After just six seasons of MLS play, Toronto FC’s legacy of failure was stunning.
The team had a league record of 45-88-55 – outscored 300-201 – after finishing seventh, seventh, fifth, fifth, eighth and 10th in the Eastern Conference. Toronto had won just 12 of 94 road games. The playoffs were nothing more than a soccer Shangri-La.
And the franchise had gone through seven managers.
Ryan Nelsen, manager No. 8 in Season No. 7, knew he was inheriting a mess when he was appointed Jan. 8. But straightening the shambles of a team that was the MLS doormat last season at 5-21-8 is proving to be a task of massive proportions for the first-year manager.
As Toronto (1-7-4) prepares to host the Philadelphia Union (5-5-3) on Saturday, Nelsen’s team is mired in a five-game league losing streak – during which it has been outscored 8-2 – and has not won in 10 games.
Toronto’s record in all competitions this year is 2-8-4. And apart from a March 9 victory at the Rogers Centre, it has not won a home league game since July 18, 2012, when it beat Colorado 2-1 at BMO Field.
On the surface, Toronto FC’s tarnish remains.
Nelsen and team president Kevin Payne, who took over the club on Nov. 28, have brought in 19 new players. Four have already left and the team has already announced attacking midfielder Hogan Ephraim will return to England’s Queens Park Rangers when his loan spell ends in July.
There is also speculation about the future of veteran defender Danny Califf, who has fallen to No. 5 on the depth chart, and who has been absent recently due to a virus, according to Nelsen.
The manager, who is already eagerly awaiting the July 9 opening of the summer transfer window, defends the revolving door approach to personnel.
“When we got here there was no scouting, no recruitment, no nothing,” Nelsen said Tuesday. “There was no vision, there was no anything.
“So we had to bring in players on short-term loans that wouldn’t affect the team long-term, (so) we wouldn’t be hamstrung by salary cap issues. And we’re not. We only brought in players because of the absolute unbelievable lack of vision that was here. We needed players in or we were in massive trouble.
“Now those players, we’re not hamstrung by them, they’re going to be here on massive amounts of money. They can be moved at any time that they or we think. So in terms of that, yeah, we’re preparing for the future. But we’ve had to. We’ve had to do drastic things like this because there was absolutely nothing.”
The most recent player to exit was former English teen sensation John Bostock, who was waived last week.
“We had the opportunity to look at him and if it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out,” said Nelsen. “He wants to play. His agent said he needs to play all the time and I couldn’t guarantee him playing time.”
Nelsen does see light at the end of the tunnel despite a lack of clinical play at both ends of the field.
Asked if he can see players on his current roster who will be fixtures on the team sheet next season, he starts listing off names: Joe Bendik, Ryan Richter, Doneil Henry, Gale Agbossoumonde, Ashtone Morgan, Matias Laba, Jeremy Hall, Jonathan Osorio, Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman.
All are 24 or younger.
It was not a definitive list, but rather one reeled off the top of his head. Nelsen would likely add talented attacking midfielder Luis Silva, who is 24, to that mix. English defender Richard Eckersley, currently injured, is also 24.
“We’re a very young team,” Nelsen said. “We have a lot of faith in a lot of the young guys. But unfortunately, they’re just young, just a bit inexperienced. They’ve just got to live through stuff and get experience.”
Nelsen has brought in the likes of 32-year-old Robert Earnshaw, 30-year-old Bobby Convey, 32-year-old Steven Caldwell and 32-year-old Darel Russell to help settle the ship.
Of the seven losses this season, only one (last week’s 2-0 loss in New England) has been by more than one goal.
Nelsen says his team is confident that it can win games.
Pressed on why, the normally genteel New Zealander showed his steely side in turning the question back on the media.
“Every game we potentially could have got points out of,” he said. “You guys don’t see it because you only take a look at the result. Just like yourself, you’re not really educated on how a game can be.
“When we start winning, you guys will be having a go at us because we’re only winning by one goal. And then once we win 15 in a season, you’ll be having a go at us because we’re only winning 15. That’s your job.
“The players, they know. They’re confident. ... We’re very close.”
Nelsen, while generally accommodating with the media, has become more close-mouthed as the season has worn on. He is not likely to disclose personnel information unless asked and even then can dance around the issue.
Practices that were once open are now only partially open. Reporters are restricted to glimpses of the final portion of the session, usually from distance.
Admittedly Nelsen is used to the game in Britain, where media access is far more limited. Then again soccer is king there. It’s not here.
Nelsen has made progress and Toronto’s young talent is undeniable. Nelsen and his coaching staff have a meticulous plan. Their commitment to turning the franchise around is undeniable. Nelsen, who can be cut-throat when it comes to personnel decisions, has also shown a keen eye in identifying and promoting the likes of Osorio and Hall.
The depth of his squad remains very much a work in progress, however. And Toronto’s inability to take its chances means that it is up against it when it makes errors at the defensive end.
“We know we need to get better – in all areas,” said Nelsen. “We’ll just continue to work hard and continually try to do it.”
The good news on that front is striker Danny Koevermans will likely come off the bench this weekend in his return from a 10-month absence due to a knee injury. Koevermans has been sidelined since tearing up his knee last July 14 in New England.
TFC has gone 2-17-8 in MLS play in his absence.
Saturday’s game against the Union falls in the middle of a five-game run against Eastern Conference opposition. Toronto has already lost to Columbus and New England, with games against D.C. United and Houston to follow.
Philadelphia currently occupies the fifth – and last – playoff spot in the East with 18 points. Nelsen’s view– somewhat optimistic in the eyes of some – is that his team (which has seven points) could be right back in the thick of things if it can beat the Union and D.C. United, which at 1-9-2 is the only team with a worse record than Toronto.
Nelsen’s team has next week off thanks to a bye, so will have plenty of time to ponder the Philadelphia result.
Toronto’s preparations this week will not be helped by the absence of captain Darren O’Dea on Ireland duty and Canadians Bekker, Henry, Morgan and Osorio.
Henry and O’Dea are both starters and Osorio probably did enough last week coming off the bench in New England to justify a start.
The Canadian quartet will return after Tuesday night’s game against Costa Rica in Edmonton. O’Dea is also set to return following a marquee friendly against England. But the Irish defender will jet off again next week for a friendly against Georgia and World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands.