From many angles, it isn't all that surprising that Aron Winter is no longer coaching Toronto FC and director of soccer Paul Mariner has been tabbed as his replacement. The team put up just a 7-22-15 MLS regular season record under the 45-year-old Dutchman in 2011 and 2012, including an embarrassing 1-9-0 record thus far this year. Of course, Winter's side found more success in cup competitions, claiming back-to-back Canadian championship titles in 2011 and 2012 and going on a promising run to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals this season, and they did just win their first MLS match of the year (to snap their league-record season-opening losing streak), but even the extra focus on the Canadian championship this year and TFC's minor on-pitch improvement of late didn't prove enough to save Winter's job. There was just too much division with this club, ranging from arguments amongst players as to whether they were "the worst team in the world" to reported divides between Winter and Mariner over tactics and formations. Now that Winter is gone, though, the key question is if Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment can find a way to turn this club around, or if TFC is destined to remain perhaps the organization's biggest embarrassment (which is saying something!) for the foreseeable future.
While moving on without Winter should help patch the front-office divisions and perhaps give the team a coherent strategy and approach, Mariner is no sure saviour and the curse may yet live on in his eyes. He's well-respected in both MLS and foreign soccer circles for his playing career (which included 35 caps for England) and his success as an assistant coach (particularly with the New England Revolution), but his record as a head coach is slim, to say the least; it consists mostly of a five-month run with Plymouth Argyle in 2009-10, which saw them relegated from the English Championship (the division below the Premier League). That's similar to Winter, who also had a notable playing career and found success as an assistant and academy coach at Ajax, but had never managed a top-division club until heading to TFC. At least Mariner's been responsible for bringing in Toronto FC's players (and there is talent there, particularly with players like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans), so there shouldn't be a wholesale turnover of players the way there was when the Winter-Mariner regime began (TFC set an MLS record by using 39 different players last season). Whether he can coax better results from this cast is an open question, though.
What's most remarkable about TFC's history to date is the amount of coaching and management turnover. They've had seven different head coaches in six years (Mo Johnston, John Cummins, Chris Carver, Preki, Nick Dasovic, Winter and now Mariner), and the turnover in the front office has been similar. Each group's attempted its own fixes, resulting in plenty of personnel and strategic changes, but nothing's worked thus far and the constant changes have made it seem like the club's running in place on a hamster wheel. It's notable to see so much turnover in a MLSE operation, as their other primary teams (the NHL's Maple Leafs and NBA's Raptors) have had one key figure (Brian Burke and Bryan Colangelo) at the top for some time. Of course, that hasn't exactly worked out yet either, but there's at least the illusion of a coherent direction. By contrast, TFC's revolving door of coaches and executives looks like a desperate organization just throwing things at the wall in the hopes something will stick, and the fans are growing restless.
The crucial thing for Toronto FC is to establish a plan to get this albatross off their neck and stick to it. The constant lurching from one strategy to another and immediate discarding of whoever doesn't fit the current philosophy of the week for pennies on the dollar simply hasn't panned out. That doesn't mean that they should have stuck with Winter longer, as despite impressive results in cup competitions, his team showed next to no promise in the larger sample size of the regular season, and the internal divide between him and Mariner was clearly growing untenable. It does mean that MLSE needs to find a leader, give him authority and then sit back and let him work, though. It's crucial to pick the right man for that job, and we'll soon see if that's Mariner or someone else. Whoever winds up helming the ship, there has to be a firm course set; otherwise, TFC fans won't find themselves in the playoffs any time soon.
- Sports & Recreation