It may not be reflected on the calendar as of yet, but the 2024 season began in October.
John Herdman made his touchline debut in Toronto FC’s final match of the year against Orlando City SC having taken over the managerial reins at the start of the month.
“We came in very clear that enough was enough and things had to change,” said Herdman at TFC’s Year-End press conference last Friday. “We started with a vision. This is the only [MLS] club to have achieved the treble. That's pretty important for the players in this locker room, who have been given the opportunity with the jersey, to know that this is the only club with that prestige.”
“In setting the benchmarks we know that that's been done before. That was the starting point, being able to pioneer something new for Toronto that hadn't been achieved before,” he continued. “Whether that's the quadruple or the trophies that have evaded them, that haven't been in the cabinet. And then underneath that you then have to be really clear about how we get to work. That's the tactical excellence, it's the tactical blueprint, the alignment across the front office, their understanding of the profiles that are required, the benchmarks and statistics that are required for each player in their position, so there's no place to hide, everyone knows what their role is.”
“For the last 20 days, we've been sharing that information individually, collectively. And then on the other side, it's team spirit, trust, bring them together, you get the chemistry that pushes teams to places they haven't been before. Relationships, the connection within the club, the connection to the fans,” Herdman outlined. “We've been absolutely clear what their statistics have told us, the story of this season. They've seen the benchmark for next season in their position and for us to be able to engage in a relationship where if players aren't reaching that standard, to understand the work that's got to be done to get them to that standard. My job is to develop the players, develop every player that you have in front of you. That's a commitment I've made.”
From his introductory fly-on-the-wall period to exit interviews, Herdman has been gathering information.
“You're learning about new contexts for different players. You start to see some of the real reasons why there were ebbs and flows in individual’s performances,” he explained. “But what I really took out of the conversations is there’s a deep willingness to come back and make it right.”
“I expected more players wanting to jump ship and go somewhere else where they could start afresh,” Herdman admitted. “I was surprised at the amount of players that wanted to be part of bringing this back.”
“I had some players saying, ‘I just want to keep going. We feel like we just got started.’ And then others are like, ‘I need the reset,’” he added. “It shows the toll it has taken on different individuals. We've done all the baseline pretesting, the leadership group have spoken to the team about setting consequences for players coming in. The tolerance level, what might have been tolerated in previous preseason arrivals, won't be tolerated for this team.”
A core group of senior players has emerged.
“The leadership group have set that standard. I've been really impressed with Sean Johnson, his voice in that locker room is going to make a big difference this year. With Michael [Bradley] gone you lose an amazing leader with so much experience, but you've opened a massive gap for people to step into. Sean, you can sense when he speaks people listen,” noted Herdman. “He set the tone, he set the standard along with Jonathan [Osorio]. Lorenzo [Insigne] and Fede [Federico Bernardeschi] know what it takes to win and they're all in.”
“They're willing to have leadership connects through this offseason, they're already talking about systems they're putting in place so that it doesn't wait until January. I sense that they're going to make the most of this offseason,” he added. “It's almost turning from ‘poor me’ to a vengeful.... You can feel the shift in people's vernacular in how they're talking about what the offseason is.”
All that work was why the final media availability was pushed later.
“It's not traditional to have a manager come in for the last match of the season and get an opportunity to get his hands on the players and get his arms around what we're doing here. It made sense to continue to go through the work,” explained TFC General Manager Jason Hernandez. “This extra time has allowed all of us to get a better understanding of what is here and what the project is in front of us.”
The change is palpable.
“Sometimes it's difficult to explain it, inside a team environment, but there's just a different energy. There's a different buzz,” highlighted TFC President Bill Manning. “Part of the attraction to John as a head coach is this infectiousness that he brings and this enthusiasm. He's clearly made a very good first impression with the players. There's an excitement level. Over time, you feel these little things and eventually they capture your entire club and special things can happen.”
Clarity is a word that came up again and again.
“There's a clear idea. That's the starting point,” said Osorio. “I have confidence that going forward things will start to improve.”
“John did his due diligence before he came in, speaking to everybody, asking questions: What was the dynamic of the team? How did it become like that? He has worked off of that; that's what he does,” he continued. “He is creating an environment, taking into consideration everything that has happened, a way for us to be engaged and to be motivated and determined going into next year.”
“We kept training these last two weeks and it was good. The feeling was really, really good. It was really positive,” Osorio added. “John and his staff have that about them, they know how to get people going. Guys are excited and very motivated for next year.”
Said Johnson: “There's a new feeling when Herdman walked in the door.”
“It was a big shift, a shift in energy, a shift in mindset,” he continued. “Coming off the year that we had, to have that hope, to have that new vision of what is to be, started the day he walked through the door. I'm excited about that. Things change quickly.”
“The ideas that we've gotten in just a short amount of time, the clarity that we've gotten, the understanding, and ultimately the mindset that he has is important for the group. A cultural shift is important. Tactical shift is important. An accountability shift is important,” Johnson laid out. “He brings all those things.”
Soon enough preseason will begin and the first game of the season will fast be on the horizon.
“We know it's going to get better,” said Insigne through a translator. “The last two weeks, training with the rest of the team, they've all seemed very motivated. We're going to look forward; I believe as a group that we're going to get better.”
Added Bernardeschi: “I'm very confident, honestly. I'm very proud that John is with us. John, Robyn [Gayle], and the staff, I’ve worked with them for a few weeks right now. They were very successful with the national team.”
The work has already begun. The two weeks of training after the final match set the tone for the offseason.
“We didn't treat this like a typical post-season, we got straight to work,” said Herdman. “We need to close a gap from what we've seen in the Orlando game. We got to work.”
“We've had the stats at the beginning of the week, the stats at the end of the week, they've competed in 11 vs. 11s at the end of the week. There've been consequences for teams that never hit the standards,” he illustrated. “And the guys have gone out, they've gone out together. They went out, had a drink, had a meal, bonded socially in a way they haven't done for a long time. I've seen change.”
While the players rest their bodies and minds for what lies ahead, the rest of the club has only just gotten started.
The trade window opens on December 11, free agency begins on December 13, and the 2024 MLS SuperDraft is set for December 19.
“As we were trying to put the fundamental pieces – John and his staff, changes around the medical structure, the front office structure, and getting the technical director in – we were in a holding pattern for a stretch,” explained Hernandez. “Now it feels like everyone's at the first day of school.”
“Finally it's here. The work we've been circling around, but not yet able to be targeted, is now here. Everyone's really excited, everyone's really energized. There are long nights, there's little sleep, and there's not going to be a ton of time off,” he closed. “That's what I've been looking forward to. That's the challenge that excites me. I know it excites [John].”