The writing has been on the wall, etched into the brick for months, if not at least a year some might argue.
Toronto FC have not been good. You don’t need me to tell you that.
The stats are damning. Three wins in 20 matches. Zero victories on the road. Less than a goal a game. No result with more than two goals scored. But numbers can only illustrate so much.
The on-field displays painted an even more ominous picture. Pointless possession, clueless attacking play, raised arms asking for more.
What started as frustration from some of Toronto FC’s most faithful after poor results might now be better described as apathy, as a third successive season in the league’s basement is what 2023 has become.
Federico Bernardeschi was the first player to admit that the status quo just wasn’t working. No, not during his viral postgame rant in Austin which saw him in street clothes for TFC’s final win of the Bob Bradley era.
Way back in March, after just the third game of the season, the Italian international let his feelings be known.
10 weeks and two wins later, Bernardeschi spoke his mind again in the Lone Star State following a fourth successive match without a TFC goal, declaring “we need to change something.”
So here it is. The change he was probably hinting towards has come. Bradley is out, and former Red Terry Dunfield is in.
It took longer than many might have thought given the lack of results across a season-and-a-half at the helm, but it’s important to remember the investment made in Bradley when he joined Toronto in November 2021.
Handed the Sporting Director role on top of his touchline duties, Bradley was entrusted to bring stability to BMO Field and guide the 2017 champions back to contender status. With his son Michael Bradley still a key figure in the locker room, a rosy vision of Bob someday handing the coaching reins down to Michael seemed almost predestined.
The 2022 season was almost a write-off, with Bradley left trying to piece together a team made up of relics from past coaches, and youngsters acclimating to the big leagues. Expectations were low, and Toronto met them.
The arrival of Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne, as well as a midseason trade for Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye, were clear indicators that TFC’s higher-ups were hitting the fast-forward button on the rebuilding process, fuelling hope that 2023 would be different.
Yet here we are.
With modest expectations of at least playoff contention, TFC are instead already seven points adrift of ninth-place D.C. United, who finished bottom of the standings last year.
Bradley was given the chance to make things right in year two, but after introducing 13 new players to the fold, no step forward was taken.
Maybe he was given too much time in the end, as it will now take a mighty turnaround in order for TFC to climb up what has proven to be a tough Eastern Conference. Like Steven Caldwell said after Bradley’s dismissal on Monday morning, this decision has been inevitable. With no clear signs of progress in performances or results, there was nothing pointing towards a change in fortunes for the second half of the season.
Let’s not get things twisted though. From top to bottom, Toronto FC have been in a rut for years. Mismanagement and a poor overall transfer record have at times been glossed over due to a second-place finish in the East in 2020, and some big-name signings. While other clubs in MLS appear to be moving forward, TFC have been stuck doing things the old way.
Club president Bill Manning might well be looking over his shoulder, knowing that he was responsible for bringing in Bradley, Chris Armas, and Ali Curtis, as well as giving a boatload of money to two underperforming and aging luxury wingers. For now, though, he’s safe, and the former Serie A stars don’t look to be leaving anytime soon either.
As two of the top-paid players in the league, Insigne (1st) and Bernardeschi (11th) haven’t matched their production to their salaries in 2023 after some dazzling displays upon joining the club last summer. Insigne has shown signs of life as of late following his injury in March and April, but Bernardeschi has gone 11 league matches without a goal contribution.
Looking around the squad, you’ll be hard-pressed to spot many in-form players. Sigurd Rosted and Raoul Petretta have both lost their starting roles, Kaye hasn’t looked sharp since leaving LAFC, and none of the strikers are, well, striking.
The highest payroll in MLS is hardly delivering, and of course, Bradley’s coaching and recruitment have played their part. It would be unfair to place all the blame on his shoulders, but in this sport it’s more often than not the manager that is the first one shown the exit door when things aren’t going to plan. Bradley’s dismissal should only bring more scrutiny towards veteran players and the club’s leadership, who should be feeling some of the responsibility for his sacking.
Josh Kloke, Tom Bogert, and Paul Tenorio’s popcorn-worthy article in The Athletic described factions in disarray within the TFC dressing room, with a feud between the Designated Players and Bradley causing all sorts of chaos. Since that report, the rift between the stars and their manager seeped into the fanbase, with some pushing #BradleyOut and others claiming that the Italian DPs weren’t committed to the project.
Never mind the fact that Bradley was given keys to the kingdom and that his son is club captain. There was no way Insigne and Bernardeschi were losing this bout, at least not in the first round. These aren’t two players who fell off the turnip truck. Both are European champions who competed at the highest level across the Atlantic. With each of their contracts running until 2026, TFC has essentially put all their eggs in two very expensive baskets.
Until proven otherwise, Insigne and Bernardeschi are the DP’s for a reason. With that comes added responsibility, but also a bit of leeway. Manning and his bosses will attempt to get the best out of their pricey playmakers given the dollar values involved until it becomes futile.
Having coached as high as TFC’s under-17 Academy squad, Dunfield might be more willing to accommodate Insigne and Bernardeschi’s requests as he can’t point to the same managerial resume Bradley had when he joined the club. And maybe in a strange way it will be for the best.
Some players no doubt prefer having a leader to guide them step-by-step, but others might feel like they deserve to have more freedom. In a league like MLS, that divide can be even more apparent. Bradley’s strong will and belief in his own methods are the reasons he’s one of the most successful managers in North America. They might also be the reason he’s now out of work.
After a dismal 2022, Bradley got his second chance in 2023, but couldn’t see it through. Though their leash is looser, it’s now up to Toronto FC’s leading stars to make the most of their own second chance, as the Reds begin yet another new chapter.