The circus comes back to town: TFC gets weird again and undoes a few months of goodwill By Steven Sandor Posted on September 1, 2014 2 0 651 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Tim Bezbatchenko Watching Toronto FC in 2014 was, kinda like watching someone trying to keep a new year’s resolution. Oh, hell with pussyfooting around it. It was more like trying to watch a long-term alcoholic try to stay sober, despite being surrounded by temptation. After seven years of dysfunction, the franchise looked to have turned a corner; that, under the presidency of Tim Leiweke, TFC had finally decided to take itself seriously. A new general manager, Tim Bezbatchenko, was hired — and he brought a knowledge of how to milk the MLS salary cap. Marquee Designated Players were wooed and signed. And, the team, for much of the 2014 season, has been competitive. Even with its recent troubles, taking just 13 of the last possible 36 points, TFC is still in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, with games in hand on everyone in the race. And the Reds have a favourable schedule heading home. Compared to past seasons, even now this TFC feels like Arsenal’s invincible season. Or, at least, it should have. Instead, TFC went on a binge, in a kinda-nuclear-bomb fashion. The soap opera returned, soon after Leiweke’s imminent departure from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was made public. Sunday, after being called out by coach Ryan Nelsen for putting too much pressure on the team ahead of a 3-0 loss to New England, Bezbatchenko struck. And struck again. And again. And again. Once he was done, Nelsen and all his assistants were gone. Heck, even the strength and conditioning coach was gone. We’re still trying to confirm if the person who cuts Nelsen’s hair is gone. Maybe the elevator operator at BMO Field got the gate, too. This was more than cleaning the house. This was like the Big Bad Wolf blowing down a village. And, to make matters worse, comes news that TFC is entertaining offers for DP Jermain Defoe, he of the Bloody Big Deal campaign that was launched upon news of his signing. There will be apologists who will say selling Defoe for millions could be a good thing for TFC in the long run — I could not disagree more. In terms of credibility for the franchise and for MLS, a Defoe departure is a giant kick in the bollocks. If Defoe goes, Toronto FC has successfully beaten itself in a game of solitaire Roshambo. Now, people will no doubt talk about the internal politics that led to Bezbatchenko deciding to replace Nelsen with Greg Vanney, a guy with loads of MLS experience as a player. (Just like Nelsen had loads of MLS experience as a player…) Of course, Nelsen was inherited by Bezbatchenko. We can say that Bezbatchenko gave Nelsen time. We can say that Bezbatchenko operates with greater authority, now that Leiweke is basically a dead man walking in terms of power. But, fan perceptions are driven by what they see and what they know. So, we should take a step back and just think how this looks at from outside. First off, most outsiders see TFC as a consistent source of weirdness since 2007. There have been contracts promised to players that were later taken back (Bas Ent and Eddy Sidra, anyone?). There was the time that TFC hired two people to take the same job (Paul Mariner and Aron Winter, who absolutely loved each other). There was that time when TFC tried to find a way to put four Designated Players on its roster — the Olof Mellberg saga. There were scouting trips that led to nothing. There were players who backed out of playing for TFC at the least second (Arnold Peralta). And, of course, the club’s terrible habit of trading or giving up on players who became MLS stars in other city (list too long to name here). So, for the outside world, including player agents and MLS as a whole, today wasn’t about Bezbatchenko putting his stamp on a team; it was yet another day that showed that this is the most schizophrenic club in North America. Not just soccer club. Pro sports club. Period. INJURIES And, the outsider will also look at the mitigating circumstances; Nelsen was trying to make do by a team that had been ravaged by injuries. He was starting makeshift centre backs. Defoe has been hurt. He lost Michael Bradley to the World Cup. And, in MLS, we know this is true; the strict salary cap and league control over contracts makes it impossible for teams to build depth. When first-line players go down in bunches, a team is in crisis, no matter how many DPs it has. It’s the nature of North American soccer; despite the rise of academies in MLS, rosters are wafer-thin. Get a bunch of injuries, and you couldn’t get Sir Alex Ferguson to figure out how to fix things. If Nelsen would have got 13 of 36 points with a healthy team, then maybe the perception is different. But, no, Nelsen had to piece together his lineup with Band-Aids and balls of string. That’s an MLS failing, not a coach’s failing. So, really, what the outsider will see is a team, enjoying its best season ever, hitting the self-destruct button. It is a team that decided to hold its annual coach-firing presser, to bring the circus back to town. In fact, TFC is so reliable bringing the circus to town, maybe the “Casey Juniors” would be a better nickname than “Reds.” DEFOE If Defoe goes, even if he is sold for more than $10 million, the perception will be simple. That a marquee player came to MLS, tried it for a few months, and wanted out. It would undo a lot of public-relations good done by the likes of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry. Defoe scored at a regular clip when he was healthy, and what did he do? He headed back to Europe the first chance he got! There’s an endorsement for MLS quality if there ever was one! It doesn’t matter how TFC spends those millions. It won’t undo the PR damage done to the team and the league. If TFC hadn’t invested so much of itself into the Bloody Big Deal campaign when Defoe was signed, the chance for egg on the face wouldn’t be as great as it is now. TFC gave its fans hope, and then took it away. Again. When Leiweke came to TFC, he warned fans not to cancel their season tickets. He said those who did cancel would want to come back after the club made its changes. Then Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto arrived. Next year, if whoever is running the club makes the same promise to ticket holders, the supporters will be thinking about the boy who cried wolf.