MLS

Toronto FC's Mariner promises to fix club after bad year

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The Canadian Press
10/30/2012 4:56:26 PM
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TORONTO, ONTARIO -- End-of-season wrapups are often all about quantity rather than quality when it comes to words. And there was no shortage of talk Tuesday as Toronto FC paraded out 19 players as well as its manager and director of team and player operations at the club's $21-million training centre.

But this soccer gabfest lifted the lid on a team in some state of turmoil, with a few participants looking as if they wanted to be anywhere else and probably will be come next season. There were also some harsh truths about the MLS franchise's worst season.

Still manager Paul Mariner, while not shy about critiquing the current talent at his disposal, saw light at the end of the failing franchise's season.

"It's always darkest before the dawn, it really is," he said two days after his team staggered to a club record 14th straight game without a win.

Toronto FC finished out of the playoffs for the sixth straight year, compiling a 5-21-8 record and setting franchise worsts for wins (5), points (23) and goals conceded (62).

Earl Cochrane, TFC's director of team and player operations, called the season "horrendously disappointing for so many different reasons."

Mariner is wasting no time trying to right the ship. The former England international forward headed to Europe later in the day to begin filling the holes he says the team has already identified.

"We've known for quite some time what we need and we've known where we going to get them from as well," said Mariner, who believes he can have his roster in place in advance of training camp in January.

Toronto needs its injured designated players and goalie back, help in central defence and an extensive talent transplant in midfield.

In addition to a slew of injuries to key players, fingers were pointed at poor player fitness and failing confidence.

Mariner was blunt in detailing the work that has to be done. Asked how many legitimate MLS starters he had on his roster, he paused and then silently did the math.

"Seven," he eventually answered.

One could hazard a guess the seven include captain/midfielder Torsten Frings, goalkeeper Stefan Frei, defenders Darren O'Dea and Richard Eckersley, and strikers Danny Koevermans and Eric Hassli, with 21-year-old defender Ashtone Morgan and midfielder Terry Dunfield hovering nearby.

Four or five new starters are needed, probably with an equal number of decent squad players.

Plus there are injury question-marks about the team's designated players.

Frings (hip) and Danny Koevermans (knee) are both coming off surgery. Frings, the team's captain and key midfielder, turns 36 next month while Koevermans, Toronto's best scoring option, turns 34.

French forward Eric Hassli, the team's third designated player, is 31 and his time since arriving in Toronto in July was interrupted by injury and the birth of his son.

Mariner would not commit to all three being back next season, however, citing their need to recover from injury.

But he said Frings, who missed the season wrap by virtue of being in Germany, wants to return and "go out on a high."

Koevermans and Hassli both said they want to be back, with Hassli -- holding his thumb and forefinger almost together -- saying the team is not far away from turning it around and reaching the playoffs.

"We have the quality," he said. "We just have to believe and work. And build a team."

Cochrane insists the team has the salary cap flexibility to bring in the necessary personnel, with the club having the option of whether to retain many of the current rosters. By virtue of its dismal record, the club also has the first pick in the MLS SuperDraft and tops the allocation table, meaning it has first crack at a player who wants to return to the league.

While not many wanted to directly address the previous regime of Aron Winter, defender Richard Eckersley did single out the team's fitness levels for criticism. The team played just five pre-season games.

"Personally I don't think the pre-season was good enough for fitness," he said while hinting some of his teammates needed to take a more professional approach to being an athlete.

Mariner sidestepped the issue, other to say that some of his squad players lacked game sharpness when they were called up, resulting in the kind of errors that often sank the team.

"It's not really for me to say how the previous regime constructed the pre-season but it'll be different this year I can assure you of that," he said.

Mariner and Cochrane divided the season into three chunks. The first, under Winter, was the disastrous 1-9 start. Mariner took over and the club responded, with a 4-2-4 run. The season ended with a dismal 0-10-4 stretch.

Koevermans ripped up his knee July 14 in New England, in the penultimate game of the middle stretch.

"When Koevermans went down, it really, really hurt us," Mariner said. "But the old saying in football is you're only good as the deepest member of your squad. And we had too many fringe players asked to play too many games.

"Learning on the job is fine and dandy but if you're not up to it ... then you're going to get torn down, which we were torn down."

Cochrane said the team had 50 to 70 per cent of its salary cap on the treatment table in the dire final run of the season.

Forward Ryan Johnson, midfielder Eric Avila and defender Adrian Cann seemed in the disgruntled section of the TFC end-of-season bus, judging from Tuesday.

Johnson, one of the team's ironmen this season, has avoided speaking to the media in recent days. He said Friday he was just frustrated and didn't feel like talking about "the same situation that keeps happening over and over again." Avila seemingly fell out of favour while the injury-plagued Cann was largely ignored unless there were no other defensive options.

Goalie Milos Kocic, who faces losing his job when Frei returns from injury next season, was defiant -- saying he would fight for the No. 1 position or go elsewhere to play regularly.

Mariner was confident but realistic in assessing what needs to be done. And he joined his players in saying that everything is there for the franchise to succeed.

"I'm so excited, I'm so energized about putting this right," Mariner said. "Because this is a fantastic club, you can see with this facility. Unbelievable. Some of the best facilities in the world ... So if you're not excited about this project then there's something wrong with you.

"So it's incumbent on all of us, we're going to dedicate ourselves to being positive, to getting the right people in, and to putting the product right on the field. That's what we've been charged to do and that's what we're going to do. And I have no doubts that we can do it."

Tom Anselmi, president and COO of owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said recently a full review of the team will be held after the season. He said Mariner, who has a year left on his previous contact at director of player development, will be back but -- prior to the review -- would not detail in what role.

Asked about the manager, many of his players spoke up for Mariner on Tuesday, although Johnson seemed to take his time building up enthusiasm in doing so.

"The right man for the job," Eckersley said of Mariner adding the players were the ones that didn't get the job done this season.

"We just simply weren't good enough this season," he said.

"Paul is the right coach," added Hassli.

Said Koevermans: "I truly believe we were better when Paul took over ... Just a genuine guy, I like him. He's a good coach."

Mariner, meanwhile, said he expects to remain in charge. Asked why, he responded: "Because I'm very good at what I do."

And when a questioner threw his record back at him, he added succinctly: "It's difficult to win MLS games when you've basically got your reserve team playing week in week out."

Paul Mariner (Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
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