Another Lean Year for Toronto FC?
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Another Lean Year for Toronto FC?

Goaltender Stefan Frei thinks that TFC’s new style of play might inspire imitators.

There are some important questions surrounding this year’s incarnation of Toronto FC.
Can the team master, for instance, the nuances and subtleties of a new style of play fast enough to make this the year the franchise finally debuts in the playoffs? Will TFC’s fans keep coming if the team doesn’t win? And will they prefer the pulled pork sandwich or the chicken and black bean empanada?

Though finding answers to these questions is neither more nor less than a matter of time, this much we can already say with certainty: later today, when thousands of hardy fans file into a frostbitten BMO Field dressed in their many thermal layers, they will find things on their home pitch not exactly as they left them at the end of last year, when TFC crumbled down the stretch and missed out on the post-season.
There will be a handful of new faces, like those of forwards Javier Martina and Nick Soolsma. The recently borrowed Alen Stevanovic—due to arrive in Toronto today—might be in uniform, though it’s difficult to imagine he’ll see any playing time.
But even those players, well-known to fans, may be moving around in ways unfamiliar.
That’s because TFC has a new coach and, years from now, he may be remembered as a pioneer of the MLS brand of the beautiful game. Aron Winter, whose off-season signing made him the sixth coach in the Toronto franchise’s five years of existence, is trying to bring “Total Football,” or something rather like it, overseas to BMO Field.
First employed in the 1970s by legendary Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam, Total Football is organized chaos, with players switching positions freely and often, an exciting system traditionally characterized by relentless attacking.
Whether or not Winter’s vision will pay dividends for TFC in the win column remains to be seen. If everything does go according to plan, goalie Stefan Frei suggested to us after the team’s indoor practice at the Oakville Soccer Club on Friday, other MLS teams might be following TFC’s example. “It’s maybe changing, a little bit, the playing style of the league,” Frei said of the new system, “which, if we succeed, I think will make this league better overall.”
Stalwart Canadian defenceman Nana Attakora was eager to sing the praises of Toronto-style Total Football, but cautioned that it will take time for the team to fully adapt. “In time, I think this club will be one of the best in the league, if we can just continue to learn [the system] and improve it,” Attakora said. “It might take six months or a full year. It won’t happen overnight.”

TFC defenceman Nana Attakora.

Surely, learning a new style of play under a new head coach takes time. But there are signs that, five years on, the honeymoon is drawing to a close for this city’s soccer fans. For the first time in their history, for instance, the team has not announced an opening day sellout—because, well, they haven’t sold out opening day. Precariously situated in a professional sports market where soccer is a clear underdog, TFC needs look no further than the Rock or the Argos to learn that, in the long-term, they will need to win in order to sell tickets.
We are by no means suggesting that TFC is unconcerned with the quality of the experience of their fans on gameday. After all, the club has just unveiled its new southern barbecue–inspired concessions menu, carefully designed and proudly previewed this week. TFC fans, then, should have no shortage of good eats this season, but sandwiches, cole slaw and grainy mustard will only keep them sated for so long.
“We’re all open-minded and we’re just keen on improving,” Attakora said, when considering the team’s progress in learning coach Winter’s new system.
Attakora’s is, of course, an ideal attitude for a professional athlete to bring to work every day. It might, however, prove to be no consolation to the fans at BMO Field if TFC wins are few and far between this year. The point that meaningful progress sometimes happens slowly is well made, but the reality is that what the fans are really hungry for is the playoffs.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.