John Herdman, in the early days as Toronto FC's head coach, has conveyed a clear message.
“It’s that phrase of ‘enough is enough,’” Herdman said at Friday's year-end media availability. “The tolerance level of what might have been tolerated in previous preseason arrivals won’t be tolerated for this team.”
Herdman’s clear-minded assessment follows a turbulent season for the Reds, who finished bottom of the MLS table (29th overall) after earning just 22 points (0.65 points per game) and winning four games. They, alongside the Colorado Rapids, scored a league-low 26 goals. And the club’s 59 goals against was only outdone by the LA Galaxy conceding 67.
Plenty of work lies ahead for Herdman, the former Canada men’s and women’s national team manager who was appointed in late August before formally assuming his post in early October.
“This was one of those seasons where everything that could go wrong went wrong, but also some of that was of our own doing as a club, whether it was players or staff,” said club president Bill Manning. “John wants to wipe the slate clean, but he’s also saying enough’s enough. We’ve got to look in the mirror.”
The 2023 campaign, Toronto’s first full year with Italian international forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, was supposed to rekindle their glory days. Veteran-minded signings, both from MLS free agency and abroad, bolstered what looked like a title-contending group on paper.
But the roster’s flaws were quickly exposed, results turned south and the club parted ways with head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley in late June. Interim coach Terry Dunfield couldn’t turn things around as injuries and losses piled up, leaving TFC 21 points off the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs pace in the Eastern Conference.
Another winter of change now awaits, trying to make signings that align with Herdman’s tactical vision.
“The reality is we don’t have enough players at the level needed to have the success we want in MLS in enough areas of the field,” said general manager Jason Hernandez, who was promoted after Bradley’s exit.
Toronto’s latest roster makeover won’t be simple, Hernandez said, due to guaranteed contracts for 2024. But the Reds plan to explore all avenues for creating even more flexibility, whether that’s mutual contract terminations, loans or traditional transfers. They currently have 21 players on the books.
“The expectation is that no, not everyone will return,” said Hernandez. “The reality of football, especially us here at Toronto FC, is you can’t finish bottom of the table and expect there not to be changes.”
Italians: Stay or go?
One of the biggest questions is how TFC can maximize Insigne and Bernardeschi, or if they’ll remain with the club long-term. Two of the highest-paid players in MLS, the Designated Players combined for just 9g/9a this season and haven't yet met expectations after arriving from Serie A sides Napoli and Juventus, respectively.
Asked about his future, Insigne said he’s “going to come back even stronger” after an injury-filled season and is “extremely happy here.”
“I apologize I couldn't give 100 percent on the field,” Insigne said through a translator. “I'm not that type of player. I always give all of myself. Next season I plan to give 300 percent of myself, not only for myself, but for the team and the fans who have always shown me such warmth and welcomed me when I came to the city.”
Bernardeschi, succinctly, said “I want to be here” and he expects more from himself – "when you are in a difficult situation it’s not easy to do your best.” The 29-year-old also expressed no regrets over his postgame speech in late May that advocated for change at TFC.
“We can’t look back, honestly,” Bernardeschi said. “We have to look forward because the past is past. I think we need to look forward to keep growing and put the past in our back and see in front of us from a good future for this club and for this city.”
Despite the star players being linked to other clubs, Herdman senses renewed buy-in.
“I can only judge that I’ve seen a shift in them as human beings, big shift,” Herdman said. “Two focused individuals that are now having a much bigger presence in the dressing room.”
Added Manning, who’s previously described the Italians as TFC’s centerpieces: “I love that they are showing a commitment and an effort to work with John. I think John has really worked to build bridges with them and they both have personally told me, they’ve told John and Jason, that this is not who they are, being big players on a last-place team. They want to prove to us, they want to prove to our fans that they can do better.”
With TFC’s offseason well underway, Herdman has already overseen several weeks of training. And he’s left quite the impression on goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who said their 2023 roster “was not a unified group.”
“There’s a new feeling when Herdman walked through the door,” said Johnson, who joined last year after captaining New York City FC. “For me, it was a big shift, a shift in energy, a shift in mindset.
“Coming off the year we had, to have that hope, to have that new vision of what is to be, it started the day he walked through the door. I’m excited about that. Things change quickly and it’s about being honest about what was and the things that we went through. If we can have some of those hard conversations and take responsibility, both individually and collectively, there’s no reason why we can’t end up turning things around next year.”
Homegrown midfielder Jonathan Osorio, Toronto’s all-time appearance leader, echoed a similar message. From his vantage point, there “needs to be more of a chemistry” in the locker room.
“He’s created an environment that’s taken into consideration everything that’s happened, a way for us to be engaged and to be motivated and be determined going into next year,” Osorio said of Herdman. “We kept training these past two weeks and it was good, it was really good. The feeling was very positive. John and his staff have that about them, that they know how to get people going. Guys are excited and very motivated for next year.”
Motivated for more
TFC’s resurrection won’t happen overnight, but Herdman is left encouraged by the direction they’re heading in.
“What I really took out of the conversations [with players] is there’s a deep willingness to come back and make it right,” said Herdman. “I expected more players wanting to jump ship and go somewhere else where maybe they could start afresh. But I was surprised at the amount of players that wanted to be part of bringing this back.”
Added Manning: “John has sent a very clear message that we’re not going to look back, we’re going to look forward. But there’s going to be a certain accountability he’s going to hold players to, he’s going to hold staff to.”