Toronto's Comedy of Errors Not That Funny

By Paul Gardner

What is the appropriate response to the Great Purge in Toronto? Does one weep for an apparently doomed franchise as it goes through yet another desperate shake-up? Or is laughter the only way to respond, laughter in disbelief that the club has managed to find so many different ways of screwing things up.

No -- not that. Not different ways. It’s been the same ineptitude right from the start. A quite remarkable ability to appoint the wrong people. The coaches being the obvious example -- with Greg Vanney, the club is now on its ninth coach in eight seasons.

Vanney has negligible experience for the job and maybe that’s good, considering the high flop-rate of the carefully selected names who were supposed to be so great. Worth recalling that in 2010 Jurgen Klinsmann, then heading up a company called Soccer Solutions, was called in as an adviser. So Toronto went Dutch, called in Aron Winter. He resigned after another barren year.

Time for more laughter. The club had learned nothing from its disastrous opening years, the Brit years, with Scottish Mo Johnston and Englishmen John Carver and Chris Cummins, none of whom could produce a winning, or even a coherent, team. So another Brit, Paul Mariner, takes over. And lasts half a season. Why would anyone be surprised?

The arrival of Kevin Payne as general manager really did look like good news at long last. But there must be, there really must be, something discombobulating in the air up there, for Payne’s first move was to recruit Ryan Nelsen as the coach. Not a Brit -- but a New Zealander, a sort of honorary Brit in soccer terms, coming straight from playing in the English Premier League (nothing won there) and with no coaching experience.

Nelsen quickly appointed an assistant. Fran O’Leary. Time for an explosive burst of hysterical laughter. Who the heck is Fran O’Leary? An Irishman, a college coach for 24 years, but with no experience of the pro game at all. Based on substantial previous experience at the club, everything should have indicated very clearly that this wasn’t going to work.

But here comes the celebrity-oriented miracle-worker who’s damn well gonna make it work. Enter Tim Leiweke, the man who brought David Beckham to MLS, a no-nonsense big-talker. As the club’s new president he quickly came up with the all-time MLS understatement by declaring that the immensely loyal but long-suffering Toronto fans deserved better. Didn’t they ever.

Leiweke spent money. Three expensive DPs arrived -- Michael Bradley, Gilberto and Jermain Defoe. Leiweke fired Payne, but retained Nelsen. And O’Leary. The inexperienced Tim Bezbatchenko replaced Payne as GM.

A whirlwind of spectacular but hardly coordinated changes. Was someone imagining that a winning soccer club could emerge from a series of Big Deals and Grand Gestures?

Nothing much changed. On the field, the team’s form was erratic. So now Nelsen, and O’Leary, and all the other assistant coaches have gone. Bezbatchenko has spoken. At least Greg Vanney will be aware that he has to deal with not only an inexperienced GM but an interfering one as well. Leiweke has announced that he’s leaving, having accomplished little apart from adding more turbulence to an already volatile situation.

Apart from his exhortations, Leiweke’s contribution was simply to ensure that wads of his bosses’ money was spent. The money of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. In sports, people who spend lots of money expect results, seem to think they have a right to get results. Quickly. But Nelsen’s team was not getting the results that the money demanded. So Nelsen, with his team on the verge of qualifying for the playoffs -- unknown country to Toronto fans -- became a victim of financial impatience.

Vanney, if allowed a period of calm, should be able to steer the team to the promised playoff land. But that calm is important. There have been more than enough dramatic upheavals to unsettle the players. Bezbatchenko knows that, hence his almost groveling tribute to them. Evidently, it was all Nelsen’s fault.

Maybe so. But from now on, Bezbatchenko has to learn to keep his mouth shut, not to interfere. If he can’t manage that and if things come off the rails yet again, this time it will all be his fault.

4 comments about "Toronto's Comedy of Errors Not That Funny".
  1. Jake Brodesky, September 3, 2014 at 6:10 p.m.

    LOL. What a disaster. The things we do for money, when fans only want entertainment. Well, I guess we've been given that. Haven't we?

    I think someone needs to tell management to chill out. It's professional sports. It's supposed to be fun. A dose of Peter Wilt for instance is needed. Maybe splash in a little Dana White. A little Garth Lagerwey...Something to get these guys to part with their their corporatism. Their love for Analytics, Big Deals, and Grand Gestures...

  2. James Madison, September 3, 2014 at 11:25 p.m.

    A worthy rival to NY and Chivas USA for leading soap operat of the MLS.

  3. Lou vulovich, September 4, 2014 at 7:08 a.m.

    Toronto got a great coach in Greg Vanney given time he will turn out to be a top class coach in the MLS.

  4. Brian Something, September 4, 2014 at 10:12 a.m.

    Vanney has zero head coaching experience and only a brief stint as an assistant with the even more abysmal Chivas USA. I'm not prepared to declare him a "top class coach" yet based on that.

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