VANCOUVER — Aron Winter probably doesn’t need to pin comments on the team’s dressing room wall to get his side fired up for Saturday’s Major League Soccer season opener against the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps.
But the Toronto FC head coach would be doing himself a great favour by reminding his troops about a crack that Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi made this week.
Lenarduzzi gave the Toronto franchise — and, by connection, the players — a backhanded slap in the yap when he suggested that he wants to mold his new MLS franchise after the Seattle Sounders organization, not lowly Toronto.
“Toronto set a low bar in that they haven’t made the playoffs for four years,” Lenarduzzi told a network TV crew. “Seattle, on the other hand, has made the playoffs in each of their first two years and won two Open Cups. So that’s what we’re going to try to emulate.”
That makes total sense, of course. Who’d want to follow in the footsteps of underachieving Toronto FC — at least in terms of on-field performance?
But talk about kicking a team when it’s down.
Of course, Lenarduzzi can afford to be flippant, cocky even. Nothing much is expected from the expansion Whitecaps this season and it will be a couple of years before the Vancouver faithful begin demanding success on the pitch. Toronto, on the other hand, is under considerable pressure to perform. And if it is not, it should be.
Anything short of making the playoffs this year has to be considered a failure. There shouldn’t be any excuses, particularly that clap-trap about how the Reds are rebuilding again. Yes, they may be rebuilding, but they also have a solid core of proven MLS standouts on the roster in midfielders Dwayne De Rosario, Julian de Guzman, defender Adrian Cann and goaltender Stefan Frei, and there’s no reason why they can’t take that next step and reward their loyal fans with some success.
Winter has been given the task of not just bringing in a host of new players, but implementing a totally new system, with the emphasis on total football — copied after famed Dutch organization Ajax, where he served both as a player and coach.
The new coach said following a workout at a damp and rainy Empire Field on Friday that he is content with the way his team is adapting to the new system, but he isn’t promising anything this season in terms of finally qualifying for the post-season. He insisted that the long-term, not the short term, is the thing — though frustrated TFC supporters have been hearing that for close to five years.
“The first thing that’s important is the system I want to bring in,” said the former Dutch international. “But you need time. We can show our fans that you can play effective and dominate and also get results. Obviously, we want to try to reach the playoffs. But first of all we’re rebuilding and we need time.
“We’re trying to build a complete team,” he added. “The difference is, we want to try to play soccer and change the mentality that used to be here in the last five to six years. And that’s not easy.”
That is a subtle shot at former TFC manager Mo Johnston, the architect of the past four years of drudgery and ineptitude.
Though he’s played hardball in a couple of contract squabbles, Winter has largely been praised by the rank and file.
“He’s definitely brought a whole different mentality, another philosophy, a different approach,” said De Rosario. “The guys are still adapting to it, but it’s the way we enjoy playing football — the ball on the ground.”
Unfortunately, it hasn’t exactly been a auspicious beginning of the season off the pitch for the Toronto outfit. Winter and director of player development Paul Mariner seem to know what they’re doing, but they’ve inherited a club with some disenchanted leaders, namely De Rosario, the team’s career leading scorer and the heart and soul of the squad, as well Cann, last season’s team MVP, who left following its pre-season camp and missed the Carolina Cup tournament. Cann has since rejoined the organization in time for the season, but just like De Rosario, is not a happy camper.
Both have insisted that their personal discontent over contracts will not affect their on-field performance, but that, of course, is a wait-and-see proposition.