Toronto FC's end-of-season availability came with a clear message Friday from new coach John Herdman. Enough is enough and things have to change.
"John has sent a very clear message that we're not going to look back and we're going to go forward. But there's going to be a certain accountability that he's going to hold players and staff to," said team president Bill Manning.
The standings tell the story. Toronto (4-20-10) finished 29th and last in the league, ending the season 47 points below league-leading FC Cincinnati.
"This was one of those seasons (where) everything went wrong that could go wrong," said Manning. "But also some of that was of our own doing as a club, whether it was players or staff or so on. John wants to wipe the slate clean but he's also saying enough's enough. We've got to look in the mirror."
The club stumbled to the finish line, outscored 20-3 in losing its last seven league outings. TFC won just one of its final 21 games (1-17-3) in all competitions and set franchise lows for points (22), wins (four) and road wins (zero). And its 26 goals scored ranked second-lowest only to the 24 in the inaugural 2007 campaign, when the season was 30 rather than 34 games.
Toronto ranked 28th in both goals scored and conceded, went 0-13-4 on the road and was 0-18-1 when conceding the first goal.
The rot has been evident for several seasons. Toronto's cumulative league record the last three seasons is 17-58-26.
The club has once again started pruning its roster. And with 20-plus players under contract for next season, GM Jason Hernandez said more changes are coming.
"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," he said.
One indication of how far TFC has fallen off the sporting map was the media attendance at Friday's end-of-season availability, with three reporters, two cameras and a lot of empty chairs in front of the podium.
The players now go their separate ways after two weeks of post-season training under Herdman, who used the time on and off the field to get to know the players better.
He cited learning that one player, whom he did not identify, had been dealing with his father's cancer.
"You start to see some of the real reasons why there were ebbs and flows in individuals' performances," he said.
"But I think what I really took out of the conversations (with players) is there's just a deep willingness to come back and make it right," he added. "I expected more players wanting to jump ship … I was surprised at the amount of players that wanted to be part of bringing this back."
Players who met the media Friday said the Herdman's late-season arrival had brought energy, life and hope back to the group.
"There's definitely a different feeling around the building since those guys have walked through the door," said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. "I think everyone's committed to making next year a complete shift from what this year was because as players, as an organization, we know this wasn't acceptable and we want to do our best to get back to where we know we can be as a collective."
The season took its toll, veteran midfielder Jonathan Osorio acknowledged.
"It hurts. I care. I really care," said Osorio, who has made a record 341 appearances in all competitions over 11 seasons with his hometown club.
"Losing is very difficult … Losing wears on you and I think you could really see that with this group," added Johnson.
Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi also preferred to look forward rather than back. But both said they were committed to the TFC cause.
The two Italians earned a combined US$21.7 million this season while delivering a total of nine goals and nine assists.
Insigne, dogged by injury, saw action in just 20 league games.
"I wasn't able to show what I was capable of doing," the former Napoli captain said through an interpreter. "Hopefully in the next year I will be able to show you what I am able to do."
"I know the fans expect much more " he added. "Being injured so often, it was difficult for me … I apologize I couldn't give 100 per cent on the field. I'm not that type of player. I always give all of myself. Next season I plan to give 300 per cent of myself, not only for myself, but for the team and the fans who have always shown me such warmth and welcome me when I can to the city."
"I expect more from me too," Bernardeschi echoed in English. "When you are in a tough situation … it's not easy to do your best."
Johnson and Osorio offered a glimpse behind the curtain, without revealing too much.
"This was not a unified group," said Johnson. "To be honest, I think we could have been closer."
Osorio, for his part, said the chemistry was good at the start of the year. But as the season went south, the finger-pointing from outside the club began to be felt inside it.
"Instead of being together, it kind of divided us in that moment," he said. "We just didn't do a good job of keeping it together."
Toronto fired Bob Bradley as head coach and sporting director on June 28, putting Terry Dunfield in interim charge until Herdman took over Oct 1.
Osorio said Herdman arrived with a clear plan, having done his due diligence.
"He sets objectives., he sets goals that are very clear," said Osorio. "And they're not easy goals. They're tough ones. And then, with the way he speaks — everyone knows how good he is at that — he gets you to believe that those goals are achievable, as long as you maintain a certain standard coming in every day.
"I think that's what's really intrigued this group."
The club has one league-allowed contract buyout at its disposal for 2024, a move that can be made without impacting the salary cap. Other players under contract will have to be traded, sold or agree to mutually terminate their contracts to be moved.
"The expectation is no, not everyone will return," said Hernandez.
And if TFC wants to remove the designated player tag from Osorio so as to land another marquee name, it will have to use allocation money to "buy down" his pay — which was $1.4 million this season — to the maximum budget charge (which was $651,250 this season) for salary cap purposes.
The club slapped the DP tag on Osorio this year to help manage the cap. Teams can pay DPs as much as they want, with only the maximum budget charge counting against the cap for them.
It speaks volumes about the club's tangled roster situation that despite the club's popgun offence this season, nine of the players under contract for next season are attackers: Insigne, Bernardeschi, Ayo Akinola, Adama Diomande, Deandre Kerr, Cassius Mailula, Hugo Mbongue, Prince Owusu and Jordan Perruzza.
Despite the woeful season, Manning said fans remain loyal, saying the current renewal rate from the team's 21,000 season-ticket holders is 83 per cent and counting.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press