Analysis:In wake of playoff debacle, Toronto FC needs to find its identity

Analysis:In wake of playoff debacle, Toronto FC needs to find its identity

MONTREAL — Given Toronto FC’s history, it’s hard not to mark down Thursday’s playoff debacle in Montreal as yet another misstep in a long line of soccer stumbles.

The 3-0 loss to the Impact was both ugly and worrying as Toronto failed to deliver on the franchise’s biggest night. Whether it becomes a defining moment depends on how the MLS club responds.

New team president Bill Manning now has to determine how much change is needed to steady the ship, from GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney on down.

One striking takeaway from Saputo Stadium was the sight of 37-year-old striker Didier Drogba rallying his Impact troops. Despite a commanding lead in the dying minutes, he was still exhorting his teammates to work harder — and they were responding.

If something similar was happening on the Toronto side, I missed it.

Vanney acknowledged after the game that his team was tentative, hesitant and outcompeted in the first half, a candid but damning indictment.

“At the end of the day you have to come out and compete and fight and scrap,” said Vanney.

Couple that with poor decisions defensively and the game went south quickly.

The defence can be fixed. More on that later. But where was the leadership — on and off the field?

Vanney is a decent man and hard-working coach. But like Bezbatchenko, his tools are analysis and reason.

Emotion and experience carry weight on the sporting battlefield. They can also build an identity.

TFC has money, star power, loyal fans, a remodelled stadium, a jewel of a training centre and an owner with deep pockets — everything you could ask for in a franchise. But after nine seasons does it have an identity?

Here’s an idea. Shift former captain Steven Caldwell from his role as director of corporate development with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and make him Manning’s right-hand man.

During his time as a TFC player, the hard-nosed Scot was the heartbeat of the club. He mentored young players and cajoled veterans. If you wanted to get at TFC, you had to go through him.

The club could use some of that, even if it has to come from the front office. Caldwell has played at top clubs, with top players, and knows the value of a hard day’s work.

Leadership comes in many forms.

After the game, the Impact players danced and celebrated with Drogba leading the way in a loud locker-room. Talented and beloved is a powerful combination.

Michael Bradley is a talented, intense captain but unlike Drogba — and perhaps like Vanney and Bezbatchenko — his fire burns cold.

With Drogba, the Impact are a motivated mob. I sense Bradley walks alone, with his team strung behind him.

The U.S. skipper wields immense power within the Toronto organization, which has essentially built its on-field product around him. One can argue that the right fit has yet to be found, with one formation after another tested this season to accommodate Bradley and fellow designated players Jozy Altidore and the marvellous Sebastian Giovinco.

Toronto has been an enigma for much of the season. With Giovinco leading the charge, the club scored some of the prettiest goals in MLS, marked by tic-tac-toe passing and some wonderful finishes.

Giovinco’s MVP season served as a mask for many of the team’s problems.

An ever-shifting backline was perhaps the biggest one. The defence never recovered from Caldwell’s injury-forced retirement.

Damien Perquis’ injury-disrupted season ranged from solid to volcanic but the volatile Polish international remains the pick of centre backs. The team’s left back, Justin Morrow, was worryingly also its best right back. Youth was not served with Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund seemingly forgotten. Ahmed Kantari was not the answer at the heart of the defence.

Toronto needs to acquire at least one more reliable centre back and a right fullback.

The decision not to allow goalie Joe Bendik a chance to get his starting job back after injury sent a poor signal, showing a lack of insight into the team dynamic.

Expectations were high Thursday night, perhaps overly so given the team’s history. That only amplified the horrible showing.

This is a club that had finished seventh, seventh, fifth, fifth, eighth, 10th, ninth and seventh in the Eastern Conference going into this season. A 2-1 loss in Montreal in the regular-season finale dropped Toronto to sixth, the final playoff berth in a division weakened by the addition of two expansion teams.

With a 15-15-4 record this season, Toronto has yet to finish above .500 in its nine years in the league.

Toronto did set single-season records for total wins, home wins, points and goals scored in 2015 but the bar had been set very low. TFC tied the club mark for road victories — at four.

TFC has spent millions to find the right players. Now it’s time to find its identity.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

Categories: National, Sports

About Author

Write a Comment

Only registered users can comment.