You could hardly blame Toronto FC general manager Mo Johnston if he felt as though a bull's eye was painted on his back.
The Scotsman has been the subject of a nasty string of abuse from fans and media alike ever since the Reds were embarrassed 5-0 by the last-place New York Red Bulls on Oct. 24, a result that put paid to the team's hopes of clinching its first-ever playoff berth.
Failure to make the post-season was a bitter pill to swallow for the club's loyal legion of fans, but Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (the company that owns the Major League Soccer team), maintains progress was made this year — TFC's third in the league — and that he likes the path Johnston is leading the squad down.
Furthermore, Anselmi says he doesn't regret for one moment the decision that was made back in August to sign Johnston to a two-year contract extension, even in light of the team's humiliating end to the campaign in New York.
"You can't look at any one thing in isolation," Anselmi told CBCSports.ca.
"I think you have to look at things in context, and the context is that the GM's responsibility is to provide overall leadership and vision for the franchise, to put a roster together, to build the infrastructure [in terms of] coaching, youth academy, scouting and development systems.
"That's what the job has been about for the past three years, and I think Mo has done a good job."
Blowing up the team and starting from scratch would be overkill, according to Anselmi. The MLSE vice-president believes the final league standings prove that all that's needed in order to build a young Toronto side into a playoff contender is a few tweaks.
"We finished one point out of the playoffs. We had 10 wins. There are three teams that made the playoffs with 11 wins, and two that made it with 12 wins. The best team in the league had 13 wins, so it's not a blow-it-up situation," Anselmi explained.
"That [New York] game might have made it feel like it was, because it was not a good finish to the season, but sometimes young guys have to lose together so that they can learn how to win together.
"We've got another step to make next year, but generally we're pleased where we're at [and] that the direction is the right direction. I'm not pleased where we landed this year, but we're heading in the right direction."
But how can that be, considering the Reds are still looking to secure their first playoff berth after joining the league in 2007?
Anselmi pointed to Johnston's strong record of success in the MLS draft and his building a team that features a crop of promising youngsters (including rookie of the year candidate Stefan Frei), and a core of experienced veterans (most notably Canadians Dwayne de Rosario and Julian de Guzman), as evidence.
"Our expectation was to not make the playoffs the first three years. We didn't think we would," Anselmi stated.
"Our expectation was to build this team from the ground up, and that meant accumulating assets — young players, a strong roster of veterans that would serve us well over the long haul, even if that meant at the expense of winning in the early going."
That said, he appreciates why fans are so upset over how the season ended.
"For sure. You think I'm happy? Not a chance. This is about winning, this business. … Do I empathize with our fans? Absolutely," Anselmi admitted.
So, will Johnston still be employed if Toronto fails to qualify for the playoffs in 2010?
"I'm not going to speculate about next year at all, other than to say we've got a job to do and the job is about making the payoffs and that is 100 per cent of our focus," Anselmi said.