The well-worn life adage “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” is almost always an on-the-money assessment of spectacular collapses.
In Toronto, the football club that many credit with starting MLS supporter culture when they joined the league in 2007 is famous for their staggering incompetence. In a league where over half the teams competing make the playoffs, Toronto – a big market team with money – hasn’t made it once in their first seven years.
The club has had more seasons than coaches, and more last-place finishes since they’ve been in the league than any other franchise – and until now, no one outside of Canada has cared all that much.
See, Toronto was a small club. Then, MLSE and Tim Leiweke happened, and they became a loud, smashing, “Bloody Big Deal”.
For the first time, Toronto got big – and they fell hard in the wake of an insipid 3-0 home defeat at the hands of New England Revolution that puts their spot in the playoffs in real jeopardy for the first time all year.
Manager Ryan Nelsen, who swung and missed again tactically on the night then ranted at his general manager while falling back on his playing reputation to give his criticisms a degree of credit.
Predictably, Nelsen was sacked the next day. The story out of Canada’s biggest city was that while Leiweke, team President and CEO was in the former New Zealand captain’s corner, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and Nelsen didn’t get along.
And with Leiweke, MLS’ head kingmaker who turned the LA Galaxy into a dynasty and put Toronto on that same road, resigning his position at MLSE effective next June, Nelsen’s departure was only a matter of time.
In fact, many said from the beginning that Nelsen’s departure was only a matter of time. Even for a club like Toronto that is prone to self-destruct in the most spectacular way possible – hiring an active player with no managerial experience to lead a young team with incoming stars and major expectations was overly bizarre.
But that’s what happened when Nelsen was hired while he was playing for QPR in early 2013.
Simply put, Nelsen was, predictably enough, not up to the job. He scrambled all year tactically, failing to find a solution in a central midfield with a player to compliment lynchpin Michael Bradley. The team was unable find defensive stability, and a series of high-profile trades were of no help.
On talent alone, Toronto is easily one of the best three teams in the East. But they weren’t playing like it. What we heard from Nelsen was excuse after excuse, and turning on his boss after three wins in 13 was the final straw.
Sacking Nelsen was a necessary move to salvage a season that is still very much salvageable. In his place will be Greg Vanney, an MLS player and front office veteran who is a calm and respected presence, albeit inexperienced as a manager.
But then things went from bad to worse. In the wake of Nelsen’s sacking were numerous reports of Jermain Defoe’s unhappiness. At the press conference introducing Vanney, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko confirmed that the club was considering offers for the British striker.
To recap – in just a month, Toronto had seen their president announce his resignation, their manager get sacked, and their marquee forward move anxiously towards the exit.
In the end, of course, the club decided to keep Defoe – though Harry Redknapp has said QPR will be back in for the player in January.
If they come in with an £11 million offer for Defoe it could be too good an offer to refuse, but keeping him for now was an absolutely necessary move.
To lose Defoe, along with Bradley the face of the franchise, would be a staggering statement of defeat in the quest to make Toronto a global club and MLS power. It would be waving a white flag.
Yes, that record transfer fee could have been used to bolster a lacking defense, and yes Toronto are not hurting for options up top. But serious clubs don’t sell their stars in the midst of the playoff race and a bigger plan to remain a credible entity.
If Defoe takes off in January, the club will have done what they could. But a lot can happen between now and then. Maybe Defoe will hit it off with Vanney and maybe they will make a run at MLS Cup – you never know.
Interestingly enough, Leiweke similarly stopped a severly disenchanted and frustrated David Beckham from leaving LA for AC Milan in 2009. What happened next? The Galaxy went to MLS Cup and built a dynasty that won two championships and made Beckham something much more than a pop culture star in LA.
Surely, Leiweke was considering that in his handling of Defoe. While it may be true that Defoe is struggling with the media demands and travel, he’s not playing like he’s unhappy. While he has had injuries, he’s also scored a boatload of goals for Toronto.
But with Leiweke leaving next year, the long-term future of the club is undeniably in a bleak state of limbo.
Why hasn’t Leiweke been able to turn around Toronto like he did LA? After all, the Galaxy were a mess when Beckham first came into the club.
It starts with coaching. In Beckham’s second season, Leiweke dumped the bickering clown show that was Alexi Lalas, and especially Ruud Guilt, to hire Bruce Arena – the most successful American coach ever.
Arena commanded the room on day one in LA, gave the club direction, focus, a true leader and nothing has changed seven years later. Leiweke may be gone, but the Galaxy are still the class of the league.
Is Vanney that guy for Toronto? We’ll see – the expectation is that if the club don’t make the playoffs, or even if they limp in, Vanney may not be in charge next year.
Is this a job for Michael’s father Bob Bradley, if he could be tempted away from his budding career in Norway?
What’s clear is that the next step to avoid further embarrassment is getting the equivalent of Arena, or something close, through the doors at BMO Field.
This season and this venture isn’t over – Nelsen has been cleared out, one of the final signs of a seemingly bygone era of dysfunction shown the door. And while the future of Toronto isn’t as bright as it once was, all is not lost.