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Friday, June 8, 2012

End of Winter leaves a flurry of questions

Goodbye sweet pun-maker.

As a warning, this article will leave you with far more questions than answers but a day after Aron Winter's "mutually agreed" departure from Toronto FC - we can't help but being left with many queries. The Dutchman's tenure, which started with such excitement upon his arrival, never gained enough momentum to build upon the small successes until it reached a point where the club's record made his dismissal inevitable. There were random bright spots which many thought would usher in a new era of success but most turned out to be false dawns. Why Aron Winter, by all accounts a very bright football mind, couldn't find the answer to bringing winning football to Toronto FC will likely be debated at length but for now, we are dogged with these few questions...
It's a funny league, this MLS. In simplistic terms it is mostly a push-and-run type league played at a pace and ferocity not too unlike the lower portion of the English Championship. While there are dashes of highly skilled and technical play on some of the clubs, the winning formula usually comes down to pace, athleticism and hard-nosed defending. However, apart from style comes the necessity to understand how to build your squad within MLS' very unique squad structures. With the salary cap and international restrictions hampering a new coach's choices, did Aron Winter ever get his head around the fact that he needed to use existing MLS talent as part of his rebuild? Few MLS clubs have met success without having a few established MLS "stars" in their starting eleven.
While he never referred to his chosen "Dutch-style" as "Total Football" it was an easy way for the lay-person to get their head around Winter's plans. One has to wonder in hindsight though - did Winter try to run in this league before he could walk? While the idea of bringing the Ajax structure to Toronto, from our youngest Academy players up to the First Team, was one that had Reds' fans dreaming of a North American superclub - was it perhaps naive? Did Winter need a transitional system to usher in his complete system that could have seen a few more instant results while the bigger picture was gradually brought in?
This was a criticism held in many circles. Despite loss after loss and a full 2011 season that only saw six league victories, Winter doggedly stuck to his 4-3-3 formation. While you can almost credit the man for having such conviction in his beliefs, there were many times that the squad on the field simply couldn't handle the responsibility and high football IQ needed to effectively play that style. If Winter could have found a little flexibility in his tactics would he still be manager today?
"One of these men just doesn't belong..." seemed to be the tune associated with the picture of Winter, Bob de Klerk and Paul Mariner when they were hired together. While Mariner seemed to be "the MLS mind" put in place to help the two league newbies wade through North America, just how well could they mesh? As far as footballing backgrounds go, two men reared in Ajax philosophy couldn't be further from a man who played in the long-ball era of English football and got his coaching chops in North America and Football League One. Was this a triumvirate that could never truly see eye-to-eye?
TFC is run like a secret society so these questions will never be answered for certain but there seemed to be enough rumours being leaked to believe fractures had formed in the front office. As results and success continued to elude the club, was there a philosophical borderline drawn at BMO Field? Were there indeed two sides, one continuing to push for the Dutch system implementation with the other calling for a return to a more tried and tested "MLS style"? If this was the case, could success ever have been achieved by Winter?
One of the biggest side rumours that came out of the above mentioned rift was that Aron Winter was being stymied when it came to making player moves. Rumours swirled recently that Earl Cochrane still had a great deal of influence over transactions (and the backing of Tom Anselmi), and as an acolyte of the "MLS style", was making it difficult for Aron Winter to bring in players that would suit his tactics. If it is true that the club is pushed up against the salary cap as much as expected then there wouldn't be too much that Cochrane or anyone else could do to make things more difficult, however, any scenario which didn't see all members of the backroom staff pulling in the same direction would surely be a toxic environment.
While few would find fault in adding players like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans to the squad - did their presence (and salary) change what was expected from Aron Winter in the eyes of fans and the ownership? Winter let it slip once in the off-season that the playoffs in 2012 were no certainty but when you add two expensive players with little peak time left in their careers, isn't there a feeling that immediate results should be forthcoming? It certainly mustn’t be easy for a player with a winning pedigree like Torsten Frings to see his career peter out in such circumstances but did having him on the team put expectations of immediate success on a timetable that was quicker than Winter could handle?
When the vastly under experienced Jim Brennan was placed into to Assistant Coach's role a few weeks back, many TFC fans saw a much darker Machiavellian maneuver. Not only was a well-known "company man" being put into the # 2 role on the bench but it was also in the place of Aron Winter's friend and confidante Bob de Klerk. It is impossible to say if there was a souring of relations between Winter and de Klerk since that move was made but it must have put Winter in a very uncomfortable position. But was that the point? Did the ownership - so weary of the bad optics of firing another coach - want Winter to get so frustrated that he would walk on his own thus leaving Anselmi & Co. with no blood on their hands?
Amidst the smug platitudes dished out by Tom Anselmi at yesterday's press conference was the admission that things were "not good enough". Few TFC supporters would argue that things were even close to great but what did the owners want as of June 2012? Did they believe that four previous years of stunning mismanagement allowed under their watch would be erased in a year and a half? While most of us would have liked TFC to be in the playoff hunt this year, many also saw that it was an outside shot. No one here will overestimate MLSE's utter lack of football knowledge sat around their luxurious boardrooms but did they truly believe "this was the year"? Considering that their near-playoff appearance (mistakenly said to be in 2007 under John Carver!!!) was trotted out as a sign that "things aren't so bad" you can't think that their aims were sky-high - or was it the ever decreasing crowds (and revenues) that led them to wanting to appear "proactive"?
A little bit of success under new manager Paul Mariner will erase lingering frustration with Aron Winter over time but we will never know if the Dutchman's grand dream could have ever worked. Yes, his time here left a legacy of greater importance on the Academy and homegrown players but whether or not we could have seen TFC playing "beautiful" Dutch-style football in MLS is lost. His firing is not unjustified - few managers in football would have survived a 0-5 start let alone a 0-9. However, it's hard not to believe that Aron Winter truly felt that he would be given, at the very least, his full three years to make his dream a reality. At the end of the day there were not enough signs that pointed to things heading in that direction. As TFC looks set to return to a more tested North American style, the one last question we may have when we one day look back on Aron Winter's tenure as TFC manager could be "what if"?


