Welcome to Partially Obstructed View. We are each restrained by the limits of our own perspective, but when we meet to share information a clearer picture of the truth can be revealed. Comments & criticisms are welcome.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

In Defence of MoJo

    Today marks the one-year anniversary of the firing of Mo Johnston as Director of Soccer at Toronto FC. While others will revel in the demise of the man, his tenure deserves a closer examination.

    Beginning with personnel decisions, key to the success of any organization, Mo did a good job of bringing in players that should have done a job for the fledgling franchise. Proven MLS experience in the form of Edson Buddle, Conor Casey, Jeff Cunningham, Alecko Eskandarian, and Carlos Ruiz, all solid goal-scorers in the league that did not find form here, most of whom went on to further success elsewhere in the league.

    He stocked the rest of the pitch with players of a similar pedigree: Tyrone Marshall was an experienced, successful MLS defender still in the league with Seattle; Richard Mulrooney, another league champion who never caught on and left quickly; Ronnie O’Brien, a skillful provider whose time with the club was hampered by the dreadful turf and the injury suffered in the friendly against Aston Villa. He even set aside his differences with Amado Guevara, gifting TFC fans their most skilled – if mercurial – player at a bargain price.

    His international imports were spotty at best, but that is the nature of the beast, no club has guaranteed success when reaching for foreign players; there could be no Danny Dichio without the occasional Andy Welsh. Mo also brought in Carl Robinson, the classiest player to grace the BMO pitch, someone who should have been built around and should still be with the club in some capacity. Collin Samuel, Laurent Robert, Rohan Ricketts, Olivier Tébily, Pablo Vitti, and Marco Velez all had pedigree of a certain level and should have come off better for the club.

    Perhaps if anything Johnston could be criticized for how often he responded to the cries of the fans by bringing in Dwayne De Rosario, Julian de Guzman and Ali Gerba with promises and dollar signs rather than good will and passion.

    The inability to formulate a cohesive plan was also a detriment as the suck-it-and-see approach is never a solid grounding for progression. Too often there was an air of desperation surrounding player movements. The drafting and subsequent trading of Sam Cronin, Pat Phelan, Julius James, Andy Boyens, and O’Brian White – all players who still command a place in the league – did at times seem a scatter gun approach

    On the coaching side, having stepped down after the first season, Mo brought in John Carver, a passionate Geordie and cohort of the great Sir Bobby Robson, who should have found success, but he could not handle the idiosyncrasies of MLS and so he left.  Preki was proven in MLS, but the locker room and changing nature of the league caught up with him and his defense first policy too.

    One could argue that no player or coach in the history of Toronto FC has truly had a chance to succeed. Rumour of dressing room unrest, and cliques have never been properly examined and a rotten camp is not a place to succeed.

    In part Mo’s hands were tied with the Canadian requirements of the roster rules at the time. Players such as Marco Reda, Chris Pozniak, Adam Braz, Stephen Lumley, and Andrea Lombardo – to name a few – were clearly not up for the task. Vancouver has been spared this desolation by changes to the mandated stipulations. Though he did by the process of trial and error manage to create some Canadian heroes for the TFC fans to savour and pass on. Gabe Gala scoring against Real Madrid will go down in club folklore; the evolution of Nana Attakora – the longest serving member of the squad – from gangly teen to solid defender was a joy to watch, though Nana’s progression has stalled with this year’s unnamed troubles.

    The masterstroke was the acquisition of Jimmy Brennan as the club’s first signing and captain. Enticing Jimmy to return from England was the beginning of a long and strong tradition, a bond between club and fans. Something that will serve the club well as the academy system comes to fruition and local talent is developed for club and country.

    In TFC’s short history there has seemed to be significant difficulty in getting players who wanted to play north of the border. Conor Casey, Paulo Nagamura, Todd Dunivant, and Canadian Kevin Harmse, all sought to return to the US, a trend that continued post-Mo as Nick LaBrocca and Alan Gordon left for Southern California this season. Whether financial, climatological or immigrational, these difficulties have hampered the development of the team more than any outsider can know.

    One thing that Mo must be credited with is navigating well the labyrinthine rules of MLS. Beginning with the expansion draft, continuing through SuperDrafts and sly trades for players and allocation money, Johnston was able to seek out bargains and select gems; where would the current side be without Stefan Frei?

    The constant allegations of shady dealings with agencies are yet to emerge to the general public, perhaps that air of misdealing is what did him in in the end and will continue to cause the most harm to his legacy. But to be honest, MLS is full of peculiarities that border on the cloak and dagger. Allocation money; grandfathered contracts; player lotteries; SUM; the league is built to be brilliantly confusing. In the future these early days of the league will be seen as a veritable Wild West, and Mo carried a big gun.

    Mo was caught between the changing natures of the league from MLS 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond. In the early days clubs could skate by on a key signing or two, solid MLS players, some up-and-comers and a few unheralded outsiders – Chicago Fire, the last and only expansion side to win the championship, did that very thing - but the league was changing, DPs, youth structure, expanding talent bases and shrinking playoff opportunities.

