Skip to main content


Herdman approaches massive Toronto FC rescue job with a smile on his face

John Herdman Toronto FC John Herdman - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — John Herdman is no stranger to rescue jobs.

He took over a Canadian women's team that was broken after finishing last at the 2011 FIFA World Cup. And he recalls on-field bust-ups during his first two camps in charge of the Canadian men in 2018.

Now Herdman is entrusted with reviving Toronto FC, which has reverted to its status as Major League Soccer doormat.

It's a herculean task, but one Herdman has started with a smile on his face. Leaving the morass that is Canada Soccer "was a big part of the shift," he concedes.

"Enough was enough," he said. "You ended up spending 50 per cent of your life in a political reality. And I'm not naive to think this (job) isn't political. But the day-to-day keeps you focused on what's right in front of you."

"The past is the past," he added. "And this is the future that I've dreamt of. To one day be a professional club coach, working with the players of the calibre of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Sean Johnson, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio on a daily basis.

"As I said to the boys after the first session, 'I've just realized a dream today. The next dream is winning.'"

After watching TFC lose twice on the road under interim coach Terry Dunfield, Herdman has switched from the role of observer to hands-on leader at training this week.

Toronto (4-19-10) has one regular-season game remaining, Oct. 21 at home to Orlando City. Whatever happens on Decision Day, TFC cannot escape the MLS basement.

There is plenty of work to do, according to Herdman, given "the scars are still open. We've got to stitch that together."

"The reality of what they're dealing with it, I feel for them as people," he said Thursday after running his second training sessions as TFC coach. "I know the fans and the observers watching this, they just want more (people) out. But this team has suffered. It's suffered a lot."

And while Herdman has empathy, it's clear there are people who face some soul-searching about their future at the club.

Herdman says he has already started instilling the systems "that are going to move them out of this, what we call a pit. And that will take time."

He talks of an initial three- to four-month process "to shift the mentality."

"The response has been good. I've been very surprised … So already I'm seeing some movement forward," he said. "It's positive."

Herdman talks up the people around him at the club.

"We're inheriting a good staff," he said. "And there's only small things we're going to need to change in the team around the team. But there's big changes on the field and I think that's going to take time."

Herdman has already made one personnel move, ending the loan of Franco Ibarra early. The Argentine midfielder arrived somewhat reluctantly in July from Atlanta United and made seven league appearances for Toronto including five starts.

Herdman says he wants "the right people here" for the remainder of the season.

"Guys that are fully invested either in fighting to be here next year or fighting to change the mentality, the culture, the tactical style to get us ready to do what we want to do next year, which is to find that next level," he said.

He sees a "team of winners," albeit a fragile one.

Bradley, Insigne, Bernardeschi, Johnson and, Osorio, as well as Latif Blessing and Adama Diomande, are all players with championship pedigree, he notes.

"These are guys who have got a lot of trophies in the cabinet. We're asking them to bring that championship spirit, mentality to these next 10 days to really send the fans home with a bit of hope for 2024," he said.

As for Insigne and Bernardeschi, Herdman says the Italians have "a next-level quality."

"It's a privilege to work with players of that class and calibre," he said. "But they're frustrated and they've dealt with probably experiences they've never dealt with in their life and this is new to them … Not even knowing how to handle these moments is something that we've got to have empathy for."

Herdman reports seeing a "fire" in the Italians, whose salaries total US$13.8 million this season.

"I've seen a steeliness in the meetings. They've contributed. They've not sat back," he said.

Still, he says the Italians have to decide where their future lies.

"But what I want to do is convince them that there is a new future here. And with their ability and their experiences, they can create that new future," he said.

Herdman points to Mexican star Hector Herrera, who joined the Houston Dynamo midway through last season from Atletico Madrid.

The Dynamo missed the playoffs last year with a 10-18-6 record but won the U.S. Open Cup last month and currently sit fourth in the Western Conference at 13-11-9 with Herrera contributing four goals and 15 assists.

"One of the top-five players in MLS in my opinion," said Herdman. "So hopefully this second year (in 2024) for those players (Insigne and Bernardeschi), it could be what TFC needs to get us to a quick championship mentality, spirit tactical framework. Because they have the ability."

Herdman also praised Bradley, whose father Bob was fired in late June as the team's head coach and sporting director. But it's clear the 36-year-old captain also has a decision to make.

"He knows the respect I have for him," Herdman said. "He knows that I think heroes have always got to return and there's an opportunity to return next year for Mike. What he has innately as a human being is a leadership quality and quantity that you just can't buy … But I think for Michael he's got to really feel that this is where he wants to be. He's got to feel the purpose. He's got to feel that Toronto FC and that return to rebuild the club is what he wants to invest his life in.

"And if it's not there at 100 per cent, we both know it can't work. And we've been honest."

TFC can only go up. The club has lost six straight and won just one of its last 20 games (1-16-3) in all competitions.

"With that there's a lot of trauma they've experienced," Herdman said. "Sports trauma whether people believe it or not, it's real … The belief has sort of waned out of the group. And with that, from what I can see, there's a permissiveness."

"Typically when you're not winning, the standards do drop," he added.

With just 22 points from 33 games, Toronto is a loss away from the worst record in franchise history. That was in 2022, when the team lost its first nine games en route to 23 points and a 5-21-8 record.

Consider Toronto collected three times as many points (69) in 2017 when it won the treble — the MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and Canadian Championship — during a 20-5-9 campaign under Greg Vanney.

It has already set a franchise low on the road this season with an 0-13-4 record.

It's been such a dismal season that team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, whose focus is usually on improving the bottom line, has opted not to increase the price of season tickets for next year


Follow @NeilMDavidson on X platform, formerly known as Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.