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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for Forbes.com and Soccerly.com and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


TANGENTS

Toronto FC – A Winter of Discontent?

Written by on March 21, 2011 | 13 Comments »
Posted in MLS, Toronto FC

It has always been much easier to say something is going to happen than to actually bring it to pass. If they didn’t know that before Saturday then Toronto FC certainly found out against the Vancouver Whitecaps in their opening game of the 2011 MLS season.

The message from the TFC brains-trust since the ousting of GM Mo Johnston and Coach Preki last season was that things were going to change. There was the much-heralded appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as a consultant tasked with recommending a revamp of the organization followed by the appointment of former Dutch international Aron Winter as Head Coach.

Along with Winter came Dutch assistant Bob de Klerk and Paul Mariner was appointed Director of Player Development.

The “Dutch-way” was now the way forward and the days of dogged organization, discipline and playing in straight-lines were at an end. No more domineering and distant coaches.

A gentler, kinder leadership was the new-wave and during training camp the players were ready to tell all and sundry how much better things were after regime change.

But teams do not move seamlessly between two such contrasting styles of football without a long and painful transition. And no player exemplifies the problem more than Adrian Cann.

Cann in a big strapping 30-year-old centre back who has had an honest journeyman’s existence playing in various leagues in the USA, Denmark and Canada.

The lack of a strong commanding figure at the heart of the TFC defence had been a weakness for some time when Cann signed in April 2010. The job description was simple and straight forward – win headers, dominate the opposition striker and don’t overplay the ball. Get it, give it.

Playing alongside the more mobile Nana Attakora, Cann’s lack of pace was largely mitigated and throughout 2010 Cann was one of Toronto’s most consistent performers.

So much so that he was voted Toronto FC’s Player of the Season and was recalled to the Canadian national team set up. Cann was in fact the poster-boy of how to make the most of your talent within a team situation – know what you are good at, play to your strengths and allow the others to do the same.

There was a bump in the road however during the 2011 training camp when Cann walked out sighting a problem with his contract and promises supposedly made last season but not fulfilled.

A contrite Cann returned a few days later and supposedly got a raise on last season’s salary but less than was on the table when he went AWOL.

Cann was in the squad that traveled to Vancouver for the 2011 season opener but when the line-up was posted it became clear that things had changed and changed a lot.

Instead of occupying his usual position at centre back Cann found himself asked to play left back. Coach Winter opted for a central defensive partnership of Attakora and Ty Harden instead. The purpose seemed very obvious – Winter wanted the ball played out from the centre backs.

When Harden and Attakora got the ball the full backs – Dan Gargan and Adrian Cann – pushed forward ala a Barcelona-type shape offering width and in the hope that it would create more space for Nathan Sturgis and Jacob Petersen in the centre of midfield.

But while Gargan is relatively at ease with the ball at his feet and going forward, Cann is not and he spent ninety minutes looking as comfortable as a fish on a bike. With a turning circle of a small aircraft carrier Cann was the focus of many of the Whitecaps attacks and he underwent a torturous ninety minutes.

Rather than being placed in a position where he could succeed Cann was placed in a position where his weaknesses were on display for all to see and for the Whitecaps to feed on.

But not only was Toronto robbed of Cann’s influence at centre back but the midfield pairing of Sturgis and Petersen lacked balance leaving Attakora and Harden exposed.

Sturgis received an extended run in central midfield with Seattle last season when he was teamed with the tigerish Osvaldo Alonso.  Petersen has his strengths but I doubt anyone has ever mistaken him for the second coming of Gattuso. It did not work.

In fact the TFC set up radiated an extreme naivety. There seemed to be an implicit assumption that because TFC were going out to play football from the back and through midfield the Whitecaps were going to sit back and allow it to happen.

Of course it didn’t turn out that way and the Whitecaps tore into Toronto and made sure that they had no time on the ball. There are ways to counter the Whitecaps tactics but it takes players of a much higher calibre than those available to Toronto FC and in fact to the MLS in general.

Advanced and technically gifted players do not play in MLS or if they do they are the exceptions rather than the rule. MLS is a physically demanding league and the most successful teams have been those that can meld the physical needs with a couple of gifted players. Aron Winter showed little understanding of such a necessity on Saturday.

The Toronto FC apologists who are keen to guzzle the kool-aid can talk all they want about the need for patience. It takes time for the vision and the academy system to produce fruit in abundance.  But they fail to tell the fans how long the transition to success will take.

The reality is if TFC are to fulfill the goals and objectives of their newly found grand vision we are talking at least five years – certainly not a season or two.

Pragmatism rather than fundamentalism would appear to be what is needed but Toronto FC has wedded itself so closely to the new vision that a third-way seems to have been completely overlooked.

Can the TFC brains-trust stick with their master plan for five long hard seasons while taking a buffeting from disgruntled fans?

Past experience tells us not, so don’t be surprised if knee-jerk leadership wins out once again and a year from now Toronto FC will be setting off in another new direction telling us how they have again learned from past mistakes.

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13 responses to “Toronto FC – A Winter of Discontent?”

