'It's a big opportunity': John Herdman unfazed by daunting challenge of Toronto FC rebuild
It’s safe to say that John Herdman has his work cut out for him at Toronto FC.
After being hired as the newest TFC bench boss at the end of August, the former CanWNT and CanMNT manager has had the chance to observe his new job from afar ahead of his start date of October 1st.
Now, however, as the calendar has flipped to October, the real work has now begun for the longtime international manager, who has now officially begun his transition to the club game as of this week.
He won’t officially take over on the sideline of Toronto quite yet - Terry Dunfield remains the interim manager while Herdman and his new staff will begin an embedding process of sorts - but this week essentially marks the beginning of Herdman’s tenure.
There, the goal is simple for Herdman - help bring Toronto FC back to its former glory, starting with next season.
John Herdman talks with captain Michael Bradley during first training session with Toronto FC. Herdman was an observer as interim coach Terry Dunfield ran practice. #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/VEo4DLpH4L— Neil Davidson (@NeilMDavidson) October 2, 2023
And given that TFC is already eliminated from this year’s playoffs, and is guaranteed to finish without a trophy for a fourth season in five years, that work will start right away for Herdman, who can use this rest of the season as a launchpad for 2024.
Because of that, Herdman has not wasted any time in wanting to get down to business. Already, he has a clear idea of what needs to be taken care of before his plan really starts to go into motion next year, and the biggest one is to reset the culture.
Having inherited a fractured group, one that has reportedly seen its fair share of in-fighting and drama this season, Herdman certainly knows what awaits him off the field.
That’s why he was hired, as this isn’t the first time he’s dealt with a project like this, with the success that he had with the CanMNT proving to be just one example of what he can do to help reset a culture on a team that needs it.
“Well, culture is just the way we live, so it’s about living with a mentality to train to win,” Herdman told Toronto FC’s YouTube channel this week. “That's what culture is, and it’s right at the core of any success of a team, it’s the team spirit, it’s the trust that we're living in a certain way that you inculcate across a group of people, across an organization, across a fan base. And when that trust is there, then you can get into tactical excellence, people doing their jobs to the best of their ability, because they know they’re safe.”
“So when we talk about culture, it's a process, it’s part of a high-performance framework where you’re building an environment where people trust each other, and that allows them to be at their best. So there's a lot of parts we're going to work on here, the trust will be one aspect of the culture, and then the tactical identity will go hand in hand.”
Yet, as Herdman mentioned there, while the culture remains key to success, the product on the field is also going to need a lot of work, as this Toronto team has underperformed massively despite making several big moves heading into the year.
Currently sitting with just 22 points in 31 MLS games this season, TFC is now four points clear at the bottom of the table, as they look likely to claim the Wooden Spoon thanks to a recent Colorado Rapids resurgence.
After finishing second-last in 2022 with 34 points, and second-last in 2021 with 28 points, there’s no doubt that this TFC team is going to need a lot of work to return to the glory of the past.
In particular, they’ll need to clean up their defence, as they’ve allowed the second-most goals in the league with 51, which is somehow an improvement on their last two seasons, where they finished with 66 goals against in each campaign.
Then, from there, they need to figure out how to score some goals, as they’ve got the second-fewest goals in the league with 26, after scoring 39 in 2021 and 49 in 2022, which is a big surprise given some of the attacking signings they’ve made over the last year and a half.
First day ✅ pic.twitter.com/VbTlZAfSQo— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) October 2, 2023
Plus, showing how much work they’ve got to do in both categories, they sit last in xG against and second-last in xG for, just further showing how deep their struggles at both ends are.
Lastly, they’ve got to figure out a tactical identity, as they’ve often looked out of ideas in possession, sloppy defensively and not willing to put in the work on both sides of the ball that you need to succeed in this new era of MLS, perhaps helping explain those numbers.
Of course, as Herdman mentions, that’ll come from fixing the team’s culture, as it’s hard to have a coherent tactical plan when not everyone is pulling in the same direction, no matter how talented your team is, but it’s still important to build a strong game model.
Despite all of that, however, Herdman remains unfazed by this task. As he knows, in MLS, even inheriting a situation like TFC’s doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail.
Just look at this year’s Supporters Shield winners, FC Cincinnati, who have put up one of the most dominant seasons in MLS history, doing well to follow up a 2022 season where they made the playoffs for the first time in club history.
After finishing in last place in 2019, 2020 and 2021, picking up just 60 points across 91 games, it’s been a remarkable turnaround for them, as they’ve now become one of the teams to beat in the league after being an afterthought for so long.
So for TFC, they’ll look to follow a similar path, as they look to return to the days when they were once that sort of team, such as when they claimed the Supporters Shield, MLS Cup and Canadian Championship treble in 2017.
Herdman hopes he can now be key in that turnaround, making sure his gamble to take this job pays off, knowing what’s at stake for him now here.
“It's a privilege,” Herdman admitted. “I think that's the starting point, to represent the city, represent these fans, again, but in a different capacity. It’s a big opportunity that sits here for me, not to bring a club back to its former glory, say, but it's about seeing a bigger future, and seeing what else we can pioneer at Toronto FC.”
“I think it's a club that has the fan base and the resources, which is why this is a perfect opportunity to step into this next stage of my career and to go and do something special.”