Toronto FC makes coaching change but offers little vision for the road ahead

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·9 min read
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Toronto FC is coming home Thursday, at least to train and sleep in its own beds. But head coach Chris Armas won't be making the trip, paying the price for Saturday's humiliating 7-1 loss at D.C. United and the string of defeats that preceded it.

The first-year coach is the only staffer, so far, to be axed after a nightmarish start to the MLS season that has seen a club that prides itself on its trophy case plummet to the bottom of the 27-team league.

Under Armas, Toronto (1-8-2) has lost six straight and is winless in seven. Its defence is broken and it's clear that Armas' bid to change the team's style of play, long established under former head coach Greg Vanney, to an aggressive pressing approach was an uncomfortable fit.

Assistant coach Javier Perez will lead the team Wednesday against New England on an interim basis. After Wednesday, Toronto does not play again until July 17 against Orlando City.

Club president Bill Manning, echoing the view of most fans, said the team had become "very difficult to watch." Never more so than Saturday, which marked largest margin of defeat in club history.

"As this season progressed, you could tell that this did not have the makings of a championship team. And of a winning team right now," Manning said Sunday, hours after firing Armas. "And sometimes being a leader you need to know when to make a change. For me, especially after (Saturday) night's game, it was clear as day that we needed to make this change."

The new coach will be challenged "to provide that spark for this group of players who do know what it takes to win," said Manning.

But Manning and GM Ali Curtis offered little vision for the road ahead. Instead they praised Armas after showing him the door.

"Chris is a good person. He's a good coach. But the results drive our business in so many ways, which drove this decision in particular," Curtis said.

Manning said Armas thanked he and Curtis for the opportunity and hugged both before leaving.

"He was a class act on the way in and he was a class act on the way out," he added.

Manning said the club, which is currently based in Orlando, is able to return home because travel restrictions are being loosened for people who are fully vaccinated. He expressed hope the team will be able to play at BMO Field soon but said there is another U.S. option if needed.

Toronto is mired in its second-worst start to an MLS season. Only 2012, when the team lost its first nine games and didn't reach the five-point mark until its 13th outing (1-10-2), was worse. That run cost Aron Winter, the team's head coach and technical director, his job.

On Sunday, it was Armas' turn. It likely did not come as a surprise.

"Something has to give," he said after the D.C. United debacle.

"We're at a place where we haven't been before," he added. "It's a strange time, it's a difficult time for our team. If you've not been there, how do you know how to get out of it?"

Manning acknowledged the team had a "very difficult time changing to a new coaching staff and a new style of play," which does not exactly augur well for whoever takes over.

"But we are expecting this roster to play better than they are," Manning added.

The hope, he said, is that "a new tactician possibly could give our current roster a better look and maybe a spark to get something out of them that was missing right now."

Despite the disastrous loss Saturday, captain Michael Bradley said Armas had the players' confidence "1,000 per cent."

Still, Bradley said the team had "let everybody who follows us down" and issued an apology.

"One of my worst days at the club, for sure," he said. "We're not in a good way right now and it's nobody's fault but ourselves, the players. People want to look around and point fingers and say 'It's Chris' fault, he's not done a good enough job.' Bull. The players, we have to look at ourselves and find more."

In announcing Armas' hire in mid-January, Manning said the former New York Red Bulls coach was “the right fit to build upon the foundation that’s been established at TFC.

"Our fans are going to love his intensity and how that’s going to translate into our team’s style of play for years to come.”

Instead, it turned out to be months.

Curtis talked of a "collective responsibility" when it came to the team's poor showing and said he himself bore "a lot of responsibility." He said the club had to look forward and "find solutions."

None were offered Sunday.

Toronto's problems have been legion this season, with the team often digging itself a hole in games. The club has turned the ball over in dangerous positions, looked shaky on set pieces and porous on defence.

TFC conceded goals in the second and eighth minute against D.C. United on Saturday, bringing the number given up in the first 15 minutes of a game to a league-worst eight. Combine that with an 0-7-1 record when conceding the first goal and the woeful season starts to make sense.