  1. Theo van Nasarshavregas says:

    Bobby,

    I agree with you fully regarding your future outlook concerning TFC and the lack of patience which will be required for this new set up to be successful. I forsee a very long and difficult season ahead for TFC. And once the fans see how successful Vancouver (an expansion team) is doing in relation to their team (is the fifth year their playoff charm) I think the majority will get disenchanted and ask for heads to roll again. Then TFC will be back to square one in the off season again, maybe hire Klinsmann to give us a new vision, and he will happily collect his consulting fee. TFC might have a niche market position akin to the Chicago Cubs if all the cards are played right – as loveable longterm losers.

    It’s too bad. I would love to see TFC down the road play a possession game. But as you point out, this will take at least five years to implement. The Ajax teams of old and FCB teams today develop the mentality from the crib. The technical ability is developed from a very early age for each player and it is woven into the club’s philosophy and formation throughout all the club’s youth teams. This cannot be developed overnight nor in one year’s time. In fact, I believe it needs more than five years and I doubt the Toronto fan base will exhibit the requisite patience for this.

    Cann does not look to be a LB at all. I thought Harden had an absolute nightmare at CB and I can see Cann being moved back to his familiar partnership pairing at CB before too long.

  2. TVN – I was being very optimistic with 5 years. It is a culture that needs a long time to develop and to take root.

  3. http://tiny.cc/uyer3 Apologies if you have seen this ….fake warm up before Bari played Milan on Friday and is very well done.

  4. Derek Taylor says:

    ^^^

    Very much LOL

  5. Peter Salis says:

    Well written article Bobby,

    The entire time I watched the game between Van and TFC I thought to myself, TFC has no midfield general. They had no one able to gather the ball, turn with it, and then run at the Van defence. They might need to lose De Guzman and get a DP that can do that, maybe a Munitis from Racing in Spain, or De La Pena from Depo in Spain, someone able to make that pass and spread the ball.

    Im surprised about Cann though, I wonder if it was a one off decision by Winter to teach him a lesson. Even between Harden and Cann it would seem like Harden would be more suited to play outside, like last year in a few games. What I don’t understand is the need for two centrehalfs, instead of one and a centreback, even Barca plays with Pique as the passer and then a Puyol or Busquets dropping back to hold the fort.

    What are the odds of them getting rid of a Peterson do you think, because he’s too slow for this system to play out wide and not good enough in the mid? Do you think they’ll go for that midfielder soon that can make a telling pass and get the ball back also, like a Xabi Alonso type player?

  6. John Bladen says:

    Bobby/Peter:

    I couldn’t believe it when the squad was announced and Cann was at left back. I’m all for trying new things, but there must be at least some slim belief that the new thing can work.

    Harden had a couple of decent games at LB last year. Cann, as Bobby said, played quite well in central defense. Swapping the two of them seemed laughable to those of us who watched the club last year. Whatever Winter’s intent was with this change, pretty clearly it was always going to be a disaster.

    While the club certainly had it’s problems last year, the defending was a big improvement over 2009 (not saying much, obviously, but we take gains where we can get them). It’s just one game, of course, but these sorts of mistakes were 2008/9 material… and appalling in a club with veteran players along the back line, whether they have previously played together regularly or not.

    MLS is a league of significant roster changes year to year. I would expect Winter’s September TFC line up to be vastly different from that used in the opener. The question is, can he find pieces that are better, rather than just different?

    The problem with any “saviour” system is that you have to have the players to execute it. Clubs that use the “four blocks of granite” approach at the back tend to do so because they don’t have the ability to successfully play any other way. Pep Guardiola has done a wonderful job with Barcelona. Had he been hired at Stoke or Wolves, his brilliant system might not seem so…

  7. http://tiny.cc/jenpm TSN very happy with MLS viewing Vancouver Whitecaps v TFC

  8. Theo van Nasarshavregas says:

    Bobby,

    Great mug shot of you advertising your twitter and blogpage on the show tonight. Talk about the cat swallowing the canary picture. Hilarious! Fell off the couch yet again … at least this time it was not from your player of the weekend pick.

  9. Alistair Johnston says:

    Bobby, I agree with your critique on your comments about the Whitecaps play on Saturday. It was indeed churlish. I don’t know if you left Winnipeg to come see the game but the level of effort and skill on the field by Demerit, Rochat and Leathers that we 23,000 witnessed was commendable. If this is what Whitecaps fans can expect to see this season we are indeed lucky.
    Having watched MLS intently since Vancouver was granted their franchise there is more than enough ineptness in MLS to go around and Toronto sure doesn’t have that market cornered. Vancouver’s challenge may be a lack of depth but if we turn up to play every week and get any kind of growth from the team as the season rolls on I can’t really see this first season club being behind at least 10 teams that are marginal performers at best. Oh and while I have your attention can we get these programmers at FSC to at least periodically look at QPR and the teams fighting it out at the top of the Championship? Watching the Belgian League might help me get good sleep but this year’s promotion contenders are surely a better option.

  10. Alistair – if you want to get the attention of FSC programmers you had better write to them as I doubt they are reading this website.

  11. […] always insightful Bobby McMahon provides his usual encyclopedic analysis about the train wreck on display in Toronto FC’s […]

  12. Kevin says:

    Excellent analysis and a fine overall blog. I’ll be back.

  13. Alistair says:

    Thanks for your input. As a daily viewer to FSC I have tried and tried to have dialogue with the programmers at the channel. they seem pretty immune to any feedback or requests. keep up the good work.

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