By Kevin Koczwara
Toronto FC fans may well be one of the best supporting groups in North America, but since becoming a member of Major League Soccer, TFC fans haven’t had the chance to sing their hearts out in a playoff game. It’s been four years. Six coaches have walked the line as the manager of the Reds. Still, there hasn’t been a Toronto post-season playoff game — just an MLS Cup between the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas in November of 2010.
In 2010, former MLS standout Preki took over the reigns as the club’s manager. He didn’t finish out the season and Toronto finished 5th in the Eastern Conference, 11th overall, missing the playoffs, again. Could Total Football be the answer Toronto and its fans have been looking for? Only time will tell.
To find out Toronto and its fans must give Aron Winter, the Reds’ newly appointed manager, and Paul Mariner, new director of player personnel, enough time revamp a disjointed squad, bring in their own players and work the system.
Winter comes to Toronto from the famed Dutch club Ajax in Amsterdam. Winter worked as an Assistant coach at Ajax for the last three years after playing 17 professional years as a midfielder. The former Dutch international played nine of his pro years with Ajax — bookending his career at the Amsterdam club — and excelled in the team’s midfield and Total Football system where players move into space and rotate within the side in a fluid motion, replacing space vacated by one another and passing the ball forward as a cohesive unit.
To say coaching in Toronto has been a tough gig to hold on to is an understatement. It’s like playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Coaches are brought in from successful jobs for parts of a season for large sums of money and then let go with money still to pay on the contract, except they aren’t traded, they’re just cut. Preki’s tough, disciplined coaching was suppose to do the trick last season. It didn’t. He was let go like the rest of them. Now, if Winter can get the full three years on his contract, he could really turn things around up there in Canada.
Winter’s resume has the look of a top-level European coach. He played professional soccer not only in the attack laden Netherlands, but he also plied his trade at Lazio and Inter Milan in the defensive and structured play of Italy’s Serie A. Then Winter went on and worked at Ajax during one of the club’s many productive rebuilding years.
Working at a club like Ajax teaches a manager how to adapt, how to build a team from youth and scratch parts as the bigger clubs poach and prod into your top players. Winter worked on all this as an assistant. He instilled the Dutch way of playing soccer into the side, and helped beat in the Ajax Total Football approach. He will now be the head-honcho, but it will be much like his time at Ajax. Winter will have to build from scratch, develop youth talent and search the junk heaps for gems hidden beneath garbage.
And he’s got one great asset to help him: Paul Mariner. Mariner left his post as assistant coach of Plymouth Argyle to take the job as Toronto’s man in charge of the search for the gems. Mariner’s knowledge of the league and its players is unmatched. He helped Steve Nicol and the New England Revolution develop some of America’s best players while assisting Nicol in coaching the Revs to three-straight MLS Cup Final appearances. He couldn’t save Plymouth from dropping last year out of the Championship and into League 1, but he did do a pretty good job at making it interesting despite taking over a team already in the relegation zone midway through the season.
With Winter and Mariner, Toronto should start to develop into the side the Reds fans have dreamed of; a fun-loving, free-flowing and winning side. Toronto has some key elements already, but the team needs to start picking up quality players and not letting go of impact players before they get settled in Canada. Winter and Mariner should be welcomed with open arms and given a few years to construct a team that can compete with the Los Angeles Galaxys and Real Salt Lakes of the MLS. It’s only fair. It it will pay off in the long run. These guys have the credentials and desire to reward Toronto’s fans with what they deserve for all the support: a winner.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.