Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 5-21-8 (23 points); 36 GF/ 62 GA (-26 GD)
What the hell happened?
That was the big question in and around Toronto FC by about mid-April, just a few weeks after everything Aron Winter was selling seemed to have been validated by their aggregate victory over the LA Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Winter, it seemed, had not only signed the right players, but had shown to be something of a tactical wizard, switching to a 3-6-1 to stymie the LA attack and steal a result nobody thought the Reds would get.
Then Torsten Frings got hurt. And, it turned out, the Galaxy actually stunk, so the luster came off the CCL result real quick. Nine straight losses to start the regular season had TFC fans as angry as Canadians are genetically capable of being.
By June, Winter was out, Paul Mariner was in, and you probably already knew all that.
But what really went wrong for Toronto was that Winter was asking his team to play a style for which they simply weren’t suited. Even when Frings was healthy TFC were “passable” at best – never looking like a playoff team, mind you. When he wasn’t, they were roadkill.
To make the 4-3-3 work you need wingers who commit on both sides of the ball, and can be threatening with and without it. Players like that, with a “universal” skill set, are rare in MLS. They’re rare in any league outside the top four or five, for that matter. And it took an epic losing streak for the powers that be in Toronto to realize the group they’d cobbled together just didn’t have it.
There were too many run-outs on backpedaling defenders, too few easy goals created, and too many times absolutely nobody was marking the guy at the back post. Add in “uneven” (I’m being charitable) goalkeeping, and 2012 was a nightmare.
Mariner is probably the right guy to make 2013 better. His 4-4-2 had a bit of promise before injuries simply murdered TFC in late summer, and while it lacks in aesthetics – they finished rock bottom in pass completion percentage – it was generally more compact defensively. It wasn't so easy to score against Mariner's Reds, which was progress, or something like it.
Now the real question … what to do about Frings?
There’s no doubt that he’s the best they’re going to get for the d-mid spot (which he played like a regista), since he brings them the quality on the ball they so sorely lack in the central midfield. Paired with a runner like Terry Dunfield, or youngster Matt Stinson, and it could make for a pragmatic, effective, two-way team.
That problem is Frings can’t be relied upon for more than a bit part. He’s both old and injury prone, a brutal combo for the most important player on the team. Mariner has to get someone in who can either back him up or win the job outright, or 2013 will feature lots of long balls and precious little forward progress for a franchise that badly needs some.