Aron Winter arrived in Toronto last year promising a "total football" style of play that would take Toronto FC into the MLS playoffs for the first time. Late last season, momentum was building in the right direction – but a wretched 2012 campaign has put major question marks over the validity of his three-year plan. This year was supposed to be the big breakthrough, but it may yet end with a big break up.
A 1-0 win over Philadelphia Union on Saturday has bought Winter a little breathing room but, coming into the game having lost all nine of their MLS games this season, it is hardly cause to pop open the champagne, particularly considering Philadelphia have the next worst record in the Eastern Conference and it took Toronto 88 minutes to find the winner.
Still, Winter believes it is a step in the right direction that will give morale a timely jolt. The MLS season now takes a two-week break for international fixtures, making it all the more crucial to have ended the horror run of results.
"I’m very relieved – after nine games and zero points, it’s a big relief," he explained, clearly thankful to finally be able to discuss a victory. "Now everyone can relax and enjoy the break, and we can prepare well for the next game. It has come at a great time."
But what about his bold claim earlier in the month that the team could still make the playoffs?
"I stand by that, always," he explained. "But for now, we have to take things game by game. The most important thing was to get this win and give everyone some confidence."
Though the playoff dream is precisely that, Winter’s optimism is admirable and he deserves a change in fortunes. Problems have been sprouting everywhere in his second season at the helm, from calamitous defensive errors to frustrating injuries to ill-timed comments from Saturday’s match-winner Danny Koevermans, who called the club "the worst team in the world" last week.
Throughout, Winter has remained fairly unruffled by the side’s poor form, and the Dutchman received a boost last week when Toronto FC clinched the Canadian Championship, a competition that pits the club against Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact and FC Edmonton. In the MLS, of course, it has been a different story, and the success of Montreal and Vancouver (12 and 19 points, respectively) has only served to highlight the frustrating setbacks at Toronto’s BMO Field.
But Toronto FC’s struggles are not for the lack of spending. The team has three of the nine MLS players making more than $1M a year (Koevermans, Torsten Frings and Julian de Guzman) and Winter is also able to call on Colombian international Joao Plata and former Manchester United defender Richard Eckersley. The talent is there but the performances have been lacking – even against Philadelphia, numerous chances were squandered before Koevermans rode to the rescue.
And so, despite the continued rabid support in a city which is otherwise dominated by ice hockey, Toronto FC are set to miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year. As for Winter, his future will hinge on whether the weekend win is a springboard for a surge up the table and whether his players show signs of fully settling into the current system. Should the team revert to the woeful form that brought about the slump, the club will be left with a tough decision to make.
One small note of comfort is the fact that Toronto FC are not the only MLS club falling short of expectations this year. David Beckham and Los Angeles Galaxy – the defending MLS champions no less – are floundering in the Western Conference, propping up the table with 11 points from 13 games. FC Dallas, MLS Cup finalists in 2010, sit one place and two points above the Galaxy.
Still, that will matter little to Winter, who has plenty of more pressing matters to address in the coming weeks. Toronto FC may have brought their losing run to an end but it will take more progress to really lift the pressure on the Dutchman’s shoulders.