Having played there for a good chunk of his career, Aron Winter knows as well as anyone that Rome wasn't built in a day.
It's probably a good thing. Entering its fifth season of existence, the long-term construction project otherwise known as Toronto FC has been torn down and rebuilt more often than the Italian capital through the years, but the newest head coach of Canada's original Major League Soccer club seems largely unfazed by the scale of the task lying in front of him.
Emboldened by the experience that comes from a 16-year playing career with some of the world's finest teams, along with the security of a three-year contract as TFC coach, the former Netherlands midfielder is not about to make any wild proclamations entering his first season in the coaching hot seat, and despite fans clamouring for a maiden postseason voyage this year, is appealing for patience.
"It could happen that we don't make the playoffs so we have to be realistic also, but we will try to do it. We need the fans to realize that the last few years they've had a lot of coaches, but I'm different," he explains. "I take time to rebuild a team in these three years and I want to win the prizes I came here for."
If his vision for the team is eventually realized, landing Winter back in January may turn out to be the biggest prize of all. After four seasons of uninspiring, and largely unsuccessful soccer, the product of Ajax's famed youth academy is promising a TFC twist on the Dutch tradition of Total Football, but warns that it's not going to happen overnight.
"It's impossible that the fans can expect that in two months, three months we are playing like Ajax or Barcelona, it's impossible," Winter cautions, noting that to get the team he wants he will have to overhaul the youth system to start churning out first-team-calibre players, as well as re-educating the players he inherited.
Based on the results in preseason, where TFC mustered just a solitary win against five defeats and a draw, that education is clearly a work in progress. Watching the team practise in the buildup to Saturday's season opener against the Whitecaps in Vancouver, Winter and his assistants are in no hurry to overcomplicate the process, spending significant time getting players to work on such rudimentary skills as passing balls to teammates barely three yards away, the kind of techniques that most of Winter's predecessors seemingly took for granted.
"You know, if you want to reach the top you need to know the basic things - they are the most important things," Winter says. "If you can't give a normal pass or deliver a good cross or you're not good with your left or right [foot] or your head or whatever, if you don't have that under control then you're never going to be complete and a good soccer player. It's the same as when we're born, the first thing we have to teach is to [crawl]on the ground before we can take our first steps."
Winter didn't take his own first steps in the game until he was 9, playing on the streets with his friends, but from there things elaborated quickly, to the point where his idol, Dutch great Johan Cruyff, had him scouted before bringing him into the Ajax academy. It didn't take long until he was on the radar of the national team, and he even worked his way onto the 1988 European Championship squad, one of the greatest sides the Netherlands has produced, alongside the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
"I was the youngest on the team, one of the youngest in the entire tournament," the now 44-year-old recalls, "but it was great, firstly to be part of the national team at that age, and the second is that you won the European Championship and it was the first time that Holland's national team had won that prize."
Winter is fully aware he wasn't going to inherit that kind of talent at BMO Field. But having had the preseason to assess his squad, he remains pleasantly surprised at the quality of players he found, and though he admits the team is still lacking at a few positions, it is slowly taking shape. The players have been equally receptive, knowing that the new philosophy is far more preferable to the kick-and-chase methods of coaches past.
"We didn't have that structure, that buildup, that systematic play," says defender Adrian Cann, who says he's ready to play after a brief contract holdout in training camp. "It was more direct. It was good to play direct but sometimes, personally, I feel that playing football, keeping possession and dictating tempo is the way to go."
It all sounds good on paper, and win or lose, at the very least the fans should get a more aesthetically pleasing product to watch. However, unlike Vancouver, TFC is no longer an expansion side, and entering Year 5 there is a certain expectation of producing something tangible for fans to hang their hats on.
Reflective of someone who's played in World Cups and Serie A, for Lazio and Inter, though, the rookie head coach is confident he can deliver.
"There's always pressure, but I'm always relaxed," he says. "I came here and I know with the things I'm doing now, we need time, and if there is time and our fans are also patient then we're going to win things also."