John Spencer was fired.
Gavin Wilkinson, in his first game after taking over as interim coach, appeared to have told the players, "Today, I want to see how our skills translate on the field. Forget about defense, just go out their and show me how much attacking flair you've got."
It was pretty on offense, but, of course, the defense wasn't there to back it up, so despite scoring three goals, we gave up five and lost the game.
Subsequent games have been a bit more practical, as expected, but the general trend is still, by far, more about creativity, ground passing, and flow, than the direct, speedy, attacking style we had tried, and generally, failed to play previously.
With the hire of Caleb Porter, there's no doubt the Timbers front office are pushing for a more attractive, passing and pressing style of play. I'm all for it---I'm one of the fans who has been wishing for this all along.
Various teams in Major League Soccer have tried this, to varying degrees of success, but generally, MLS is pretty diverse---no single brand of soccer has risen clearly to the top, but if MLS has a reputation, the words that probably come to mind are "speed", "athleticism" and "physicality".
Compare that with another mid-tier league, the Eredivisie in the Netherlands, where possession, technical skills, disciplined ground-passing, "4-3-3" and "Total Football" are clearly emphasized by a large number of clubs.
Enter Aron Winter, a high-profile transport into MLS from top Eredivisie club, Ajax Amsterdam. Ajax is a frequent champion in the Netherlands and a regular force in the UEFA Champions League. No team is more associated with the term Total Football than Ajax. The system, inspired by the Hungarian National Team of the '50s, was developed and refined into a real footballing system by Rinus Michels, with Ajax and the Dutch National Team. It gained success in the late '60s and early '70s as the system that finally broke through against Italy's famous Catenaccio defense. Total Football's system of positional interchange to create and exploit the spaces, tore Italy's defensive system apart, and effectively erased it from the playbooks of Europe's higher levels of the game.
With Aron Winter's arrival in Toronto, came the arrival of the first successful application of Total Football in North America.
What we've seen over the last couple years has been another page in a disaster story of epic proportions. A big club with a big fanbase, willing to spend big money on high-profile players, once again, unable to rise from the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference table.
So clearly, Total Football is impossible in MLS.
Are MLS players just not reliable enough with their passing and field vision to pull it off? Seems plausible. Are the physical and defensive elements of MLS so good that a well executed system of Total Football won't work here? That is very doubtful. Transplant Ajax into MLS and they'd dominate.
Or does the problem have little or nothing to do with Total Football?
Was it simply the coaching abilities of Aron Winter, or the strategy of the Toronto FO?
First of all, Toronto FC got off to a terrible start. An expansion team in 2008, their first coach, Mo Johnson, lasted just over a year. Since then, it's been coach after coach, new batch of players after new batch of players.
In 2010, it finally looked like the team might get it right. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), Toronto's ownership group, hired former German soccer star and coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, and his consulting firm, to put a legitimate plan together. Klinsmann helped the club identify a playing style and a coach that matched it. The team decided on a more open, passing, attacking approach, and brought in Winter, an Ajax assistant and former player, to take the reigns and implement the new system.
Under Winter, Toronto implemented a 4-3-3 based on patience, passing, and the Total Football fluidity that Ajax is famous for. They spent a lot of money on designated players and other personnel that Winter thought would fit his system.
The results? More of the same. A dismal start to 2011. A promising run near the end of the season, only to be followed by an even MORE dismal start to 2012.
But there was one thing that DID go right for Winter. Toronto somehow managed to defy their MLS form by playing well in the Canadian Championship tournament (two titles), and, more impressively, the CONCACAF Champions League---making it all the way to the semi-finals before losing to Mexican side Santos Laguna, who is arguably the top club in the CONCACAF region.
So despite Winter's MLS failure, he left with more hardware than any previous Toronto coach.
So was the firing of Winter, earlier this year, justified? Probably. Ultimately, MLS is the most important area of activity for Toronto FC, and success there needs to happen more than anywhere else. Like John Spencer, Winter's tenure was plagued with reactionary lineup and tactical shifts, and a general inability to identify the details of what was going wrong. This created a complete lack of any clear progress. Even worse, the players Winter and the Toronto FO brought in proved to be a poor match for the Total Football system. Their stars were too specialized. Their buildup passing wasn't consistent and accurate enough. Bench players were not good and complete enough to step in and execute their roles in the fluid, 4-3-3, when they were needed to cover for injured starters.
