Toronto FC upheaval is all too familiar

By Ridge Mahoney

It’s official: Toronto FC has overtaken Chivas USA as the most dysfunctional team in MLS.

Upon dismissing head coach Ryan Nelsen Sunday and replacing him with academy director Greg Vanney, TFC upped its hires to nine (counting interim head coaches) in less than eight full seasons. Such a revolving door might be tolerated if TFC had a smidgen of success on the field, but if it somehow reaches the playoffs this season it will do so for the first time since entering MLS in 2007.

This record of futility is unmatched in MLS; the longest stretch any expansion team has endured without a playoff appearance is three seasons. Real Salt Lake, which entered the league in 2005, didn’t get into the postseason until 2008. It won the league title the following year and has been one of the league’s strongest franchises ever since.

TFC fans have watched Canadian rivals Vancouver (2011 expansion team) and Montreal (2012) follow them into the league yet beat them to the postseason. San Jose (2008) got into the playoffs in its third season, Seattle (2009) has made the playoffs every year, and Philadelphia (2010) qualified in its second year.

So bad has Chivas USA fared in recent seasons its early years have faded to a dim memory, but after entering the league along with RSL and struggling to win four of 32 games, it righted the ship under Bob Bradley and then Preki to qualify in four straight seasons (2006-09). It did stumble in the first round each year and hasn’t been back to the postseason in this decade amid a flurry of coaching and management upheavals. It is trying to avoid a fifth straight last-place finish. Head coach Wilmer Cabrera is the 11th man to hold the post, and after buying out former owner Jorge Vergara in March MLS is trying to sell the team.

But TFC has set the bar even lower. From the early days of “Trader” Mo Johnston -- who established precedent by trading every player chosen in the 2007 expansion draft -- through the comical coaching reigns of Aron Winter and Bob De Klerk to the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann as a consultant to the brief tenure of former D.C. United president Kevin Payne, TFC has stepped into a mess no matter which way it turned.

It has blown through a Best XI of discarded players and left a rabid and loyal fan base disgruntled and disgusted. The Designated Player signings raised expectations as well as hopes, and a .500 team scuffling to stay in the playoff tier hasn’t generated a lot of goodwill. Two weeks ago, former AEG president Tim Leiweke confirmed he was leaving to start his own company next year. He’d been hired as president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment in June 2013 and dismissed Payne three months later.

Here’s a list of players who have found success after leaving TFC: Stefan Frei, Maurice Edu, Conor Casey, Chad Barrett, Jeff Cunningham, Sam Cronin, Marvell Wynne, Richard Mulrooney, Ryan Johnson, Tyrone Marshall, Joao Plata, Edson Buddle, Dwayne De Rosario and Robert Earnshaw, who scored his second goal in as many games for Chicago last weekend. (DeRo won the MVP award with D.C. United in 2011 after being traded by TFC that season to New York, which passed him on to D.C.).

Mista and Julian de Guzman might not be the worst DP signings in league history but they are definitely in the discussion. Gilberto and Jermain Defoe, signed during the offseason, have given good value aside from constant injury issues. Michael Bradley has done reasonably well but took considerable blame for at least two of the goals scored by the Revs last weekend in an embarrassing home loss to the Revs, 3-0.

In his postgame press interviews, Nelsen criticized comments the previous day from general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who had basically categorized the game as a “must-win.” The next day, Bezbatchenko announced Nelsen and most of his staff were out the door. He cited the team’s listless play as the primary factor, though Nelsen’s rebuttals and reiteration of the team’s injury woes didn’t help his cause.

Jettisoning the head coach and most of his staff on the brink of a playoff push might seem counterproductive, yet TFC is standing its ground on the competitive front. It rebuffed Defoe transfer bids, one of which was reportedly $11 million from Queens Park Rangers, which before the World Cup loaned Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar to TFC. He’s moved on to Benfica.

“Moving forward, he understands why we made the change,” said Bezbatchenko of Defoe. “Jermain is a true professional. He shows a commitment to his teammates and he’s going to be back. That’s just the way it is.” Defoe leads the team with 11 goals -- Gilberto is second with six -- but has played just two of the last seven games while hobbled by hamstring and groin injuries.

The Toronto players heard boos and whistles after falling behind the Revs, 2-0, midway through the first half, yet the fans responded with roars and applause when TFC produced a couple of threatening attacks during a brief second-half flurry. Hard as it is to believe, the fans haven't abandoned TFC. They lauded Bezbatchenko and Leiweke for aggressively upgrading the roster; now they are gritting their teeth and praying for the best. 

(Critics of the MetroStars/Red Bulls can make a good case for considerable dysfunction, but at least there are appearances in the 2003 Open Cup final and 2008 MLS Cup championship game. Both were losses, of course.)

As a Canadian team, Toronto FC can’t play in the U.S. Open Cup. There has been some success internationally. Its fans can point to four straight captures of the Canadian championship (2009-12) and a courageous run to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals in 2011. But watching every other expansion team in the past decade outperform TFC has worn thin the patience of its crowds.

TFC fans waited 383 minutes for Danny Dichio to score the first MLS goal in 2007, so frustration is nothing new. But if this latest upheaval knocks the Reds out of the playoff tier come late October, the damage may be irreparable. Formerly an assistant coach (under Robin Fraser) at Chivas USA, Vanney jumps right into the fray Wednesday when TFC plays at Philadelphia, which is in seventh place yet can catch TFC at 33 points by winning. 

In league play, TFC has never won more than 10 games, a mark it should break this year, since it is 9-9-6 with 10 more games to go. But if it wins 11 or 12 games and doesn’t make the playoffs, that accomplishment won’t mean much, and the team will have to gather itself for yet another new start.

2 comments about "Toronto FC upheaval is all too familiar".
  1. Allan Lindh, September 2, 2014 at 4:10 p.m.

    So they fired Ryan Nelsen because he defended his players against criticism from management, in the midst of the best season they have ever had. They should fire Liewiki, and hire back Nelsen. And the TFC fans should lead that campaign,they deserve better. Who does TFC think will take their coaching job after the way they treated Nelsen?

  2. cisco martinez, September 3, 2014 at 11:09 a.m.

    I was fortunate enough to play against Ryan Nelsen, GM's are not coaches! I saw this too many times when I played; when teams are not performing well for whatever reasons, the GM feels the need to intervene in internal affairs with player performance, tactics, personel, etc. The GM needs to work on operations, sales, and the brand of the team, not fire a distinguish coach with loads of international experience because his team has lackluster performances over a 10 game period.

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