Toronto ranked last in the league, conceding 2.45 goals a game, in the wake of the D.C. United humiliation. It was mid-table on offence, tied for 15th in averaging 1.18 goals an outing.

But it has to be said that Armas was dealt a litany of challenges in his first season at Toronto's helm. He never got to play at home and, due to the pandemic, reporters covering the team only got to know him over video.

An intense man, he burned brightly. But players praised his enthusiasm and commitment. In recent days, however, he seemed short on answers and looked forlorn.

With the pandemic raging, TFC's training camp was halted due to an outbreak of COVID-19 with eight cases reported, according to city of Toronto figures.

The team then had to relocate to the U.S. for a second-straight season due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

Toronto did not fill its third designated player spot until April 26 when it announced the signing of Venezuelan international winger Yeferson Soteldo from Brazil's Santos FC. When a hamstring injury interrupted his season, he had appeared in just five MLS games (302 minutes).

Playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, the reigning league MVP, was sidelined by a thigh injury during the pre-season. He did not make his season debut until May 21, when he saw 35 minutes of action off the bench in a 2-1 loss to Columbus.

The Spaniard, who played in all 23 league games last season, has appeared in just four this year (209 minutes).

Both Pozuelo and Soteldo came off the bench in the 7-1 loss to D.C. United, marking the first time they had been on the field together in league play.

Star striker Jozy Altidore, the club's third designated player, fell out with the club after confronting Armas in the wake of being substituted in the 70th minute of Toronto's 1-0 loss to Orlando on May 22. Altidore, second on the club's all-time scoring list, has been on the outs ever since, training separately from the first team while talks were held about his future.

Altidore, who is making US$3.6 million this season, turned into an expensive distraction.

Curtis offered little on Altidore's future Sunday, other than to say talks continue. "Stay tuned in terms of what next week looks like."

The interrupted pre-season meant Toronto had little time to prepare for high-pressure Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League matches. When it opened round-of-16 play against Mexico's Club Leon, it had to do it without Pozuelo and No. 1 goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who was late arriving at camp after he and his family contracted the virus.

Toronto got past Club Leon 3-2 on aggregate but the feel-good vibe disappeared quickly in a 4-2 loss to CF Montreal in the MLS season opener. Toronto conceded a goal in the third minute, a trend that has continued.

After the Montreal loss, Toronto tied Vancouver 2-2 and lost 2-0 to the New York Red Bulls. A 2-0 win over defending champion Columbus on May 12 seemed to signal a change.

But the season went south after a 1-1 tie with New York City FC. Toronto lost to Orlando (1-0), Columbus (2-1), Orlando (3-2), Nashville SC (3-2), FC Cincinnati (2-0) and D.C. United (7-1).

After finishing the 2020 season runner-up in the Supporters' Shield race at 13-5-5, Toronto finds itself bottom of the 27-team league with a 1-8-2 record, having conceded a league-worst 27 goals.

The CONCACAF Champions League campaign ended in a 4-2 aggregate loss to Mexico's Cruz Azul, and Toronto is 2-10-3 in all competitions.

Armas succeeded the popular and successful Vanney, who stepped down Dec. 1, saying he needed a new challenge. That turned out to be running the Los Angeles Galaxy, whom he joined Jan. 5.

Armas had last coached the Red Bulls, moving up from assistant coach to take over the team in July 2018 and leading it to the 2018 Supporters’ Shield and the Eastern Conference final. He was let go in September 2020 with the team on a 1-4-1 run.

Curtis worked with Armas at the Red Bulls.

A former elite defensive midfielder, Armas played in the MLS from 1996 to 2007, spending two seasons with the Galaxy and 10 with the Chicago Fire. He won one MLS Cup and four U.S. Open Cups.

Armas is one of only five players to be named to the MLS Best XI five times. A six-time MLS all-star, he was named MLS Comeback Player of the Year in 2003.

On the international front, he won 66 caps for the U.S. and was chosen U.S. Soccer’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2000.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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