Toronto FC closed the book on the 2023 MLS regular season on Friday morning.
Gathered at the BMO Training Ground one last time as a group before going their separate ways, the club spoke to the media at the Year-End availability to turn the page from this season and lay out how the team will move forward.
On one hand 2023 was a year to forget; on the other it was one from which to learn.
“For the most part you forget about it, you put it behind you,” said Jonathan Osorio. “But you also have to take the lessons from the things that went wrong.”
“You do that in any season. Even when you win, you have to learn from things that were not great,” he continued. “There's a lot to learn from this year. It's a season to use as fuel, to come back much stronger and in a better way. We're all disappointed, we're all motivated to change the narrative going forward, and bring this club back to where it belongs and to where the fans deserve it to be.”
In sports, in life, why, the simplest of questions, can be the hardest to answer.
“There's a multitude of factors,” outlined Sean Johnson. “We all wish that we could have gotten way more results than we had, we had a quality group of guys. When you look back at a season like this, you can't really look to one exact thing, there's a chain of events.”
“From start to finish things are going to happen, but for whatever reason we couldn't get on a roll or string results together,” he continued. “Losing is very difficult. Mentally it's a tough thing to go through. Losing wears on you and you could really see that with this group. We will be better for the things that we went through this year.”
Echoed Osorio: “It was a lot of things.”
“In the beginning the chemistry was there, we were all very optimistic going into the season,” he began. “Then when we let certain results slip, we're getting a lot of draws, then the injuries come, and then we're not getting the results that we expect to get, that's when it becomes difficult.”
“Where we all went wrong was that when the outside starts trying to find what's the matter or who's at fault, instead of being together, it divided us in that moment,” Osorio pinpointed. “We just didn't do a good job of keeping it together.”
“In a club, in a family, families go through things, but there's some things that have to stay in house, that have to stay in the family,” he continued. “I understand that the media and fans want to know exactly what's going on, but at the same time we're a working family here and as a family we can't let everything just go into the public like that. That's what strong families do. They're able to work those things in house. When we weren't able to do that, that's when it became very difficult.”
A team can’t be All for One, if it’s not one for all.
“This was not a unified group. We could have been closer,” admitted Johnson. “Ultimately I have responsibility to play in that. We have to ensure that there is a togetherness moving forward.”
“We all acknowledge that,” he continued. “In an honest way, we were all able to look back on the year and reflect and say, ‘Hey, Guys, we aren't truly together. We need to band together.’ [New coach John] Herdman walking through the door, there were a lot of conversations internally as a group to say, ‘It's important that we come together now because that's been a big piece that's been missing.’ Everybody is committed to doing that.”
It’s one of the oldest maxims: United we stand, divided we fall.
A long season will test a group. There are a lot of personalities, a lot of variables, there will inevitably be struggles along the way.
“The challenges of a season, the results, the dynamic, anything that plays into what actually the team is, you're never going to get something that's all rosy,” said Johnson. “But being able to sort out situations, being able to tackle tough things and move forward, builds character within a group. We have a pretty honest group of individuals that can reflect and really truly say that we have to do a better job of that.”
It was a challenging year, as a group and individually.
“It was a very difficult season this year with many injuries that I've never had before in my career,” said Lorenzo Insigne through a translator. “I wasn't able to show what I was capable of doing. Hopefully next year I will be able to show you what I am able to do.”
Said Federico Bernardeschi: “Honestly, it was tough. It was a tough year, difficult. We should have had a good season like we expected. It was very tough for everybody. For the club, for the players, for everybody. We’ll show better next year.”
A player can’t be at their best in a side that is struggling, a side can’t achieve without individuals doing their part. It’s the duality of team sport.
“I believe I can do better,” added Insigne, asked if his production was enough. “I know the fans expect much more.”
Prompted with the same question, Bernardeschi agreed with a smile: “I expected more from me too.”
“When you are in a tough situation, it's not easy to do your best. When you are in a difficult situation, you suffer with the team,” he continued. “It's normal. This is the life, this is football. It was a difficult season, but we have to look forward and keep going for next year.”
The end of one season is the beginning of the next. One could sense that switch has been flipped, that that transition has begun already and will carry through the off-season.
Osorio took a page out of Herdman’s playbook for one part of the solution.
“A ‘brotherhood’ needs to start being established,” he levelled. “From top to bottom really, there needs to be communication within the whole club, a very clear idea of how we want this club to be.”
“And then there's individual things you learn about too,” Osorio challenged himself. “Stepping up, being a better leader, more of a leader, in those hard situations. How to keep guys engaged and how to keep the group in a good way mentally. Those are all things that we have to learn from. Now that we've gone through it, we have an idea of how to not let this happen again.”
There was a commitment in the words from the leadership group.
“Challenges, what you face to play the sport, has never changed my love for the game, my passion for the game,” said Johnson. “I'll never take that for granted. It was always a search for me to tackle the challenges.”
“And once you get over those hurdles, it makes winning and championships that much sweeter,” he continued. “It's using this as a learning experiences for the group and individually. A challenging year like this is different than what I've experienced in my career, but really channelling that and using it moving forward to make myself better and make the organization better as well.”
Said Osorio, referencing some raw post-match conversations: “I'm sure you guys could feel it and see it in some of my interviews during the season. It hurts; I care. I really care.”
“I'm truly blessed to be a player for my hometown club. I don't take that for granted,” he continued. “I am a fan as well – and I will always be a fan – so when the club is not doing well, it will hurt and being a part of it hurt. I will do everything, I will do my part, to turn this around.”
It’s been a strange few years, no doubt. The pandemic, trying to get back to whatever the new normal will be. Results on the field have not been what was desired.
“It's been an incredibly difficult few years,” underlined TFC President Bill Manning. “John has sent a very clear message that we're not going to look back, we're going to go forward, but there's going to be a certain accountability that he's going to hold players to, that he's going to hold staff to. We fell into a victim mentality. This was one of those seasons, everything went wrong that could go wrong, but some of that was of our own doing.”
“John wants to wipe the slate clean, but is also saying, ‘enough is enough, we’ve got to look in the mirror,’” Manning relayed. “I've tried to do that personally, look in the mirror and see how I can get better and what I can do for the club. I enjoyed that [message]. I’m looking forward to how can we rebuild this club back into a championship team again.”
A desire to succeed can be its own downfall. Toronto has wanted so badly to get back to the mountaintop that it overlooked some of the elements that got it there.
“The expectation at this club is to win and to do it quick,” said TFC General Manager Jason Hernandez. “That can lead to ‘band aid’ solutions: you're doing what might be the best thing for tomorrow, but isn't the best thing six months from now or 12 months from now.”
“It’s always easy to look back and say ‘we shouldn't have gone this route or that route,’” he continued. “What I can promise is that we are out of the ‘band aid’ mode. Any decision that comes moving forward is strategic, evidence-based, and process-based.”
“That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the quick fix mentality of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall in two months and hope it turns out to be what you want,” he closed. “But I strongly feel with the pieces we have in place, with the human capital we have in place – we have people who care deeply for what this club looks like moving forward; we have people who are invested greatly in this club; we have smart people who are willing to do what it takes – I'm looking forward to what comes.”