Much of the sports furor in Toronto lately has been over the Leafs taking over the NHL's longest playoff drought (which has even seen Rex Murphy spending his national newscast commentary on blasting the organization) and the Raptors' continued struggles, but there's plenty for Toronto FC fans to be upset about too. The team has never made the MLS playoffs since its formation in 2007, and they don't seem to be making much progress, either; their 1-0 defeat against Chivas USA Saturday gave them a franchise-record fifth-straight loss, making their 2012 MLS record 0-5-0. TFC hasn't even scored at home or held a lead in MLS play this season. Rumbles of a growing divide between director of player development Paul Mariner and head coach Aron Winter aren't going to help matters any either, and unless the Reds can right the ship soon, they might just wind up looking like the most dismal of MLSE's motley crew of franchises.
What's remarkable about TFC's MLS struggles is that they're coming on the wake of the team's impressive run to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. In that competition, the Reds looked like a team to be reckoned with at times, particularly in their stunning upset of the reigning MLS champion L.A. Galaxy. In MLS, they've looked more like a team to be wrecked. Some of that's thanks to the injury to captain and star midfielder Torsten Frings, by far the team's best player and one of Toronto's best athletes in any sport, but the rest of the team has struggled both with and without him, and the most disturbing thing yet may be the reports of the growing chasm between Winter and Mariner. Here's some of what Canadian Soccer News' Duane Rollins wrote on the subject Friday:
It's being suggested that there is a fatal conflict between Paul Mariner — and those within the organization that have a MLS or English background — and Aron Winter, along with the Dutch thinkers. There is a personality conflict involved, but the root of the issue is about player Personnel decisions.
For simplicity sake let's call the divide the 4-3-3 idealists versus the MLS pragmatists.
The MLS pragmatist's suggestions are being mostly ignored (either literally, or being brought in only to rot on the bench) while players that the 4-3-3 idealists favour -- that the MLS pragmatists have no time for -- are consistently starting.
The recent release of academy prospect Stefan Vukovic can be best understood by the divide in thinking. MLS pragmatists liked him, 4-3-3 idealists did not.
I've been told by one well-placed MLS source that the thinking around the league is that one of the two men will be gone by the end of the summer. Based on player moves until now, it would seem that upper management prefers the 4-3-3 idealists. However, that might change if the team doesn't start winning.
Losing streaks are one thing, but fundamental disagreements between an organization's top people are entirely more concerning. It's problematic that Toronto hasn't really made progress in most directions, too; while their academy system has grown and is turning out some solid prospects, the on-pitch product at the top level often looks about as bad as it did when TFC first entered MLS in 2007. Meanwhile, the Canadian squads that more recently joined MLS in Montreal and Vancouver have their own issues, but both have been better than Toronto this season. There are still plenty of games left for Toronto to turn this around, but if they don't, TFC might go from being amongst the list of MLSE embarrassments to a prominent place at the top.