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Toronto FC, no stranger to drama and power struggles, looks for wins and some harmony

Toronto FC is no stranger to drama or power struggles over the years. In 2014, the MLS club fired manager Ryan Nelsen and virtually his entire coaching staff in the wake of Nelsen's public dressing down of then-general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.
Toronto FC’s Federico Bernardeschi is seen during MLS action against New York Red Bulls in Toronto on Wednesday May 17, 2023.Toronto FC is no stranger to drama or power struggles over the years and has aired its dirty laundry again. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Toronto FC is no stranger to drama or power struggles over the years.

In 2014, the MLS club fired manager Ryan Nelsen and virtually his entire coaching staff in the wake of Nelsen's public dressing down of then-general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. The dismissal, with unhappy star striker Jermain Defoe in the background, was effectively engineered by Bezbatchenko, who had summoned local reporters two days earlier to challenge his team "to take it up a notch."

TFC was 9-9-6, one place out of the playoffs, when the axe fell on Nelsen, who had inherited a perennial loser of a franchise with a 45-88-45 career MLS record when he took over in January 2013 — eight months before Bezbatchenko was appointed.

Nelsen accused Bezbatchenko of effectively sabotaging his own team by unnecessarily raising the stakes before a match that was not crucial.

"What we do at Toronto FC is we keep it in-house — everything we do, we keep inside the four walls. And the players, coaching staff, everything, stays within the four walls," said Nelsen, who was promptly canned.

Fast forward nine years and TFC is once again airing its dirty laundry in public, this time with Italian star winger Federico Bernardeschi leading the way.

Bernardeschi's thinly veiled criticism of coach Bob Bradley following a 1-0 loss in Austin on May 20 has opened a Pandora's box.

TFC president Bill Manning dug deep into MLSE pockets to bring Bernardeschi and fellow Italian star Lorenzo Insigne to Toronto midway through last season. Manning also hired Bradley as head coach and sporting director in November 2021 after a disastrous 6-18-10 season.

Given he was in charge of bringing all three to Toronto, coupled with the fact that Bob Bradley's son Michael is Toronto's long-standing captain, Manning now finds himself embroiled in a tangled web of loyalties. 

Like Bezbatchenko, Bernardeschi lit a fuse with his post-game comments in Austin.

"I think this city, the fans, everybody, don't deserve this," he said in English "And I think maybe we need to change something. We need a little bit more tactics. We need an idea how we play, because this is the real problem for me. It's impossible to play like this when we play without (an) idea ... We need the idea of football."

It seemed odd that the 65-year-old Bradley, a three-time MLS coach of the year who has worked in leagues around the globe in addition to running the U.S. and Egyptian national teams, might not have an idea of football. Only New England's Bruce Arena and the late Sigi Schmid have more career MLS wins than Bradley.

Asked about the comment, Bradley said: "In football people have different ideas. Not everybody sees the game the same way."

Bernardeschi's benching — a "coach's decision" rather than disciplinary action following the Italian's outburst, according to Bradley — is said to be for one game only. Bernardeschi didn't go quietly, doubling down with a social media post listing the club statistical categories he was leading or near the top of.

The two crossed paths after Saturday's 2-1 victory over D.C. United as they entered the tunnel to the Toronto dressing room. Video of the moment seemed to indicate an acknowledgment of sorts between them, with Bradley leading the way.

"This doesn't necessarily change all the feelings right not but it's definitely a positive that we can focus on and hopefully build on for Wednesday (against Chicago)," midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, choosing his words carefully, said after the win.

Asked if there were still issues to be resolved behind the scenes, Kaye said: "I don't think that's my place to comment on."

Toronto (3-5-7) hosts the Chicago Fire (3-4-7) on Wednesday. The Fire have won one of four league outings (1-1-2) since firing coach Ezra Hendrickson on May 8.

Damage has been done in Toronto. A lot of mud flew last week as lieutenants on both sides of the score looked to make their case.

A win on the weekend helped staunch the flow of bile, however. Boos turned into cheers Saturday as Bradley's team played like it had something to prove with Insigne, showing none of the petulant body language he has exhibited at times in the past, setting up both goals.

Sorting out Bernardeschi is just one of the challenges facing Bradley.

While the off-season addition of goalkeeper Sean Johnson and defenders Matt Hedges, Sigurd Rosted and Raoul Petretta have bolstered the defence, only Johnson has stayed healthy.

Bradley has been forced to use 24 different starters this season. His preferred midfield of Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Kaye has not played together since an April 8 scoreless draw at Nashville.

He has yet to find the right forward to occupy the middle between the Italians, with C.J. Sapong, Deandre Kerr, Ayo Akinola and the oft-injured Adama Diomande all getting a shot.

And the squad's depth is thin, with the supporting cast talented but young.

Saturday's win was a step in the right direction, albeit against a D.C side that looked so poor that manager Wayne Rooney opted for a triple-change in first-half stoppage time.

Kaye managed to say a lot without naming names after the win when asked how difficult it was to perform given all the outside noise.

"It's a challenge, I'm not going to lie," said the Canadian international. "But I'm proud of everyone who played today, who showed up today. Even the reserves, the subs. You could feel the energy from everyone. And that's part of being a professional athlete, there's some weight and pressure you have to carry at certain times, when things are going good and things are going bad.

"Obviously we can sleep a little bit better tonight, but we still have a lot of work in front of us." 

It was page straight out of Bob Bradley's book.

"This week there was a lot of work (done), I told you that. There'll still be a lot of work next week," the coach said Saturday.

Insigne, meanwhile, said post-game that he was happy with both the club and coach, leaving his fellow Italian squarely on Bernardeschi island.

Bradley, whose regular-season record at TFC's helm is 12-23-14, has often said turning Toronto around will take time.

"I've said this other weeks, I'll say it again. It's all about wins. It's all about results," he said in a terse post-match availability Saturday. "And I've said that when you step into a situation — big project, small project, medium project — you still have to show results.

"And when you show results, then confidence and understanding, those kinds of things, start to be developed. Then you start to feel like guys are all coming together."

The 2014 drama in TFC land eventually led to success despite Defoe returning to England after just one season. Bezbatchenko handed the keys to the team to Greg Vanney, who led the team to three MLS Cup finals including a championship win in 2017. 

TFC's next chapter remains to be written. 


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter


This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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