As the Vancouver Whitecaps prepared for that rite of autumn bestowed on all successful Major League Soccer teams – a playoff run – their downtrodden cousins to the east congregated for what is rapidly becoming their own annual tradition.
For the sixth consecutive fall, players, coaches and media gathered Tuesday to pick over the bones of another wasted Toronto FC campaign, and some critics circled like vultures, pecking at every last morsel of flesh on what is rapidly becoming a decaying carcass of a sports franchise. It was hardly surprising, given the new depths to which the once-model MLS franchise has sunk.
The 2012 squad set franchise lows for wins (five), points (23) and goals conceded (62). It didn’t go unnoticed, as attendance at Toronto’s BMO Field, for so long the team’s calling card, fell to an optimistically inflated 18,155, good for just 10th in the 19-team league.
Team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has already tried its best to address that issue by reducing 2013 season-ticket prices to 2007 inaugural-season levels in an attempt to win over a disgruntled fan base, but that will count for naught if the on-field product is not up to snuff come the new year.
To that end, head coach Paul Mariner, who took over in June following predecessor Aron Winter’s bungling 1-9 start, headed to Europe Tuesday night to begin a scouting mission on the “four or five” new players his team will require to put that right.
“We’ve known for quite some time what we need,” he said, “and we’ve known where we’re going to get them as well.”
That will mean the end of the line for a number of players in Toronto. Mariner estimates that he has just seven MLS-calibre starters on his club, and when a number of them went down with long-term injuries, other players failed to grab their opportunities to fill the voids.
“The old saying in football is you’re only as good as the deepest member of your squad and we had too many fringe players asked to play too many games,” Mariner explained. “Learning on the job is fine and dandy, but if you’re not up to it, and some of the lads didn’t have the physical capability and mental capability, then you’re going to get torn down.”
One player in particular who was torn down was Dutch striker Danny Koevermans, whose season ended when he tore knee ligaments in July, and many, Mariner included, pointed to that injury as the moment the season ended for his club. As the team’s lone bona fide goal scorer – his return of 17 goals in 21 MLS starts speaks for itself – his loss was keenly felt, particularly as TFC ended up on the wrong side of one-goal games on 12 different occasions. His return to health – he estimates to be back by April or May – will be key to a turnaround, but he’s far from alone in those stakes.
Fellow designated player Torsten Frings, 36 next month, underwent hip surgery last month, and getting him back up to full speed, along with the return of No. 1 goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who broke his ankle in March, will imbue the team with a solid spine to build around.
Director of team and player operations Earl Cochrane says the team has flexibility on the “vast majority of contracts,” and TFC also has the luxury of the No. 1 pick in next January’s SuperDraft, an asset that Mariner has stressed must be turned into an “impact player.”
Still, no rookie can be expected to come in and address this team’s shortcomings. A reliable central defender to play alongside Irish international Darren O’Dea will be key, as will another central midfielder, and a striker who can take some of the scoring load off Koevermans would also be a worthwhile pickup.
Given the way the supporters’ goodwill has been squandered by mismanagement in the team’s six seasons, many used the word vital to describe the 2013 campaign, and while an MLS Cup is likely out of reach, contending for a playoff spot will be crucial.
“In the big picture … I think it is vital. It is a good term to use,” said Frei, who has already played under five coaches in his first four seasons. “It’s tough because I’ve been here for so long, but every year, or sometimes even every half-year, it’s like a new start. And as much as you say we’ve been here for so long, unfortunately it does reset when you pull the trigger.
“For the fans who have been here the whole time and people looking from the outside in, they’ve been waiting and waiting and for them it isn’t so much of a reset for them, it’s still all the pain from last year and the year before and it keeps on piling up and we understand that. So like we said … it’s a result-based business and the results have to come in and I think they have to come in soon.”