Steve Davis
Friday September 17th, 2010

Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis was 5-12-7 in his first 24 matches as coach in Utah. But he worked at it, improved, helped put the right pieces in place and won the 2009 MLS crown. Kreis now presides over the best team of the moment in MLS.

Only one team has more points today than Real Salt Lake, the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Galaxy are coached by Bruce Arena, who was just a little better in his first 24 games after inheriting a stink bomb. He was 8-10-6 for 30 points. Not awful, but not much to shout about.

Just below those teams in the Western Conference standings today sits FC Dallas, a side on a team-record 15-game unbeaten run. Coach Schellas Hyndman was 5-10-9 (25 points) in his first 24 games as he got his MLS feet about him.

Anyone see where we're going with this? Think about those humble beginnings as we trace a brief history of Toronto FC, a fourth-year club that made big news with a pair of high-profile dismissals earlier this week, 24 games into the current season.

For four years, Mo Johnston ran Toronto's soccer operations. First, he was its coach before subsequently pulling the personnel levers as director of soccer.

And he wasn't great at it. But Johnston is a convivial fellow who gets along with everybody and was once a respected player, one who even had a place in history as a Catholic player at historically Protestant Scottish giant Rangers. So even when his wandering assortment of player swaps and acquisitions failed to bear fruit, he generally continued to get the benefit of the doubt. He's Mo Johnston, he knows what he's doing. Right?

And yet the results never measured up, which was maddening for a merry band of fans who loved Toronto's newest pro team and showed up in droves to prove it. The stadium rocked -- even if the team was frequently stinking up the joint.

When Preki came aboard as coach last November, there finally seemed to be a figure in charge who "got it," a man with the juice and the guts to tame Johnston's personnel wanderlust. It's about accountability on the field, about hard work, about playing the game the winning way -- which wasn't always the pretty way, but you can't have everything. Well, unless you want to spend like the Red Bulls, but that's a different debate.

At any rate, it wasn't about personnel churn. It wasn't about looking for the next magic pill of a player.

Preki managed to make steak from a hamburger budget at Chivas USA. It wasn't the tastiest steak -- his teams made the playoffs but never won there -- but it was edible. So he came to Toronto in the offseason and started filtering. Always an unyielding authoritarian, he ran off players whom he deemed unwilling to put in the necessary work.

Upper management at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a group with a proven ability to make money in pro sports but a less-distinguished mark of building winners, had seemed to get it right.

Until they got it wrong. They "cleaned house," in the popular vernacular, earlier this week by firing Johnston and Preki. So we'll never know if the Preki Way would have profited over the longer haul.

The dismissals deserve to be examined individually. Johnston, frankly, had his chance. His inability to develop a doctrine of pick-and-stick became his undoing; he was never able to select a bunch of players and then leave it all alone long enough to grow into something. BMO Field was practically a bus depot at times under his watch; the club used 29 players in Johnston's first season as director of soccer, in 2008, a number that approached an MLS record for player transiency in one season.

The bottom line, of course, was in a failure to guide the franchise into the playoffs. No MLS team yet has required more than four seasons in existence to break the postseason seal. And just one club previously has missed the playoffs four seasons in a row, as TFC seems bound to do.

But to fire Preki just 24 games into his first season? That's almost as bad as D.C. United's wildly premature dismissal of Curt Onalfo last month after just 18 games.

Preki's 7-10-7 record is better than Kreis' mark or Hyndman's mark over the same entry period, and just a little worse than Arena's. TFC's positioning in the playoff chase (ninth, or one out of the playoff zone) is a problem. But what did management realistically expect?

Preki was a no-nonsense authoritarian, and he's not an easy man to play for. But all this talk of player mutiny and how Preki "lost the team" sounds rather dubious. Every team has a few malcontents. They are usually the ones sitting on the end of the bench, mumbling to anyone who will listen about how the coach doesn't know what he's doing.

Julian de Guzman, the team's highest-paid player, wasn't complimentary to Preki. But should a man be throwing stones who has no goals and just two assists this year? That is a pitifully light return for designated-player money. He has clearly failed to generate the impact he was signed to create.

Mista is the team's other DP. The veteran Spanish striker has no goals in eight MLS appearances. Good work if you can get it.

The bottom line is that players can't make these choices. That's inmates-running-the-asylum type stuff. Upper management picks the coaching staff. The coaching staff picks the players. It's that simple. The whole thing breaks down when it doesn't work that way.

Let's hope this isn't a trend, this premature unseating of coaches on a wobbly platform of unrealistic expectations. The mess at BMO, like the mess at D.C. United, took years to create. And it won't be mopped up in a week or a month. Red Bulls assistant Richie Williams (one of the names surely to be considered at BMO; he'll get his own MLS coaching post at some point) talked Thursday about expectations in a league where the quality keeps rising.

This isn't the MLS of five years ago. And it's certainly not the MLS of 10 years back, when a team in a ditch could be extracted much quicker. Organizations are further down the line now in terms of figuring it all out. Most of them, anyway.

Williams admitted that he had no special knowledge of Toronto's situation, only that he had read the same reports of player discontent.

"You never really know about these situations unless you're inside the locker room yourself," Williams said. "But I can tell you that what happened at D.C. was ridiculous. You have to give guys a chance."

Toronto at Houston (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET): Last chance at the playoff saloon? Houston may have already tossed in the towel where any realistic hopes are concerned, having just traded veteran midfielder Brian Mullan, who was among the linchpins of Dynamo championship teams in 2006 and 2007. Toronto would seem to be better positioned for a late, dramatic charge -- until you notice that four of the side's remaining six are on the road, where TFC has just one win this season. Any lingering thread of hope for either side depends on claiming all three points at Robertson Stadium on Saturday.

New England at Colorado (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET): The Rapids' playoff fate rests on picking off enough points over their remaining seven matches to stay ahead of the pursuers. They got aggressive before Thursday's trade deadline, adding Mullan from Houston and New York's Mac Kandji. Mullan seems like the prize here; he's played well for Houston over the last few weeks and he's exactly the kind of player Colorado coach Gary Smith needs. He'll put his heels on the touchline, stretch defenses laterally and bust a gut to get up and down the field.

D.C. United at Los Angeles (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET): Who cares if United is lousy this year or if the Galaxy have their playoff admission slip safely tucked away? There's still some romance in this matchup. This was the title-game matchup in the league's inaugural 1996 season, and the teams own six of the 14 previous MLS Cup crowns. Either way, David Beckham figures to see the field again Saturday, his second appearance since returning from the six-month injury absence.

Seattle at Columbus (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET): The playoff race at the top of the standings may lack drama, with several teams snug. But the Supporters Shield chase (for most points in the regular season) doesn't lack for excitement. If Columbus is going to catch Los Angeles, three points at home in this one would be a major boost. Meanwhile, Seattle is the most vulnerable among three sides that are set to make the playoffs but still have work ahead to secure their spots for good.

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