to wonder exactly what has been going through the minds of the Maple Leaf Sports boss Tom Anselmi and his partners for the past three years. He himself now admits what were evidently fundamental problems: “... the team was heading in the wrong direction, but it was even bigger than that. The situation was not right, that's the best way I can describe it. In hindsight, we had the wrong two guys, and now we've got to do a real thorough search and find the right guy to lead this club, and really have a vision for where this club wants to go next, and what it needs from a total infrastructure standpoint.”
A pretty damning series of admissions. (Incidentally, it’s surely OK to sympathize with Preki, brought in far too late to save a sinking ship, now dragged down with it).
Anselmi’s bio is a pretty impressive read -- from the sports business point of view. But he lists no soccer experience at all, and it ought to be obvious by now, after 16 years of experience with the old NASL, and now 15 years with MLS, that a lack of soccer knowledge is a big drawback.
Making key decisions, deciding on key appointments when you’re operating from a solid basis of ignorance is quite likely, I’d say, to mean you get “the wrong guys.” But how does one account for persisting with the wrong guys when all the evidence screamed out loud that things were coming off the rails?
As for having “a vision for where this club wants to go,” that ought to be pretty simple. I assume Toronto FC would like to win things, ultimately MLS Cup. Well, you don’t win MLS Cup with an imported coach. That has never happened -- unless you count Frank Yallop who, ironically, has a solid Canadian pedigree.
The subtleties and intricacies of soccer cannot possibly be understood by someone of Anselmi’s background. In some ways, that ignorance might be a help -- there have been plenty of examples of decision-makers being unable to make decisions because they never finish weighing up the pros and cons. But in this particular case, Maple Leaf Sports has simply not been paying attention to its product, which has never been good -- certainly nowhere near good enough for their vibrant and numerous fans.
Anselmi & Co needs to listen to some good soccer advice. But they need to ensure that it does not come from the Brit camp. They’ve surely seen enough of that.