Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP
The chase is on for Inter Miami. Victory over the New York Red Bulls in Lionel Messi’s first Major League Soccer match was enough to lift the club off the foot of the Eastern Conference. They have 11 regular season matches left to make up an 11-point difference and qualify for the playoffs. Toronto FC, bottom of the East on a run of 10 consecutive losses, now have the worst record in MLS, along with the Colorado Rapids.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Only last year, Toronto FC were being spoken about as a resurgent force with Lorenzo Insigne, signed from Napoli on a league-record contract, hailed as the most notable transfer in MLS history. Federico Bernardeschi was another statement signing, at least in pre-Messi terms. While Inter Miami’s new stars have prospered, though, TFC’s have flopped.
Related: John Herdman: the mastermind who has led Canada to the men’s and women’s World Cups
Not that there has been a lack of fire. If anything, there has been too much, with Insigne in particular believed to be a volatile presence – the Italian was reportedly involved in a training ground bust-up with interim coach Terry Dunfield just last week. It was merely the latest episode in a long, long series of flare-ups.
Bob Bradley, hired for the start of the 2022 season, was never able to mould a functional unit, and the former Los Angeles FC and Swansea City head coach was sacked after an underwhelming start (3W-10D-4L) to the 2023 campaign. Insigne and Bernardeschi, whose relationship has been fractious in its own right, clashed with Bradley. A dressing room divide opened up. The situation became untenable.
Not so long ago, Toronto FC looked to have built something of a MLS dynasty. The club reached three MLS Cup finals in four years, lifting the trophy in 2017. Sebastian Giovinco was the league’s best player, maybe even the best in MLS history. For a while, TFC figured out how to integrate star players like Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore into a coherent structure, on and off the field. They were a powerhouse.
But when Greg Vanney left at the end of the 2020 season to take over at the LA Galaxy, Toronto FC lost their way. Vanney reportedly wanted more of a say on transfer and academy strategy, but left after the club failed to make clear its long-term vision. The last three seasons have vindicated Vanney. He was right to be worried.
Vanney wasn’t the only departure to hurt TFC. General manager Tim Bezbatchenko left for the Columbus Crew. Key front-office figures Corey Wray, Issa Tall and Jaime McMillan joined Bezbatchenko in Columbus while Sean Rubio, the man tasked with guiding much of Toronto FC’s scouting, made the move to Austin FC. Most recently, Jack Dodd left his position as director of scouting to become the Portland Timbers’ new technical director.
All this turnover explains why Toronto FC have lacked any sort of tactical framework over the last two seasons. There has been a misalignment between different departments of the club. While Bradley wanted to play a possession-oriented game, he was signed players who were better in quick transition. The squad was never suited to his style of play.
Contrast this with how Inter Miami have blended Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba with the addition of younger players like Diego Gómez and Facundo Farías, who have helped Tata Martino implement a high-energy style. Messi and Co are the match winners, but the system around them helps sustain the team as a whole. Toronto FC have nothing like this.
Bill Manning is still in place as TFC president and he has had to front up. “I apologise to our fans that we are in this position,” he told reporters after the firing of Bradley. “We’re not where we want to be, where we should be. I take responsibility for that. We experience setbacks, the last few years haven’t gone well. That doesn’t mean you’re bad at the job. I have confidence that we can get this right, but I have to prove it.”
John Herdman emerged as TFC’s first choice to permanently succeed Bradley with the 48-year-old officially appointed to the position on Monday. He knows the game in Canada well having managed the country’s men’s and women’s teams and was clearly ready to make the move into club football.
Herdman is known as a dressing room galvaniser, and his appointment makes a lot of sense, although the divides at Toronto FC may be too wide for even the charmer from the north-east of England to bridge. He will probably have to clear the decks first before embarking on a rebuild. A new general manager or sporting director would help with that task. That Herdman won’t take over until 1 October suggests focus has already turned towards next season.
Many supporters want Toronto FC to become more Canadian. Under Herdman, Canada qualified for its first men’s World Cup since 1986 with the country producing more and more talent at the top level, so he is no stranger to reviving ailing teams. Of the 26 players picked for the 2022 World Cup, only three (Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osario and Richie Laryea) came from TFC. Herdman’s hiring hints at a more homegrown approach.
Whatever the plan is, it’s clear Toronto FC need a rethink. Insigne (who has been linked with Saudi Pro League clubs) and Bernardeschi should be allowed to leave to give the club a chance of retooling for the start of the 2024 season. This year is already a write-off, so the final matches should be about preparing for what comes next. Inter Miami have shown how quickly a losing team can become a winning one.