'We've never been right here. We've only been wrong."
Of all the bombshells that Tim Leiweke, the outgoing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. president and CEO, dropped on a rapt audience at Ryerson University in Toronto last Thursday, the nine words that he used to describe the organization's stewardship of Toronto FC seemed most apropos.
Superstar TFC forward Jermain Defoe certainly appeared to come to that realization just before former head coach Ryan Nelsen's dismissal a little over a fortnight ago, long before Leiweke tried to draw a dramatic line in the sand with the former England striker. With Nelsen seeing the writing on the wall in the aftermath of a flat-lining 3-0 home defeat to the New England Revolution, the New Zealander texted Defoe in London to tell him he thought he'd be getting the sack in the morning. The Englishman's reply was succinct and to the point.
"If you're gone, I'm gone."
Though that didn't transpire in the international transfer window which slammed shut on Sept. 1, few imagined – new head coach Greg Vanney being one notable, publicly stated exception – that Defoe would ever be keen to suit up for TFC again, a thought process that Leiweke clearly advanced with his comments that Defoe should "get the hell out of the way" if he doesn't want to be there. Though he may have to stick it out in the meantime, the reported three teams from which TFC turned down offers for Defoe will doubtless be back with fresh ammunition once the window reopens in January.
He might not be the only one getting out. With Leiweke also touching on new designated players coming in for next season – with Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto being the current league-maximum three incumbents in those roles – it immediately threw up the question of who else might be joining Defoe in the one-way ticket-out-of town club. There will certainly be suitors for Brazilian striker Gilberto – who was controversially denied what should have been a dramatic, winning goal in Saturday's 1-1 draw in Chicago – with TFC turning down a $4.5-million (U.S.) offer from Mexico's Club America just over three weeks ago.
Luke Moore, an Englishman who Nelsen acquired from Colorado earlier this year, may also look to return home, with the striker more than a little miffed that TFC turned down an offer from Premier League club Burnley last month.
Bradley is unlikely to be going anywhere though, especially given the five years and $33.5-million remaining on his contract. The length of his tenure in Toronto may be given added gravitas if the whispers of an MLSE approach for his father, Bob Bradley, as both TFC head coach and general manager ahead of next season, are proved correct, despite Vanney and Tim Bezbatchenko currently occupying those roles. Bradley Sr., of course, was the head coach of the U.S. national team for five years before taking up his current post as manager of Stabaek in Norway.
In the meantime, Michael Bradley's play will have a huge determinant on whether this season ends up proving Leiweke's preseason playoff promise true, albeit with a coaching staff that the MLSE president erroneously claimed last Thursday had no coaching licences. Despite overpaying massively for the American World Cup star's services – all part of Leiweke's stated "financial suicide" approach to rebuilding organizations that is known to have infuriated the MLSE board – the upside that a committed Bradley can bring to a team was strongly in evidence early on this season, but only in patches ever since, particularly since he returned from the World Cup in Brazil.
Nelsen cautioned Leiweke about the size of the deal during negotiations to bring in Bradley, saying that at $6.5-million a season, the MLSE president was paying an awful lot for someone who had been largely a defensive midfielder for much of his career. That disconnect played itself out during Nelsen's tenure this season, with the New Zealander frustrated with Bradley's propensity to freelance on the pitch at times.
For Vanney, getting a motivated Bradley back on song will be naturally key to turning around the club's current malaise, with Saturday's draw finally snapping a three-game losing streak.
Vanney's early introduction to the managerial hot seat was not without its problems – players looked on bemused as he continually harped on about the importance of body language while they were being comfortably outplayed in a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Union. But a pair of inspired substitutions laid the foundation for grabbing what could turn out to be a crucial point in Saturday's game in Chicago, and more important, showed there's more fight in a team that has rolled out some insipid performances of late.
With 34 points from 27 games, good for seventh in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, Toronto FC is still within touching distance of the playoffs – the top five in each conference qualify for the postseason. However, of their remaining seven games, only three are against teams with losing records, and there are potentially tricky road trips to Los Angeles, New York and New England remaining.