It wasn't supposed to end this way.
When the 2010 Major League Soccer season kicked off in March, there was genuine hope among Canadian fans that Toronto FC would finally make the playoffs, something it hasn't managed to accomplish since entering the league in 2007.
But TFC fell ill with a typical case of the summertime blues — just two wins in 18 matches since June resulted in the club's elimination from playoff contention with three games remaining in the season.
Poor results on the field, combined with price increases in season ticket packages for next year, has galvanized the Reds' disenfranchised fan base. The North End Elite and the Red Patch Boys, two of Toronto FC's largest supporter groups, plan to stage protests during the team's final home game of the season against the Columbus Crew on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 3:30 p.m. ET).
It raises the question: When did it all go wrong?
Although the Reds were officially eliminated from the playoff race last Saturday, some point to an embarrassing 1-0 loss to the last-place DC United at home on Sept. 11 as the turning point. A few days after that capitulation, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the club's owners, fired general manager Mo Johnston and coach Preki in a desperate attempt to salvage the season and keep the team's meagre playoff hopes alive.
But the DC game wasn't the nadir on what turned out to be another failed TFC campaign. In fact, the die was cast long ago — last August, to be exact, when MLSE signed Johnston to a two-year contract extension. That sheer act of lunacy doomed Toronto FC's 2010 MLS season from the start.
MLSE foolishly gave Johnston the keys to the kingdom when they hired him four years ago, giving him free reign to oversee all aspects of the day-to-day operations of Toronto FC. Far from a Brian Burke-type GM with a clear philosophy and long-term vision, Johnston flew by the seat of his pants.
His management style left a lot to be desired: From the crude way he dealt with players and the slapdash fashion he put together his roster at the start of each season, to his constant meddling in coaching decisions and his suspect evaluation of player talent.
'The puppet master'
One former TFC star described Johnston to CBCSports.ca as "the puppet master," someone who wouldn't let his coaches run the team, and dictated tactics and player selections to his bench bosses.
Even when it came to the MLS draft, the one area where Johnston was touted as an expert, he failed to live up to his overhyped reputation. True, Maurice Edu turned out to be the league's rookie of the year in 2007, but what else would you expect from the No. 1 pick in the draft?
More telling is that the majority of Johnston's top picks over the years — including Andy Boyens, Pat Phelan, Brian Edwards, Sam Cronin — are no longer in Toronto, having been either released or traded by the club.
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the No. 13 pick in last year's draft, proved to be a major coup, but with the second selection overall, Johnston took Cronin. With the very next pick, the Los Angeles Galaxy selected defender Omar Gonzalez. While Gonzalez went on to win the 2009 award for MLS rookie of the year, Johnston traded Cronin to the San Jose Earthquakes midway through this season.
Johnston made a slew of other questionable moves, among them inking defensive midfielder Julian de Guzman to a designated player contract, and bringing in forwards Ali Gerba and Carlos Ruiz, neither of whom was the answer to Toronto's long-standing problems up front.
Gored by Bulls
After 2½ years at the helm, it was clear to just about everybody that Johnston was not the right man for the job. Clear to everybody, except to MLSE executive vice-president Tom Anselmi, who rewarded the Scotsman with a new contract last summer, instead of waiting until the end of season to see how things played out.
We all know what happened next: Toronto entered the final week of the season in October needing a victory to have a shot at qualifying for the playoffs, but instead was hammered 5-0 by the last-place New York Red Bulls.
If there was ever a time that Johnston needed to be fired, it was after the New York debacle. But Anselmi couldn't do it, having committed himself when he rewarded the Scotsman with a contract extension just two months earlier.
With Johnston left in charge, the 2010 season had disaster written all over it for before a ball was even kicked.
So it came to pass.
Johnston's managerial ineptitude reached new heights this year, as he brought in players of questionable talent (defenders Maxim Usnaov and Raivis Hscanovics, and winger Jacob Peterson) to plug gaping holes in his team.
Three weeks into the season, he was still signing players, trying to fill out a roster that lacked depth and quality, in much the same way a college student waits until the night before a crucial exam to crack open the books and start studying.
But the coup de grace was signing veteran Spanish forward Mista to a designated player contract midway through the season in an attempt to address the club's lack of scoring punch.
It was a desperate ploy by Johnston, a classic case of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole — the former Valencia star, his best days clearly behind him, hasn't even come close to living up to expectations, having failed to score in nine league games.
All of which sets the table for Saturday's contest. Instead of looking ahead to the playoffs, Toronto FC now faces the unpleasant prospect of playing its home finale before a hostile crowd.