Standings and statistics often don’t tell the full story, and often times they are misleading.
A look at the Major League Soccer table reveals Toronto FC sitting in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The club has also conceded a league-high 56 goals and boasts the worst goal-difference (minus-23) in MLS. And even though the Reds were only officially eliminated from post-season contention last week, the truth is the Canadian outfit was out of the playoff picture months ago.
But the cold numbers in this case don’t reflect the truth.
Coming off four consecutive years without a single playoff appearance, TFC has made substantial progress this season —its first under coach and technical director Aron Winter, and Paul Mariner, the team’s director of player development — and MLSE would be well-advised to resist any temptation to axe the pair based on the team’s lack of achievements on the field in 2011. The current Toronto FC squad is not the same hapless side that comically struggled to string three consecutive passes together and looked like doormats in a 4-2 loss to Vancouver on the opening day of the season.
Since that warm, sunny afternoon at Empire Field, the Reds have slowly grasped Winter’s possession-style game, come together as a cohesive unit and started to resemble a club that is just a few tweaks away from becoming a playoff contender.
This is no small feat considering the poor hand Winter and Mariner were dealt last January just weeks before pre-season. The duo wasn’t given much time to evaluate and improve the roster they inherited, and had to make do with what they had through the opening months of the campaign.
Matters were made worse when they lost central defender Adrian Cann, the team’s MVP from a year ago, to a season-ending injury.
By June, Winter and Mariner had the full picture and began to shape the roster. Trades were made, youngsters were given a chance, and European players with pedigree were signed.
Canadians Matt Stinson and Ashtone Morgan have developed into promising prospects with more playing time, with Morgan’s efforts being recently recognized by Canadian coach Stephen Hart.
In Danny Koevermans the club finally procured what is has needed since 2007: a lethal goal poacher at the forward position who can bang in 15 goals a season. The club’s other new DP, Torsten Frings, made such an impression that he was quickly given the captain’s armband, winning plaudits for his classy and inspirational performances.
Even Julian de Guzman, the club’s original and often maligned DP, has found his best form since coming to Toronto, flourishing under a tactical system that makes the most of his strengths.
The results on the field the past two months have been encouraging, including impressive victories over Colorado, Columbus and Salt Lake. Toronto also worked its way back into contention in the CONCACAF Champions League and can move on to the knockout round for the first time in franchise history with a win in Dallas later this month.
Not only are Winter and Mariner getting things right on the field but they also successfully managed to change the culture of Toronto FC. Nobody is bigger than the team. That's been their mantra since Day 1, and they’ve held players accountable for their actions at all times — which is a far cry from the Mo Johnson era where player mutiny was rabid.
Dwayne De Rosario, Maicon Santos and Nana Attakora all landed in Winter’s doghouse and were swiftly dealt to other teams. Youth academy star Keven Aleman was shown the door when management felt he didn’t want to commit his future to the team. Cann was sent home from pre-season over a contract dispute and only allowed to return after he publically made amends in front of his teammates.
Winter was also brave to stick to his guns when results did not go his way in the first half of the season. The Dutchman stayed the tactical course, confident that his players would soon grasp the nuances of the Ajax-inspired, possession style game he has preached since coming to town.
This was a major paradigm shift for a club that for four years under Mo Johnston was known for its short-sightedness and lurched from one mishap to another, thinking only about short-term gains and not about the big picture. For the first time, there is a growing sense of belief that Toronto FC has finally set itself up for long-term success.
There is work to be done in this upcoming off-season, to be sure.
First and foremost, Winter and Mariner have to find a quality central defender (and if we’re being honest, they need two) to anchor and organize a defence that at times has resembled a sieve. If they can’t find new defensive recruits to fill that gaping hole, Frings must be converted from a defensive midfielder to a centre half on a permanent basis.
Winter and Mariner also have to discover a cure for two of the club’s longstanding Achilles Heels: earning victories on the road, and the almost cavalier fashion it throws away valuable points by conceding in the last 10 minutes of matches.
If Winter and Mariner can fix these problems and successfully build on what has been a strong second half of the 2011 campaign, a playoff berth for Toronto FC in 2012 will surely follow.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
This is my last article for CBCSports.ca. I want to thank all of you for honouring me with your readership over the past nine years. It has been a privilege writing for such an intelligent and well-informed audience.
As for my future, I will continue to write and report on soccer on a regular basis. To find out about my next career move, I encourage you to follow me on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/JohnMolinaro.
Yours in soccer,
John F. Molinaro