Despite a promising start and considerable work done in the offseason, time is not on the side of new Toronto FC bosses Ryan Nelsen and Kevin Payne.No one said it was going to be easy.
Ryan Nelsen, Toronto FC's new head coach who just experienced his first official match as a professional bench boss, always knew the task of building TFC into a competitive side would be tough, but he had no idea just how bad things would be.
"When we came in the club, the club had done nothing," Nelsen told reporters after training on Tuesday. "No recruitment, no scouting, no nothing. We literally have to start from scratch here and we feel like we’re four or five weeks behind everybody because we had to deal with cap issues and we had to deal with squad issues."
It may sound like a lot of complaining coming from the Kiwi coach, but the reality is that he probably understated the mess that he and general manager Kevin Payne inherited when they assumed the reigns of the club that was once considered a model franchise (off the field, at least).
A turbulent previous regime that saw both Aron Winter and Paul Mariner take control of player acquisition and on-field decisions over the past two seasons resulted in a bloated, disjointed roster that was always going to hamper the club in 2013.
That Payne and Nelsen were able to trim as much fat as they did is to be commended. That said, the new tandem in charge has taken some risks -- British castoffs and green youngsters abound on the current iteration of TFC's roster -- that may or may not pay off in the long run.
Some of those moves were forced, as Toronto found itself extremely shorthanded just days prior to opening the season last Saturday. But some are indicative of a TFC team will that reflect Payne and Nelsen's new mantra for the side: younger, hungrier, and able to grow together.
While these seem like desirable attributes on the surface, the reality is that the Reds don't really have the luxury of "rebuilding" for too long. The TFC fanbase, which has gone from shining example to disgruntled and disinterested, has seen six years of turnover and philosophy changes that have resulted in zero playoff appearances.
Last season was statistically the worst for the club, as Toronto racked up just five regular season wins en route to a last place finish in MLS (the team's first since its expansion year in 2007). In a perfect world, TFC would have at least a season in which the new front office could untangle the mess it inherited while implementing its own vision for the team.
But this isn't a perfect world, and TFC is under a ton of pressure to show tangible improvement sooner than later. It's just the situation that the club has put itself in after years of mismanagement and a poisonous locker room culture.
"There's a reason, probably, why the club hasn't had a certain amount of success and we're just trying to implement certain things that make the club work on a good foundation," Nelsen said. "That's just scouting, recruiting, organization, infrastructure and all that.
"Once we get that then we can kind of build on top of that."
To that end, Toronto has seen a slew of trialists over the past couple of months and still has some training with the team. A couple more will likely be signed, with former England youth starlet John Bostock looking increasingly likely to agree to terms within the coming days.
Also, Nelsen seems to have his team, as it stands, more organized than it has been in years. The result was a promising performance in the season opener at Vancouver -- a game in which Toronto was expected to lose heavily, but instead fought tooth-and-nail en route to a 1-0 defeat.
And while losing better than expected isn't exactly reaching for the stars, for a TFC team that last year looked like it would be more comfortable playing two or three divisions below MLS, it's something.
Again, that's just the situation the club has put itself in.
The next step is to find the types of players that can not only help TFC be competitive, but also the types that can win some games for the club. Payne has been open about his desire to have these types come from south (as in Central and South America) rather than from east (where expensive European players can hamper a MLS team's limited salary budget).
After weeks in which it seemed like the club was doing exactly the opposite -- Bostock and already signed Robert Earnshaw and Hogan Ephraim, despite each player's considerable talents, are all choices that TFC would have made under nearly every other previous regime -- the signs are pointing to reinforcements with a more Latin flavour.
Hondurans Alfredo Mejia and Ricardo Barrios are being targeted, and a long-rumoured Argentinean "young DP" -- reported to be striker Maximiliano Urruti of Newell's Old Boys -- appears to be more than just a fleeting promise.
"We're always looking to improve the squad and we always will be," Nelsen said. "No matter what, we'll never stand still here. Whether they're Argentinean players or players from the deepest, darkest depths of Alaska, we're always searching the world for good players to make this club better."
Whether these players and the current roster can propel the team into success, only time will tell. But for the first time in a long while, the club's leaders are being upfront and open about what's lacking and what it will take to finally get the franchise over the hump.
"It's talent," Nelsen stated. "It's trying to recruit talent, trying to recruit under a skewed salary cap, and it's a fun challenge."
Fair or not, part of Nelsen's challenge will be to put together a group that shows considerable improvement by season's end. The foundations seem to be falling into place, but in the end it will only be the results that matter.
The clock is ticking.