Toronto FC wasted little time making changes in the wake of one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
Ali Curtis, GM and senior vice-president of soccer operations, was first out the door Monday, just one day after a dismal campaign ended in a 1-0 loss to CF Montreal in a Canadian Championship final that was nowhere near as close as the scoreline suggested.
The official line was that it was a mutual parting of the ways, with the 42-year-old Curtis – who is married with two children – saying he is looking forward to reuniting with his family, who relocated to the U.S. during the pandemic.
No doubt he is. But following the Nov. 7 regular-season finale, Curtis was still on the lookout for answers to the many questions raised by such a disappointing season.
Curtis, who joined the team in January 2019, was seen as a franchise fixture earlier this year with the club signing him to a multi-year contract extension in March. At the time, team president Bill Manning called him “a talented executive and a tireless worker.”
His existing deal was due to expire at the end of 2021.
But changes were inevitable after Toronto plummeted from second place overall in the league at 13-5-5 in 2020 to 26th this season at 6-18-10. Given the talent on the roster, it was a mind-boggling fall from grace.
The season clearly took a toll on the cerebral Curtis.
“It’s just gut-wrenching and so frustrating and heartbreaking to know that we are where we are,” Curtis told The Canadian Press after TFC’s 3-1 loss to D.C. United in the regular-season finale. “Because you know that particular team that was assembled is capable of so much more.
“But at the end of the day we just didn’t find a way to get results,” he added. “That’s been really hard.”
With speculation mounting that Bob Bradley, father of Toronto captain Michael Bradley, will be installed as head coach, opening up the player personnel position makes sense given Bradley Sr. is likely to want a say over his on-field talent.
Curtis had a tough act to follow in Toronto in longtime GM Tim Bezbatchenko, who helped build TFC into a champion before leaving to become president of the Columbus Crew.
Curtis soon found himself fighting fires.
Star Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco (to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal FC) and Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez (to Qatar’s Al-Arabi SC) both moved on to greener pastures in his first month at the helm. Giovinco’s salary demands and a bust-up involving Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel, who was soon dismissed, made for a difficult 2019 training camp.
But Curtis scored a coup in March 2019, signing Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo as a designated player from Belgian club KRC Genk. With head coach Greg Vanney orchestrating the on-field product, Toronto made it to the MLS Cup final in 2019 for the third time in four years.
TFC lost to 3-1 to the hometown Seattle Sounders but remained a contender in the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season. Despite relocating to Hartford, Toronto was in contention for the Supporters’ Shield before slumping at the end of the regular season. The post-season ended quickly in a 1-0 extra-time loss to seventh-seeded Nashville.
Vanney departed in search of a new challenge, or perhaps because he saw the writing on the wall in Toronto.
The pandemic added to Curtis’ degree of difficulty. Forced south of the border again due to pandemic-related travel restrictions after a pre-season interrupted by an outbreak of COVID, injury-plagued Toronto made it as far as the quarter-finals of the Scotiabank CONCACAF League early this year.
Curtis went on the hunt for a designated player after Pablo Piatti left, a search complicated by the pandemic before the team settled on Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo.
The club lurched to a 1-8-2 start to the MLS season, with first-year coach Chris Armas fired after a humiliating 7-1 loss to D.C. United on July 3. Assistant coach Javier Perez was put in charge for the rest of the season with Toronto going 5-10-8.
Toronto was officially eliminated from playoff contention on Oct. 16 in a 2-0 loss to Atlanta although the season had long been written off.
Much of what went on was behind the scenes, with reporters kept away from practice and restricted to virtual availabilities.
“I think there’s been a lot going on this year – in every single area,” Curtis said. “Under the surface, over the surface. You saw some things. You didn’t see some other things. There was a lot this year. Just a lot.
“It was a difficult year. Very revealing, but a very difficult year for everyone.
It was death by a thousand cuts.
Armas proved to be the wrong fit. The club found itself fighting injuries to key personnel and trying to survive a lack of depth on the backline that gave up a franchise-worst 66 goals. The team consistently shot itself in the foot, falling behind early due to costly mistakes.
Curtis said player personnel decisions are needed. “And I would say in all areas of the team.”
Toronto’s three DPs, whose salaries totalled US$10.26-million this season, combined for eight goals and 14 assists in league play with Soteldo leading the way at three goals and 10 assists.
“In the end, when you lose quality players, there’s only so much you can do,” said Perez.
Pozuelo missed the first 10 games of the season in all competitions and never seemed to find his rhythm with injuries making for a stop-and-start season.
Star striker Jozy Altidore was a forgotten man, on the outs with the club for some two months after a falling out with Armas.
Injuries restricted his play upon his return and he didn’t make the trip to Montreal for the Canadian Championship final. The club attributed his absence to flu-like symptoms but given the lack of explanations for his falling out with the club, one wondered if there was more at stake.
Barring a change in heart, Altidore seems a likely candidate for an off-season buyout that would open up a DP spot.
Curtis declined to single out any player, saying everyone in the club suffered with different people having different coping mechanisms.
Curtis was content to stay in the background in his time in Toronto.
“I’d like to win and I don’t need the credit on anything – on any signing, on any strategy, on any plan, any result. I sincerely mean that,” he said in an interview two years ago.
Curtis was not one to divulge any of the club’s dirty laundry. But in staying out of the limelight and not looking all that comfortable when he was in front of the cameras, he was never really able to get his take across
He took the high road in exiting.
“I began discussing my future with the club in September,” Curtis said in a statement. “During the pandemic, my family moved back to the United States. After three years with Toronto FC, I am looking forward to reuniting with my wife and kids, and I am excited to take on a new professional challenge.”
He then praised Toronto – the city and the club – and owner MLSE.
“Next year, there is a lot to be excited about with TFC. It has exceptional people and it is moving in an exciting direction. I wish the team, the staff, MLSE and TFC fans the very best.”
A thoughtful man, Curtis had books on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (after whom he was named), among others in his office at TFC’s north Toronto training centre.
Curtis previously served as sporting director for the New York Red Bulls and spent eight years in the Major League Soccer head office.
As a player, Curtis won the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy in 1999 as the top male collegiate soccer player in the United States after a stellar career at Duke University.
Drafted second overall in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft, played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny (then run by Manning), D.C. United and Dallas through 2004.
After soccer, Curtis joined J.P. Morgan in 2004 as an analyst in Chicago and Los Angeles before taking a job at the MLS head office.