Ultimately, Winter's failure is three-fold. 1) the inability to use the MLSE's big money to get the RIGHT designated players to maximize his system (whether that's entirely on him, or on the FO, I'm not sure), 2) too much emphasis on buying, not enough on developing talent to eventually succeed in the system, and 3) impatience . . . whether directly from Winter, or coming down from the top of a panicking FO that felt pressured to reward it's long-suffering fans, Winter couldn't keep his lineup consistent enough to build long-term progress, and develop enough good young bench players to step in and be effective when others were injured. He even began to revert to a hyper-defensive style at times to try to eek out a win, but even those efforts failed.
Often, Winter's demeanor and post-game comments appeared astonished and clueless, like he couldn't get to the bottom of what was plaguing his players ineffectiveness, or what wasn't working about his system. It may just have been a quirk of how he carried himself, or maybe he really was at a loss. I don't know, but some people just aren't cut out to be effective at analyzing and getting to the bottom of issues.
The sad thing about Toronto's journey is that, with the departure of Winter, the whole system went out the door. All of the philosophy and systemic planning the club did with Jurgen Klinsmann? Gone.
It's one thing to throw out your system after your first year and a half. But Toronto is in it's 6th season now. Toronto has played a direct, 4-4-2 system for years with no success. Yet after the failures under Winter's more fluid 4-3-3, what did Toronto do? They went right back to their tried and false 4-4-2. They grabbed a few wins at first, and it looked brilliant, but ultimately, they are now right back to losing just as they were before, with new coach Paul Mariner recently flipping out at his players to the media.
Aron Winter was likely part of the problem. An impatient FO was probably a part of it as well, as Winter may not have had the patience he needed to build consistency and develop his team into something that could succeed in his system. Total Football, in it's most rigid form, was probably also to blame, though I believe it could have been tweaked and adapted to something that would work in MLS.
But ultimately, firing Winter will make no difference, because the club's direction as a whole remains steeped in impatience and inconsistency. Back-and-forth tactics. Frequent lineup changes. Frequent roster changes. Seven coaches in six seasons. Paul Mariner is just another coach in the carousal who's days are numbered.
Though Toronto probably needed to fire Winter, they shouldn't have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Not after all the planning they went through with Klinsmann's firm. They should have gone BACK to Klinsmann and said, OK, lets dig deep and figure out the specifics of why this didn't work, and figure out if there's a way to TWEAK the current system to make us better for the future.
It seems they concluded that the system, in it's entirety, was the problem, but unfortunately that may be an oversimplification that sets them up to fail, yet again, under another system.
Portland just underwent a big change. It's unclear if our new philosophy was simply due to the coaching change, or whether there was a change higher up. But I think the most likely story is that Gavin Wilkinson has probably changed. He may have started with the goal of playing an attacking style (who doesn't?). But early on, I think he and Spencer both thought this would work with an exciting, direct attack that relied on speed and strength----getting the ball forward fast and going for goal quickly..They were thinking, "none of this beating-around-the-bush passing around the box, searching for a weakness in the defense---lets get down fast and get goals!" After that failed to get to the goals very often, and the addition of Kris Boyd made the system worse, not better, Wilkinson likely concluded that a more fluid system would be more effective in playing an attacking style and actually succeeding to break down MLS defenses. Spencer wasn't interested, so he was sent packing.
It's a big change, early in our history. While it does appear impatient, it's a good change if it was clear the system we had started with was simply not going to work with our attacking philosophy. It's better to make that change now than to have patience with a system that has little chance of success, as Real Salt Lake did with their first coach, who made it into his third year, only to be fired after another horrid start for the team.
So where are we going, and how will it be different for us, than it was for Toronto FC?
Let's look at Real Salt Lake, my favorite example of a building project in MLS.
First, let's face it. RSL had some luck on their side. They started out a lot like us---a coach who initially showed some progress, but ultimately, proved ineffective. Jason Kries, a former RSL player, came on board as a promising youngster with an attractive system of play, but no experience coaching at the pro level.
Kries didn't make the playoffs his first year (2008), but the team showed marked improvement and DID get in for the first time in 2009, and won the MLS Cup in 2010.
RSL was also a force in 2011, becoming the FIRST EVER MLS team to make it to the CONCACAF Champions League Final (losing to Monterrey 3-2). They went far in the MLS playoffs that year too, but were eliminated in the Conference Finals by eventual MLS Cup winner, Los Angeles Galaxy.
Currently, they are a dismal 6th in the league, a position teams like Portland and Toronto would kill for.