    The real fault lies with the entire organization, Real Salt Lake, the closest expansion cousins to TFC era – Chivas USA, who also joined MLS in 2004 is a whole other case entirely – only found success after building a multi-header soccer brain-trust comprised primarily of Dave Checketts, Garth Lagerway, and Jason Kreis that bounced ideas and challenged each other. Mo was left there all alone to build the franchise – no high profiles assistants, very little organization, and no scouting network or youth setup to work with. Perhaps it is no surprise that he relied on outsourced information.

    Though he had a history of withstanding criticism – namely, for crossing the great divide - maybe he didn’t expect what he got here – Toronto is a tough sports market, especially compared to that which one would have faced in New York and Kansas City in the earlier days of MLS; perhaps the reason he has never sought a role in the game back in Scotland is that he wanted to be out of the limelight of media scrutiny.

    A quick examination of other expansion sides in the same era – Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, and San Jose Earthquakes – reveals there was very little success to be had in those early days.

    Chivas still appear to be a marketing faux pas, no stadium, no fans, very little success – other than playoff berths under Bob Bradley and Preki.

    Salt Lake took until their fourth season – the second under Kreis – to find any success, and despite current struggles look to be a solid club with a decent fan base and a new stadium.

    San Jose went with Frank Yallop – possibly the only other candidate to lead Toronto FC into the league, though at the time he was managing the LA Galaxy – but have only found moderate success, making the playoffs last year – their third since rebirth – only to fall back down this season. A small, if passionate group of supporters, still playing at a tiny university stadium - though construction has begun on their own ground – haunted by a lengthy list of failed imports reminiscent of TFC’s track record.

    Does any of these – other than Salt Lake, who won their 2009 championship after sneaking into the playoffs at TFC’s expense due to the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the pathetic Red Bulls in New Jersey – sound like a better proposition than the TFC situation?

    There was an interview Mo did with BBC Scotland upon being inducted into the SFA Hall of Fame; it revealed a very different person from the one presented in local media. He was jovial, laughing, talkative and happy, something he never was in the eyes of the Toronto media. That was what truly caused his downfall, without the proper portrayal of the realities of the situation he became the de facto scapegoat for the angst of a passionate supporters group who could not rally against the faceless corporation that had long doomed Toronto sports; they could however chant against the quiet man who had already been labeled a traitor (or trader) in most quarters.

    There is a lot of naysaying but who would - or could - have done better? There is yet to be a candidate put forward that would not have made the mistakes Mo did.

    In time the view on Mo’s reign, though tainted, may soften. Amongst all the negativity he did accomplish several important milestones, while breaking ground for the formative club. He connected the fans with the team through player acquisitions – Brennan and Dichio; forever legends immortalized on the Wall of Honour. He brought a grass pitch to BMO Field; essential for the club to move forward – precipitated by the sale of a player he drafted, Mo Edu, to a club he had a pre-existing relationship with, Glasgow Rangers – and through that act he demonstrated to MLSE the viability and importance of the academy and the business venture contained within, which will give Toronto FC their best chance of becoming a powerhouse and producing players for themselves and the national side.

    Should a man who accomplished these important steps in the face of so much negativity and opposition continue to be derided now that he’s gone? Time will tell how the legacy of Mo Johnston’s tenure at the head of TFC will be viewed, even in sports, results are not the end all and be all of the story, sometimes it’s how one gets there and what is done along the way that matters.


  1. As a Blizzard reader and a TFC season ticket holder... You might be the first pro-MoJo argument I've read in a long time. I knew upon his signing he had a track record of unearthing talent very well but when you frame the whole MoJo era like that, you make one hell of an arguement.

    Well done.

  2. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Glad to see a fellow Blizzard and TFC fan visit the site. Cheers, James

  3. I think that many a TFC fan can look back in anger and fondness at the Mo era. If nothing else it was a damn more exciting time to be a TFC fan than it is today. We were soo close in 2009 and it's hard to point at any one thing but unfortunately, many of the fan base had already made up their mind.

    I think your article is more than accurate. I've rarely seen as much vitriol spewed at someone than what Mo suffered while he was here. Much of it on speculation. His coaches and players, as you say, dragged him down and made him their scapegoat. Further to that, our good friend PB, was like a rat on a sinking ship when Mo was going down with it like the Captain.

    Now, we've lapsed into the classic Toronto sports model where it can take 10 years to build potentially a capable team but the goal is changed every three.

  4. The only time Mojo made the playoffs in NY, was when he took over a team in mid season. After that, nothing, even though he had full seasons and training camps to work with.

    The fulility simply continued in Toronto, year after year.

    I agree that when he came to Toronto the player limits made it more difficult that it may be today.

    However, I have a hard time giving him any credit at all, after 6 years running, of failure at 2 clubs.. that's a pretty hard record of futility to beat, and possibly an impossible to to beat and remain employed.

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