TORONTO - Calling it a tale of two seasons, Toronto FC players and coaches say the Major League Soccer team is headed in the right direction despite again missing the playoffs.
Under new coach Aron Winter and assistant Bob de Klerk, Toronto finished with a 6-13-15 record, but showed signs of promise as the season ended. The MLS side also turned heads by qualifying for the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Still, Toronto fans have yet to see a post-season appearance in the club's five-year history.
Winter fell short of saying it's playoffs or bust in 2012, but pointed to the team's improvement in the second half of the season.
"We are on the right track but we are not still there," the Dutch coach said Monday as the team met the media for a post-mortem.
"Next season we're going to start from the beginning to give everything to get at least into the playoffs," Winter added. "But we always say we are here not for the short-term, we are here for the long-term ... we are still building."
It was up to goalkeeper Stefan Frei to call a spade a spade.
"It's been (a year) of transition again," he said. "Obviously a lot of changes throughout the season.
"You might even want to split the season up in two — obviously almost two different teams. But I think what the team has achieved throughout the second half of the season has been good progress and that's I think what we've been looking for."
But Frei, who lost his starting job while injured, was not about to give the 2011 season a thumbs-up.
"I'm not going to go to bed with a smile either," he said. "Although a lot of people thought this season was going to be just (about) progression, getting better, our goal was to reach the playoffs and we failed at that."
In January, Winter and de Klerk took over a franchise that seemingly had gone backwards.
They came in with a vision, introducing the Dutch concept of "total football" where every position has a designated role.
"I remember the first couple of games it was almost like them speaking another language," midfielder Julian de Guzman said. "And no one really understood what they wanted from each individual.
"I think that's why they were forced to make certain changes at the midpoint of the season. Now that they've got the guys that they want, it feels more like a team. Everyone comprehends the system very well and, at the same time, they're getting better at it."
Winter essentially remade the roster in July.
He brought in designated players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans and seven others. In all, Toronto used some 40 players in 2011.
Winter and Paul Mariner, director of player development, say they still have holes to fill.
Central defence remains a worry after season-ending injuries to Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams and a league-worst 59 goals against.
"Just the way that we played —so open," said Ty Harden, who soldiered on valiantly with Andy Iro at centre back.
"We lost the ball too easily too many times. To (the point) where teams were just flying at us."
Every set piece was a defensive adventure.
"All I really know is we gave up a lot of goals on set pieces," Harden said. "Obviously if we knew exactly why or how to fix it we would have done that already. It's obviously something we talked about a lot. Obviously we couldn't, for whatever reason, fix it."
Frings was dropped back as a sweeper to help steady the creaky backline.
The team needs more depth, with de Klerk saying only once during the season did the coaching staff have a discussion on who to play in the No. 10 shirt.
The team braintrust is able to point to the start of construction of Toronto's new training ground. Academy graduates like Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson and Doneil Henry have been success stories this season.
Forward Ryan Johnson has been a fine, unsung pickup and teenage Ecuador forward Joao Plata has proved to be a "difference-maker," in de Klerk's words.
It has two goalies in Frei and Milos Kocic who have both shown they are good enough to start.
The two are friends, rooming together on the road, but the team may look to move one to pick up another asset. While the two were diplomatic about the starting role Monday, it seems clear they don't both expect to be here next season.
Frings, a former German international, has proved to be a leader on the pitch and a role model off it, according to the team. Koevermans scored eight goals in 10 games, proving to be a big Dutch goal machine.
"During the last three months we played some good games," said Koevermans.
De Guzman regained his fitness after a troublesome knee injury and was beginning to show his influence on the pitch as the season ended.
Winter and De Klerk says the league's intricate roster and salary rules will not be as foreign to them next season.
"We're under no illusions that we've got more work to do," said Mariner.
Making Plata and fullback Richard Eckersley's loan status is high on his 'to do' list. Both say they want to be back.