Welcome John, Farewell Michael.
Toronto FC lost 2-0 to Orlando City SC on Saturday night in the conclusion of the 2023 MLS regular season at BMO Field.
Second half substitute Duncan McGuire scored both goals for the visitors, the first a stunning bit of execution in the 63rd minute and the second 11 minutes later when slipped in down the left channel.
That 15-minute spell aside, Toronto were right there.
“I enjoyed about two-thirds of my night on the sidelines,” said John Herdman post-match. “It was a proud moment to be able to step out there as a club manager for TFC. The fans showed up tonight, there was good energy.”
“There was elements of tonight I was really happy with and there's elements that need work. The players showed an attitude and intensity that they haven’t showed for a long time. A commitment to put their body on the line, to stay tight,” he continued. “It got away from us about the 60th minute, we managed to get a hold of it again, but it was too little, too late. I'll reflect on that period of time, that 15 minutes. The players' effort levels were still there, some tactical shifts with [Mauricio] Pereyra and the big man, Duncan McGuire, coming on. We found it difficult to handle them, particularly in the transition. We'll look at that, but at the same time, there was a shift put in tonight. Players were committed, clear, and on the same page for long periods of time.”
Playing well for large stretches of a match only to be undone by a moment has been a constant refrain in 2023.
“It's been the story of the season really,” agreed Jonathan Osorio. “There was a lot of games where we were doing well until we were scored on.”
“Today, we got scored on by a goal that you clap your hands and you move on,” he noted. “In this game, it was a shorter period where we let our guard down. But in this game, in this league, when you let your guard down for a short period of time you lose the game. That's what happened today. After the second goal, we did a good job of getting back into it and trying to push, but yeah, that's been the story of the season.”
That resilience, the ability to suffer a moment where Orlando was in the ascendancy was something Herdman highlighted in his prematch comments, something he wanted to see the players’ reaction to.
“There was a short wobble, but to see key players still back pressing, still trying to stay tight, still taking responsibility, that was an important thing for me to see tonight,” he explained. “We tried to shift something tactically and with only 10 days of work we destabilized them for a five, six-minute period. We tried to shift into a diamond with Oso popping into the 10 and it destabilized them in a time where they probably just needed to have stayed tight. I take that one on the chin.”
“I can't fault them tonight. They really put a shift in,” Herdman continued. “I've provoked the players: if you want to be here next year, you better be all in. That 60 minutes tonight, where it is body on the line, it's pressing for 60 minutes solid, they've got to be committed to that identity. These fans they're not putting up with that anymore. They'll accept a loss, but they won't accept the lack of effort, they won't accept guys sacking the game off partway through. Our lads showed they were more willing tonight to stay in the fight.”
Just 10 days into his tenure proper, Herdman has seen a change.
“We've seen a shift. We've seen a shift in the mentality of the group, we've seen a shift tactically, there was definitely more cohesion,” he outlined. “Starting in that centre-back three we looked very comfortable, we looked strong. I'm really optimistic.”
“They're beaten down, that's a reality,” Herdman levelled. “There's players there that are just low on confidence. And while we're able to ramp that up a bit this week, get the energy levels there and commitment to their roles, I just can't judge this group yet, given the context they've had.”
“There's been a lot of change, trauma, defeat after defeat after defeat, having to read on social media the frustration,” he listed. “That takes its toll. Even getting these guys up for this last game was a big challenge. And they took it. I've learned a lot from these 10 days, it was a really important time. We could have waved the white flag and came in at the end of November, but we wanted to feel this group. I've taken a lot of good information. I've seen things from players in 10 days I didn't expect to see. And there's some players tonight that showed what they could be next season and some that have showed that maybe they're not right for this club.”
Saturday was the end of a long, hard, season.
“Lots of emotions. It's hard to explain. It's not been easy,” said Osorio. “To be a part of the worst campaign in the club's history is not something that I'm proud of. Not something that we're all proud of.”
“We're all disappointed. It's been a tough season,” he continued. “All I can say is in the last couple weeks it has felt like it's gotten better and it will get better. I know we'll get better. It's time now to look ourselves in the mirror and learn from these mistakes because this type of season cannot happen again. It just cannot.”
“Our fans do not deserve it. It's crazy to think that the last place team in the league is getting a crowd like we are almost every game. For the fans, it's unacceptable,” Osorio added. “Moving on we will do everything we can to make sure this club starts to move forward.”
The season may now be over, but that first 90 minutes under Herdman will provide valuable information heading into the winter. The games may be over, but the work has just begun.
Herdman saw elements of the identity he wants going forward, but also what was lacking.
“They delivered on defensive elements of that, some of the attacking, but the identity is the edge – we’re just missing that edge,” he pinpointed. “McGuire comes on, two touches, goal. That's the edge that's missing at this club. It's a confidence. There's maybe a quality element to that, but that's the difference.”
“They had five shots tonight. Five shots. Five shots, two goals,” Herdman illustrated. “We can raise quality by tactical cohesion, we can raise quality by ensuring these guys trust each other more; the arguments and the backbiting that's been going on, it takes three months to start to dissolve that, so they actually want to work and play for each other. All of that can move, but we still need to add quality to this group in different positions.”
TFC will be doing that work without their 10-year captain, Michael Bradley, who played the last match of his career on Saturday.
Bradley, wearing the familiar armband, led the side out for the final time, and took up his spot in the middle of the park one last time.
Injury forced him into the back-line after 17 minutes.
“I was gutted for Michael,” said Herdman. “That we had to move him into the back three in his last game.”
Another sacrifice for the team at the final time of asking.
“Michael has probably had the biggest influence on my career. He's the guy I’ve played the most games with” began Osorio, asked about his long-time teammate playing his last. “I've told him this: he means so much to me. He watched me grow from a young player to an experienced player; through ups and downs we've been through it all.”
“I’ll never forget,” he continued. “Michael has a really good sense of reading situations. On a few occasions when I was low on confidence or feeling down, he picked me up. That's what a great captain does. Michael was a great captain – an amazing human being – he will never be replaced. A guy like that, you can't replace him. Now you have to surround the team with really, really good people so that all together, we can try to fill that hole.”
“What an amazing career, before getting to Toronto, and then what he has done with this club. He will be remembered forever as the most important player to play for this club,” Osorio laid out. “Hopefully, what we can say in years to come, he started the dominance of this club. Yes, we've gone down, but if we get back up that's because we know we can. We've been there. Michael has a huge part in that. He's meant a lot to me and he's meant a lot to this club.”
As he left the pitch in the 81st minute, Bradley handed that responsibility to Osorio.
“We’ll reflect on this,” said Herdman, not ready to name his new captain. “This is part of the discussions we've got to have internally, but the man that picked that armband up, he bleeds this city.”
“I've been watching this team suffer and while maybe he’s not been on the scoresheet, he's never stopped running, he's always given his all to this city,” he continued. “We'll have that conversation behind the scenes. He's definitely starting to hit that age where he understands what has to happen now and he's ready to lead it.”
A loss at BMO Field was an unfamiliar feeling for Herdman, who experienced so much success in Toronto with both the Women’s and Men’s National Teams.
“As I said to the boys in the dressing room after, I'm effing angry,” closed Herdman. “It's my first loss and that hurts.”
“I expected to be able to step in there, as we always do, and win at BMO Field, do what we needed to do for Michael Bradley tonight and for the fans,” he continued. “It was painful. While I took responsibility for what I could, at the same time I’m letting the boys know that this hurts. This really hurt. We were buzzing because we thought there's a level of invincibility in this stadium with these fans. I made a commitment; it ain’t happening again.”