Unlike the first two stops on his tour de force through the Canadian soccer sphere, John Herdman’s third appointment in this country comes with an added wrinkle: expectation.
That much was made clear on Saturday, as the former men’s and women’s national team head coach finally took his place on the sideline for his first official game in charge of Toronto FC.
The result – a 2-0 loss to Orlando City – was par for the course in what has been statistically the worst season in club history, finishing one win and one point fewer than the 2012 edition, titled the “worst team in the world,” by former striker Danny Koevermans.
But the fans, who have enjoyed three trips to the MLS Cup – and one championship – in the intervening years, wasted little time making their feelings known to the man who earned this country’s first Olympic soccer medal in more than a century before ending a 36-year wait for an appearance at the men’s World Cup. Taking a break from feting long-time captain Michael Bradley in his final appearance for the team, the fans unfurled a banner that summed it up clearly and succinctly: ‘We are sick of it.’
As someone who grew up on the terraces of his beloved Newcastle United, Herdman is fully aware of the febrile connection between a soccer team and its fans, and could appreciate their plight.
“I understand the fans,” he said. “This is a city that should be an apex predator in MLS given … our resources. We should be at the top of the food chain just sharpening our teeth and we’re not, but those that stick with us will enjoy the return, because there’s a return coming.”
Since succeeding Bob Bradley on Oct. 1, Herdman has spent his time in a mostly observational capacity, learning about the inner workings of the club while interim head coach Terry Dunfield – who has been kept on as an assistant coach – took charge of the first team.
The 2023 season was supposed to signal a return to contention, with Toronto FC’s salary spending topping out just north of US$32-million – easily the highest wage bill of any team without Lionel Messi on its roster. With the team’s two designated players – Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi – inside the top five earners in the league, with combined salaries of almost US$22-million, TFC was expected not just to make the playoffs, but to contend for a first championship since its 2017 heyday.
Instead, with just three wins at the season’s midpoint, Bradley was fired on June 26, with Herdman ultimately being persuaded to leave Canada Soccer after 12 years to help pick up the pieces of a lost season.
Heading into Saturday’s season finale, Herdman called the game a “cup final” for his players, a match that would go a long way to determining which players would be here next season. In short, which players wanted to be part of the solution rather than a continuation of the problem.
Getting more than a combined nine goals and nine assists from his two Italian superstars would be a start, particularly given the pair seem to be trapped in a constant rumour mill surrounding their long-term plans in Toronto.
Ever the optimist, Herdman envisions a future with the pair, and was happy with the majority of their performance in Saturday’s loss. But that comes with an asterisk.
“I think in a better context, with a better build and a lead-in, I think we can get these players fully committed and dialled in,” Herdman said. “But at the end of the day, they have to be ready to win for this club.”
That sentiment is at the heart of Herdman’s plans for a TFC turnaround. His relationship with his high-salaried, marquee players will be key, but equally important will be getting buy-in from some of the young players. TFC suffered this year when it came to depth, with too much of its salary wrapped up in international stars.
For Toronto to return to the playoffs, seeing some of the fresher faces on the roster making progress will be crucial.
On Saturday, Herdman took to an oversized three-foot whiteboard to get his message across during touchline interventions with 20-year-old Kobe Franklin and his 19-year-old teammate, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty.
Given the turbulent season they’ve just had, helping them is a priority for Herdman.
“They need clarity on what they want in their future, whether this is it,” he said. “They need some time, some of them, maybe even go into some therapy. This has been a tough season.
“I mean, you imagine the young kids? Their exposure to football has been this? You see in young players that aren’t at their best level any more. They’re playing restricted, they’re playing tight.”
Thankfully, Herdman has two things on his side. Firstly is the budget he has at his disposal, with club owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment having shown a willingness to spend on this team, both now and in the past. That’s been a refreshing change for Herdman, after years of nickel and diming with Canada Soccer.
“I’m coming from a very frugal reality and working within tight means,” he said. “I think that’s quite refreshing that we are doing things that we can absolutely justify and hopefully it leads to winning in the future.”
The other thing working in his favour is how quickly things can turn around in MLS. Herdman pointed directly at the example displayed by FC Cincinnati, who missed the playoffs in its first three seasons before breaking out this year to win the Supporters’ Shield as the team with the best regular-season record.
“We’ve been studying them for the last 2 1/2 months,” he said. “We studied their roster build, their structure and system, how they approach the league and how they use their DPs, the rotation of DPs and how they use their centre-backs, to be able to maintain this consistent amount of minutes players are playing.”
Far from being overawed at the task in front of him, Herdman seems energized by the challenge. The Englishman is only too happy to tackle obstacles, and after Saturday’s game he drew parallels between this current TFC roster and the group of women he inherited when he first arrived at Canada Soccer in 2011. That squad had just finished joint bottom alongside Equatorial Guinea at the Women’s World Cup in Germany, losing all three games and scoring just a solitary goal.
But after assessing who wanted to stay the course and who wanted to go in another direction, one year later Herdman was leading his team into the London Olympics.
“Do I give these guys the chance to redeem themselves? Or do we completely look at trying to change it and rebuilding it?” he said.
“So that’s what I’ve got to figure out in the next two weeks because I’ll tell you, a group of guys that are on a return are a motivated group of people and if I smell that, and I sense that similar to the women in 2011, you know, we committed to all of those women that failed and they ended up on a podium nine months later.”