John Herdman takes over as coach of Toronto FC

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John Herdman plans a soft landing with Toronto FC. Probably a sound move given the mess that awaits.

The former Canada coach, who was scheduled to arrive in Toronto on Sunday evening from the West Coast, will essentially spend his first week on the job observing the underperforming MLS club. Toronto (4-17-10) has two road games this week, at Charlotte FC on Wednesday and the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, before closing out the season at home against Orlando City on Oct. 21.

Herdman will take charge for the season finale, using the international break that precedes it for extended training time with his new team.

Interim coach Terry Dunfield will run practice and be on the sidelines for the Charlotte and Red Bulls games.

Herdman has been watching TFC from afar. Now he will do it on location for the next week or so with his new staff, which is expected to borrow heavily from the team around him with the Canadian men.

“As a staff, we’ve been thinking about this, talking about it, for the last three, four weeks. There’s an excitement just to get in the building and feel what’s there. And see it,” Herdman said in an interview.

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for. Day-to-day coaching. Being with people day-to-day. Getting away from the endless Zoom meetings with people thousands of kilometres away. And just smelling the grass and getting into the chaos of day-to-day football.”

Given the tight turnaround, Herdman will wait until the road games are done to take charge of training – and fully implement the coaching transition.

“There’s a lot in this first week that gives us the opportunity just to watch, to listen, to learn, to assess, to observe. And we’re going to take that opportunity,” he said.

“We won’t disrupt Terry and the staff’s flow through these two matches,” he added. “We’ll travel with the team. All the new staff will be in an observational, sort of assessment period where they can ask all the questions they need to ask. They can see and we can feel what MLS is and how it differs to our international context that all of us have experienced for the last sort of 10 years. So it will be a good learning period.”

Herdman inherits a team that sits last in the league, 43 points below first-place FC Cincinnati, which clinched the Supporters’ Shield with a 3-2 win at BMO Field on Saturday.

Toronto has lost four straight and won just one of its last 18 games (1-14-3) in all competitions. TFC is winless on the road since a 2-0 victory in Charlotte on Aug. 27, 2022.

The franchise has been in free fall in recent years, tumbling from the heights of the 2017 treble-winning campaign (MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and Canadian Championship) and MLS Cup final appearances in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Two pandemic-affected seasons did not help the cause, forcing the club south of the border, but the franchise has lost its way of late.

Toronto has gone 19-53-27 in league play since Greg Vanney stepped down after the 2019 season. Chris Armas, Javier Perez, Bob Bradley and Dunfield have been unable to stop the slide which has seen the team take up permanent occupancy in or around the league basement.

TFC opened the vault last year to sign Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, who have shown flashes of brilliance but also worrying moments of lack of effort and frustration. Their supporting cast is lacking and/or underperforming in many cases.

Making proper use of the young talent emerging from the Toronto academy also has to be on the to-do list.

So why would anyone take the job?

First, while Herdman is new to club soccer, he is no stranger to turning programs around.

The Canadian women’s team was coming off a disastrous last-place showing at the 2011 World Cup when he took the helm. Back-to-back Olympic bronze medals followed as the women rediscovered their purpose.

The Canadian men were ranked 94th in the world when he switched programs in 2018. Under Herdman, the men climbed as high as No. 33, were named the “Most Improved Side” in 2021 by FIFA and qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.

Herdman is keeping his powder dry, for the time being, on Canada Soccer. But it seems clear he ran out of patience with the financially strapped governing body and the limitations its shaky bottom line was placing on his plans ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

In comparison, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s pockets are mineshaft-deep. And there is a commitment to do what is needed to win.

MLSE is betting Herdman is the man to spend its money wisely.

The 48-year-old English native looks to get the lay of the land and finish the season on a winning note and leave supporters “in a space where they’ve got some hope and they’re exited for what might be coming.”

Then the heavy lifting really begins.

Herdman is going all in – and going in alone, for the time being. His family is remaining on the West Coast where son Jay plays for the Whitecaps’ MLS Next Pro team.

He has “purposefully” opted not to talk to TFC players before arriving other than an accidental encounter with Bernardeschi in Toronto.

“Just by chance, we crossed paths in the city,” he said. “It was a really nice moment. You can sense he’s got that big personality and he’s got a desire, a desire to win for this club. That came out pretty quickly in the conversation. Just a warm character.

“So I’m really looking forward to see these men and to get to work with them in a way that is our way. And I know it will only be short (this season) but that short period of time will tell us a lot about who really is committed and has that passion and desire and purpose to get this club back to that championship level.”

Herdman knows coaches before him have seen the same opportunity.

“But for me and my staff, we’re going to be very deliberate in how we go about our business,” he said, adding not many coaches get a staff to evaluate a club up close before starting a new season.

Herdman is already impressed by the club.

“There’s some really good people at Toronto FC,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of good work that’s gone on behind the scenes, from what I can see as well, that probably doesn’t get reflected on the field every game. I was really taken aback by, one, the warmth and how passionate and committed people are to turning this around.

“I’ve been in the building a couple of times. I’ve kept a low profile and made sure I’ve stayed out of Terry’s space. But at the same time, I’ve had enough conversations now where you’re getting the sense that people really want to make change. They really, really will commit to what it’s going to take to turn this around.

“I’m excited, really excited to work with this staff. It’s a good one. I’m impressed.”

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