  1. very good. One of the best articles i have read in a while. If only someone in control had a modicum of this analyitic ability perhaps winter and tfc would both be in a better position

  2. One more question: who was responsible for signing and keeping certain (sh*tty) players? Who wanted to keep Harden on the books or protect and play Dunfield? Who pushed for the signing of Calceido and Aceval? Who signed Iro and Viator? I was under the impression that Martina, Yourasssowsky, Bouchiba, and Soolsma were Winter signings. Were the other guys all Mariner's choices?

  3. "As far as footballing backgrounds go, two men reared in Ajax philosophy couldn't be further from a man who played in the long-ball era of English football"

    Except that Mariner played for a little club that punched above its weight in playing an attractive style of football with a variety of skilled players, not the least of which being two talented Dutchmen in Frans Thijsen and Arnie Muhren, a former Ajax man, no less. They even were able to win the UEFA Cup. So though Mariner was probably a more classic style of centre forward the team he played with during his heyday was not a long ball team, though certainly more physical hoof and rush sides probably got the better of Town on occasion.

    Winter was done in because there was no Plan B when Frings went down. The club was absolutely horrible when he wasn't in the line up during MLS games, though the had a one and a 1/2 off out of this world performance against Santos Laguna.

    1. You make a fair point about Ipswich Town but he also played in that era in England that din't build clubs in that Ajax style.

      As mentioned in the article he learned to coach here in the New England area and definitely DID NOT play any beautiful style with Steve Nicol. Instead, they tailored their style to what players they had available.

      Maybe if Mariner can find the style that suits the current TFC squad you can get a few wins. I hope so because this league would be better off with a competitive Toronto and not a laughing stock

  4. A beautiful analysis. My feeling is that "Stubborn Winter" aspect is what sets the end in motion. The high expectations with Frings and Danny K is less of a factor in my eyes. After the DeRo trade, talent had to be found.
    I am wondering about the DeKlerk role into the future. Does he lay low, makes the Academy his little Ajax transplant and then becomes to Mariner what Mariner was to Winter?