TORONTO – To call Aron Winter’s first season in Major League Soccer a challenge would be a major understatement.
During a season in which Toronto FC failed to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year of their existence, the former Ajax and Dutch national-teamer looked as if he’d fall victim to the curse of countless foreigners before him who failed to adapt to MLS as a head coach.
The Reds struggled with Winter’s 4-3-3 system, going through long stretches of futility – including an agonizing three months from April through June in which they won just twice in league play – and giving up a league-high 59 goals on the season. Along the way, Winter rebuilt on the fly, shipping out nine players while adding another 15.
But there were good signs and reason for optimism as the season came to a close. Most specifically, Toronto beat FC Dallas 3-0 on Oct. 18 to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in club history to help salvage the season.
MLSsoccer.com recently sat down with Winter, who looks to continue his rebuilding project this offseason, with an eye on their CCL quarterfinal date with the MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy next March.
MLSsoccer.com: How was your first year in MLS?
Winter: It was great. It was a very strange year. A lot of things were different than in Europe. The traveling is different than in Europe. The league is different than in Europe. The rules in MLS are completely different than you were dealing with in the past. It was a very challenging year but a very good experience. I learned a lot of things.
MLSsoccer.com: How would you describe a season in which the team again missed the playoffs?
Winter: It was a year with two faces. We didn’t start well. The second part of the season, we traded a lot of players and from that moment we were on the right track. We won the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and qualified for the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
MLSsoccer.com: What was the effect of your late hire?
Winter: I came late. But I didn’t have a good roster. I saw a lot of games from the 2010 season for Toronto FC. I gave players three or four months. Maybe I should have done it earlier in the season to trade a lot of players, but July is when I did it. The players that I traded could not or were not fitting in the system. And maybe there were some players who were good but didn’t want to be part of the process that I started in January.
MLSsoccer.com: You brought in a 4-3-3 system and sometimes went to a 3-4-3. How do you feel that worked?
Winter: If we have the right players, then it is going to be very difficult for the opponent to get a good result against us. At the beginning of the season, at that moment, I didn’t have the right players in the right positions because you were new, you couldn’t get the players that you think should fit into the system. But in the second part of the season after the trades, then we showed everybody how we are playing. It’s good, it’s nice, that’s football.
MLSsoccer.com: How do you feel it will work next season?
Winter: I like to play attractive football and, of course, with a 4-4-2, you can also play attractive football, but it’s different. I want to play with three strikers. It’s my philosophy and I’m never going to change it. We want to play football, we want people to enjoy it and we want to succeed. And I think with the 4-3-3 we can do that. Next year is going to be an important year, we’re going to play with the major part of the group starting in the preseason. Of course there are places in the team that we have to reinforce so that next season at each position we have at least two good players.
MLSsoccer.com: What are your goals for 2012?
Winter: To start the way we ended 2011, playing well and getting good results; to get in the playoffs; to do everything to go further on in the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League; winning the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and then going on in CONCACAF again and to take care of the young players that we are going to add to the roster and to develop them very well.