TORONTO - Some nine months after taking charge of Toronto FC, head coach Aron Winter and assistant Bob de Klerk put the finishing touches Saturday to a season of radical reconstruction.
"We came in January — Bob and I — to change everything," said Winter.
The former Dutch star has been true to his word. The only thing missing from the BMO Field sidelines this year has been Ty Pennington during what has been an extreme MLS makeover.
Toronto (6-13-14) closes the book on a roller-coaster season against the New England Revolution (5-16-12) in a matchup of the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the Eastern Conference.
But unlike the Revolution, which has lost five straight in the league, Toronto is ending on a high.
Winter's team blanked FC Dallas 3-0 in Frisco, Tex., on Tuesday, joining the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders as the only MLS teams to advance to the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Galaxy (67 points) and Sounders (60) are ranked No. 1 and 2 in the overall league standings. Toronto (32) stands 16th.
With the playoffs out of reach once again, Winter's team targeted the CONCACAF competition. But it has also finished strongly in the league. Toronto has lost just once in its last six MLS games and is 3-2-5 in its last 10.
"We're happy," said defender Andy Iro. "We want to go out on a good note on Saturday and then really build for the start of next season."
Added midfielder Julian de Guzman: "You can see the progress that has been made."
How extensive have the changes been? Toronto's starting lineup Tuesday featured just two players (Ty Harden and Nick Soolsma) from the 11 that suffered through a 4-2 defeat to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps in the season-opener March 19.
Players like Dan Gargan, Nana Attakora, Jacob Peterson and former captains Dwayne De Rosario and Maicon Santos have moved on. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei is now duelling Milos Kocic for the starting job, while forward Javier Martina has seemingly fallen out of favour.
The new-look Toronto FC began to take shape July 20 when designated players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans made their debut.
Frings soon took over as captain, adding steel in the midfield and defence while Koevermans showed an eye for goal.
The acquisition of Ryan Johnson and emergence of rookie Joao Plata have also helped spark the attack.
De Guzman, the team's original designated player, and fellow Canadian Terry Dunfield have become link men in the midfield.
On the flanks, hard-nosed Brit Richard Eckersley and young Canadian Ashtone Morgan made the fullback positions their own.
Central defence has been thin with injuries to Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams, leaving Iro and Harden to hold the back together. Winter has bolstered the backline by playing Frings as a sweeper in some games.
Kocic and Frei have been heroic in goal in the face of some wonky defending in front of them. Toronto has given up a league-worst 57 goals.
Winter was cagey about his starting goalie for New England.
"Both of them are very good," he said.
The meticulous Toronto FC coach wants to end the season on a win, as a thank you to fans — and a further show of his team's turnaround.
"They've supported us from the beginning ... It's great," he said.
Toronto's practice was nothing less than jovial Friday as some 30 players took part in a game of what looked like hybrid of rugby and Australian Rules Football before playing a more conventional game of mini-soccer.
Winter said all of his players were available for selection against the Revolution. Eckersley practised but was due to be evaluated to see how he had survived the session in his return from a leg injury.
The other teams in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals, which are slated for the spring, are Mexico's Morelia, Santos, Pumas and Santos, and El Salvador's Metapan.