By Paul Gardner
Highly intriguing and, to me anyway, rather entertaining are the goings-on up in Toronto.
It may seem perverse, if not actually malicious, to be entertained -- after all, what’s so funny about a team that has won only one game out of its first 10? Result-wise that’s pretty grim news -- and I don’t suppose there’s too much hilarity and mirth resounding throughout the Toronto FC offices right now.
This is a team that, in its six seasons of play, has yet to make the playoffs. A team that has had eight coaches and gawd knows how many players -- a whirling mass of changes in fact. The only constant has been the amazing steadfastness of the Toronto fans who have turned up in their thousands, game after game after game to support the various increasingly hapless versions of their team. It can’t have been much fun for them, either.
The entertaining aspect comes, for me, from pondering the various layers of deja vuthat haunt this year’s version of Toronto FC, and trying to come up with a plausible explanation of the new management’s determination to ignore the warnings of recent history at the club.
All of Toronto’s coaches so far have been European or of European origin. Things started off with a Scot, and then two Englishmen -- a sequence that inevitably meant the arrival of Brit players. This is a process that has been repeated regularly throughout the team’s six years, and the results scream out loud that it has not been working.
So in comes Ryan Nelsen taking over from the English Paul Mariner, who had overseen an awful 2012 season during which Toronto won only six games. You could say that Nelsen, a New Zealander, is the first non-European coach, but that would be another touch of mild humor, for if you’ve ever seen Nelsen play, or listened to his comments on the game, you’ll know that his soccer world is about as British as it gets.
Which is not particularly amusing -- but I tried to take it in jocular vein at the beginning of this year, when I wrote that I had a vision that Nelsen -- the hard-nosed defender coming off eight years in the English Premier League “will set down in Canada accompanied by a posse of similarly inclined players”.
So it has proved, with the sudden signing of the Scot Steven Caldwell and the Israeli Tal Ben Haim -- both dour EPL defenders. From what I’ve seen of them, don’t expect anything resembling the Beautiful Game to grace BMO Field just yet. We also have a New Zealander, a forward, Jeremy Brockie -- I’ve never seen him, but Nelsen praises him with these words “... he works really hard. He is a really hard guy as well and won’t back down from anything.”
Nelsen now has seven Brits and one Irishman on his roster. Which means Toronto is now even more committed to a policy that has so far proved totally unsuccessful. How the heck do you explain that other than to laugh at it? It has all the makings of a monster put-on.
Short of my visions turning from the amusing to the absurd, I’m at a loss to understand the role of new Toronto president Kevin Payne in all this. It was Payne, along with Bruce Arena, who gave us the original D.C. United -- which I still consider to be the best team that MLS has yet produced. So what happened, Kevin?
Because what we’re getting from Toronto right now is so bad that -- well, again, you have to laugh. That second half of the 2-1 loss to San Jose was like a wicked satire on English third division soccer. Four times the ball was passed straight into touch, 12 times it was hoofed uselessly way downfield, very rarely could Toronto put together more than three passes; there was the sight of a player falling over himself, of Toronto’s goalkeeper injuring both himself and one of his own players, and of a long throw-in that curved nicely in flight and went straight back over the sideline.
Nelsen seeks to remedy the ineptitude by bringing in the hard men. And how will that help a midfield that can neither hang on to the ball nor pass it with any guarantee of accuracy? And there was yet another grin-inducing factor at work -- those long balls that Toronto kept launching (mostly they came from goalkeeper Joe Bendik) seemed to be aimed at the only guy playing up front ... Robert Earnshaw, who, at 5-foot-7 was matched against San Jose’s 6-foot-plus Victor Bernardez.
In between my chuckles at the stubborn predictability of all this, there is room for some serious pondering on just how forcefully the ethnic factor operates in soccer. Nelsen is a New Zealander -- something that, I thought, would rule out ethnic considerations, there not being a copious supply of top Kiwi players. But Nelsen now has not only a New Zealand “hard guy” in Brockie, but also a Kiwi assistant coach in former Columbus Crew player Duncan Oughton.
Payne and Nelsen are also engineering a massive deja vuoperation that has us back in the 1970s, in the early days of the North American Soccer League, when so many of the players were British imports. And so many of them came on loan. Loan players came to be seen as a liability in the NASL, and MLS does not encourage them. Toronto’s excuse is that they need a quick fix -- for sure they do -- and that loan players are a stop-gap until they can find and sign their own players. And they may well believe that.
But it looks like a right royal muddle from here. The possibility that -- given all the Brits on the Toronto team -- we can now expect a Kiwi version of an EPL team is one that bemuses rather than amuses.
The new Payne-Nelsen Toronto, it would seem, will be built on the very players -- the imported Brits -- who have been so unsuitable in the past. That is not so much funny-ha-ha as funny-peculiar ... very peculiar indeed.