TORONTO - Sporting a new coach and formation, Toronto FC looks to turn around a dismal season starting Saturday in Kansas City.
Toronto (1-9-0) and head coach Aron Winter parted ways during the recent three-week international break. Paul Mariner, director of player development, was promoted to the role of head coach and director of soccer operations.
The 59-year-old Englishman, who was an assistant coach in New England under coach Steve Nicol from 2004 to 2009, is a totally different package from his Toronto predecessor.
Winter was icy cool, perhaps a little rigid and very committed to his 4-3-3 formation. Mariner wears his heart in his sleeve and seems to favour a 4-4-2 approach, although he wasn't discussing tactics after training Thursday except to say there will be a different setup Saturday.
His players were more open, citing the move to a 4-4-2 formation.
Midfielder Julian de Guzman took in his first practice under Mariner after spending time away with the Canadian national team.
"The guys seem to respond very well to his orders and demands," said de Guzman. "He has a very good understanding of the league, of our teams. The guys definitely respect that.
"Right off the bat, the feeling I get just walking in today's changing room, guys are upbeat and the energy's there. It's a positive response."
Thursday's practice was far different from past training sessions under Winter. Mariner rarely stopped talking, usually had a ball in his hand and regularly stopped the session to make his point.
Parents may not want to bring small children to Toronto FC practices. The language is colourful and blunt.
"It's just the way I roll," Mariner said of his high-energy approach. "That's my MO (modus operandi). Either you like it or you don't like it."
Mariner, whose last game as manager was in late 2010 when he was with England's Plymouth Albion, seems in his element.
"It's fantastic. I didn't know how much I missed it," he said.
Mariner and his team face a challenging schedule with a midweek game in Houston (whose 4-4-4 record is mainly due to a heavy away schedule while waiting for its new stadium to open) following the weekend matchup with Sporting Kansas City (8-3-1 including 5-1-0 at home).
Kansas City and Houston are a combined 7-1-1 at home this season. Toronto is 0-4-0 on the road this season and won just one of 17 away games last year.
The coach acknowledged he can't overwhelm his squad with too much all at once.
He said his initial message is "just togetherness."
"Teamwork, team spirit, individual brilliance. Do your job."
Look for Mariner to choose a formation to fit his players. Under Winter, it seemed the other way around and the fit was awkward at times.
Mariner has to decide what to do this weekend with de Guzman and Jamaica international Ryan Johnson, who have had busy schedules with their national teams. Rookie Luis Silva was also away, tending to a family matter. Ashtone Morgan was also on Canada duty.
Mariner did not involve de Guzman in all the training Thursday.
"I'm worried about the mileage that Julian's put in," he said. "The travel, the games. International football is a totally different animal. He's a little sore today so we sort of took it easy on him."
With the break behind it, Toronto faces a busy two weeks to close out June. After the two away contests, home games against New England and New York are sandwiched around a trip to Montreal.
Mariner, however, is not looking past Kansas City.
"The proof of the pudding is Saturday night," he said.
NOTES: Julian de Guzman says he still hopes younger brother Jonathan will commit internationally to Canada. Jonathan has said he wants to represent the Netherlands, where he has played club soccer. "I still have hopes that he will be a part of the Canadian national team. He's yet to put on a Dutch jersey," said Julian. "I haven't given up hope for him to finally join us." ... Canada has taken four points out of a possible six in the current round of World Cup qualifying after a win in Cuba and home draw with Honduras. Julian de Guzman calls the Canada start "OK" but says he feels like they dropped two points at home against Honduras.