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Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter steps down after dismal start to season

06/07/2012 01:33 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Paul Mariner believes he can turn around Toronto's flailing soccer franchise with a few small tweaks.

The new head coach of Toronto FC says his measure of success will be a "smile on supporters' faces."

But that won't be easy for a team languishing in Major League Soccer's basement and likely to miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.

Mariner became No. 7 in the team's revolving door of head coaches on Thursday after Aron Winter paid the price for Toronto FC's dismal start to the season.

"Hopefully a new message, a new voice, and a slight tweak in direction, but sticking with the long-term direction and we can start getting it right," said Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and chief operating officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

Winter stepped down as head coach, leaving with a regular-season mark of 7-22-15, winning just one MLS game on the road. His team was outscored 80-44 during his tenure. The club stands last in the league with 1-9-0 record and has been outscored 21-8 this season.

The 59-year-old Mariner, the club's director of player development who takes over coaching duties effective immediately, said he believes a few small changes, putting players in the proper positions, and hard work will right the sinking TFC ship and give fans something to cheer about.

"The one thing that should be a given, and what the fans who pay money want to see is that the players are out there running and working and trying," Mariner said.

"That seems a pretty strange thing to say but when fans see that, they see people tracking back and working hard for the team, it's infectious, it goes through the team and it goes through the fans. Gets them all fired up, so that's what we want."

Winter, who was offered another position within the organization but declined, was a thoroughly decent man who started most media scrums by shaking hands with the reporters. Anselmi, who made it clear it wasn't Winter's decision to step down, called him "one of the classiest people you will meet in professional sports."

The Dutchman staked his future on bringing a vision of how to play football to Toronto FC. It may have been a case of wrong system, wrong players and wrong league, however, as he struggled to get the machine firing on all cylinders. A woeful defence and misfiring offence, combined with some untimely injuries, sealed his fate in a franchise that has been a success off the field but a disappointment on it.

Mariner said his coaching style is "whatever works," and pointed out his focus will be on the short-term, getting results now.

"The philosophy of most fans throughout the world is that if we're getting points and getting wins, the style is not important," Mariner said.

"It's all about putting players in the right positions to succeed. I want to put people with the right abilities, the right skill sets in the right positions, and that's it. Give them some instruction, and hope the core of players we've got — the Torstens (Torsten Frings) of this world and (Danny) Koevermans and so forth — they can lead the team on the field for me."

Ironically, Winter leaves on the back of a rare win and with a victory in the Amway Canadian Championship.

The timing surprised some players, who were given the news by Mariner and Anselmi following practice Thursday.

"Yeah, we've played well over the last couple of weeks and it was disappointing that the (international) break came and we didn't have the games to keep the momentum going," said midfielder Terry Dunfield. "But in football you're judged by your results and unfortunately for me, it's normally the managers who take the blame."

Things won't get any easier for TFC after the break, as Toronto has road games in Kansas City (8-3-1) and Houston (4-3-4).

Fans have grown increasingly frustrated with the squad, booing the team off the pitch at the final whistles as the losses mounted.

Anselmi was asked why supporters should feel any more confident with Mariner in charge as opposed the previous six coaches.

"I understand their frustration, but you're right, it's No. 7," Anselmi said. "But Paul's been around this game a long time, he's had success in this league and he believes that this team is better than 1-and-9. We've got 24 games to prove that.

"We've been really lucky from Day 1, we've got this amazing fan base here, and we haven't delivered the goods. We had a free pass for a few years as an expansion franchise, and now it's time to step up to the plate. Seven wins in 44 games is just not good enough in this league, so we had to make a change."

Winter was hired as head coach and technical director on Jan. 6, 2011, along with assistant coach Bob de Klerk and Mariner. Inheriting a 9-13-8 team, Winter set about installing his possession-based 4-3-3 system, and midway through the 2011 season, he started a serious remake of the roster, bringing in designated players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans as well as Ryan Johnson and Dunfield.

As the new roster started to jell, the results improved and Toronto posted a 7-4-6 record in all competitions in the final three months of the season. Nevertheless the team finished 16th out of 18 teams with a 6-13-15 league record and a defence that leaked a league-worst 59 goals.

"Last season was a very difficult season,'' Winter said at Toronto FC's media day prior to the 2012 season kickoff. "(But) it was completely different between the first five months and the last five months.''

"Last season we ended very well,'' he added. "How we ended, that's the way we want to start.''

Things looked bright as Toronto defeated defending MLS champion Los Angeles to advance to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, making Canadian soccer history in the process. But Toronto was beaten by Mexico's Santos Laguna in the semifinals and the wheels fell off in the league.

"We tried to be patient, stability is a good thing and we haven't had enough of that," Anselmi said. "But a couple of losses turned into a couple more and all of a sudden you get down the path of thinking we have to do something differently."

Toronto took a huge hit when Frings limped out of the season-opening 3-1 loss in Seattle on March 17 and missed the next five weeks due to a hamstring strain.

The team failed to convert chances on attack and gave too many goals away through giveaways and defensive blunders. Players did not revolt but some complained of team tactics as Winter tried to play a more defensive game.

Winter made changes, shifting the fiery de Klerk to the role of technical manager and making former player Jim Brennan assistant coach.

Now in its sixth year, the franchise has never made the post-season, and faces an huge uphill climb to reach it this season. The team didn't post its first league win this season until its 10th outing when it beat the visiting Philadelphia Union 1-0 on May 26. The nine-game losing streak to start the season was a league record.

— With files from Neil Davidson

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