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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