But ultimately, RSL and Jason Kreis, have adapted a more attractive playing style to MLS. Kries, who likes to say his team plays like Barcelona, fields a creative lineup that can pass the ball around and keep possession. But in spite of his comparisons, RSL play a more conservative formation than Barca and are still willing to send it long on occasion under heavy pressure (and Kreis would probably be the first to acknowledge these differences). Winter, meanwhile, insisted on a more rigid ground buildup from the back, even as his defenders routinely lost the ball in terrible positions and gave away easy counterattacks.
Kries has also emphasized a consistent core of players who can pass accurately. Even with this core, he's worked very hard with them to improve their buildup passing. They even spent a whole game against Seattle earlier this year, a dreadful 0-0 tie, focused almost entirely on field vision and passing the ball well from the back.
So we have two teams that tried to play attractive, attacking football in MLS.
RSL succeeded with time and a hint of pragmatism---probably sooner than most expected. Toronto didn't, as impatience and staunch ideology led them to throw the whole system out after 1.5 years.
So how can we become the next RSL, instead of the next Toronto FC?
1. Learn from the modern Tiki-Taka adaptation of Total Football. While it's true that Tiki-Taka in it's purest form may be too advanced for an MLS club---it's super-fast one-touch passing combo's being too risky for your typical MLS-level players, the system DOES involve a few more limits on the concept of positional interchange, compared with traditionall Total Football. This concept of targeted restrictions on positional interchange is perfect for an MLS team that can't afford to have complete players at every position, and has to rely on a few specialists to sustain a high level of play.
2. Play attractive, attacking football but with just a hint of pragmatism. At this stage in MLS's evolution, most MLS players probably require a little more safe-guarding, two-touch work, and the occasional long-ball bailout when the pressured player can't find a safe lane and target on the ground, particularly in the defensive half where turnovers can kill. Jason Kreis knows this and RSL's game reflects that adjustment. The don't typically kick in long, but they do when they have to.
3. Patience from both the coach AND the FO is key--even after 4-5 years. If one or the other gets overly anxious to WIN NOW, reactionary strategizing will take over and derail the ability of the team to show steady growth. This can spiral into the kind of reactionary pattern that Toronto FC has fallen into, and take the option of a longer-term builduing approach completely off the table as the team becomes increasingly desperate to give the fans the success they've waited so long to see.
4. Focused, but practical coach. I'm not asking Caleb Porter to become the next Roy Hodgson, not to take anything away from his coaching abilities. But Porter's strengths lie not in his tactical flexibility and/or scope. They lie in his tactical consistency. Thus, his ability to tweak and personalize his system to the surrounding reality is key to becoming successful in MLS. Jason Kries was able to develop his own twist on something closer to Tiki-Taka than other MLS teams have played, even if the term is still not quite accurate in describing RSL's play. Whatever it's called, it's designed to work in MLS, and it does. Aron Winter, in contrast, was unable to adapt his system of Total Football to the players and resources he had at his disposal with Toronto. We need from Caleb Porter, the ability to adapt---not game to game, but long-term, as we've seen from Jason Kreis.
5. The right players. Obviously Porter can develop young players. But if we can't build the team entirely from our current young talents (which is probably the case, considering MLS's improving level of play due to foreign influx, and the fact that our youth systems are pretty new), and we find it useful to to sign a couple of DP's, can Porter and GW work together to find the RIGHT GUYS for the system? We don't want to fall prey the temptation to snag a big name that suddenly becomes available and have to rearrange our system to fit around that player. Let's face it, if David Beckham suddenly declared his love of FieldTurf and his desire to join the mighty PTFC, it would be hard to say no. But NO is exactly what we should say. He wouldn't be a fit for the new system, and would end up doing more damage than good to the long-term direction of the team, given the current development strategy. Now, Andres Iniesta, on the other hand . . . yes, I know, never going to happen.
6. If the new system and/or coach doesn't work at first, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even if, God forbid, we have to fire Porter down the road, it's worth examining the details and identifying the specific things that weren't working, and seeing if we can make small tweaks to the system and personnel that will change our fortunes, rather than throwing the whole thing out and starting over again. Of course I'm hopeful that Porter can do that kind of detail analysis effectively by himself.
That's it. Thanks for reading! Now you know exactly what our team needs to succeed. Happy winning, Portland!
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I'm neither a football coach nor an expert analyst. I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. So please disregard everything I just wrote.