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How do Toronto FC respond to shambolic MLS season?

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TORONTO - Toronto FC's disastrous campaign is best defined by the salaries and sullenness of two Italian attackers.

Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi promised so much ahead of their first full seasons in Major League Soccer. But for $21.7 million in wages, they combined for nine goals and six primary assists over 51 outings. Former forward Tosaint Ricketts offered a very similar return to Insigne and Bernardeschi's output on his own for the club - and two-thirds of his MLS appearances were as a substitute. Ricketts' annual takings were under 1% of the Designated Players' 2023 salaries.

TFC threw all of the family silver at 2023. In return, the MLS franchise with the biggest payroll - until Lionel Messi's midseason arrival - won the wooden spoon. Bottom-placed Toronto FC signed off with 22 points and 26 goals over 34 regular season matches following Saturday's 2-0 home defeat to Orlando City. Shortly after the match kicked off, fans in the south stand unfurled a banner that read: "We are sick of it."

John Herdman took over as head coach at the start of October but observed two games under interim boss Terry Dunfield before taking charge of his first match against Orlando City. He already feels the supporters' frustrations.

"They're not putting up with that anymore. They'll accept, I think, a loss, but they won't accept the lack of effort. They don't accept guys sacking the game off partway through," said Herdman, who led Canada's women's team to two Olympic bronzes and the men's team to the 2022 World Cup.

Naturally, Insigne and Bernardeschi, who boast the second-highest and fifth-highest salary in the league, respectively, get the most scrutiny. The duo's on-pitch efforts for Toronto FC are certainly questionable, but their behavior on the training pitches has proved most controversial. The firing of head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley - the father of captain Michael Bradley - in June is widely blamed on the Italians for complaining about the elder Bradley's methods. This is despite the Designated Players themselves apparently not being close.

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In general, practice seemed miserable, and sometimes tempestuous, in 2023.

"We can raise quality by ensuring these guys trust each other more," Herdman said. "The arguments and the backbiting that's going on, it takes three months to start to dissolve that, so they actually want to work and play for each other."

The squad's confidence is dragging. Herdman went as far as to say that some players may require therapy. With the exception of Kobe Franklin and Alonso Coello, who emerged relatively unscathed from the disaster that unfolded in Ontario, Herdman is most concerned about the youngsters.

"I think that the club has to really regroup now and see where we have gone wrong in the last three years," Jonathan Osorio, the club's record appearance holder, told theScore about the lessons for Toronto FC. "What are the decisions being made that have gotten us to this point?

"I think the club has to analyze that deeply - deeply - this offseason. I don't think this was a season that just happened out of the blue. I think there's numerous things that have been happening over the years that have gotten us to this point."

The club has never recovered from ex-general manager Tim Bezbatchenko's decision to move to the Columbus Crew in 2019. The front-office staff that headed for the exit soon after made matters worse. Young players didn't get opportunities at TFC and thrived elsewhere. Before Chris Armas' ill-fated reign as head coach and the unsuccessful spell of fleet-footed attacker Yeferson Soteldo, a contract agreement with highly successful former head coach Greg Vanney collapsed.

Two figures who stuck around after the better times help explain the club's demise, too. Many supporters want Bill Manning - the president who infamously searched volunteer-run website Transfermarkt for players to sign - out of the club. Michael Bradley retired Saturday as perhaps the most important player in the club's history, but he should've been phased out of the team a few years ago. The skipper's send-off felt awkward. He faded, huffing and puffing, behind substitute Duncan McGuire as he surged forward for both of Orlando City's goals.

Osorio doesn't believe everything can be fixed in one offseason, but the standards are already being set. Herdman wants Supporters' Shield winners FC Cincinnati, whose wage bill ranked 21st out of 29 MLS franchises at $14.3 million, to be the benchmark. In the meantime, he's getting to work on changing the mentality with his trusted sports science staff and will try to recruit players who enhance squad morale, not damage it.

"Nobody enters this club from this point forward that isn't willing to give it all for that shirt," Herdman warned. "That jersey isn't going to be disrespected in any way, shape, or form in 2024."

In many ways, it's a clean slate. It's time to establish a new culture. Toronto FC lack clear elements - a certain playing style, approach to recruitment, and distinct club values - that define them. Now Bradley is retired, and Osorio is the only true emblem of the franchise. Nothing else has lasted over 17 MLS seasons.

Despite the heavy spending, the good times were fleeting. Toronto FC's heyday of winning the 2017 domestic treble before coming agonizingly close to CONCACAF Champions League glory occurred over a 42-week span. More trophies should've been won either side of that peak. It's even difficult to pinpoint one or two themes to TFC's failures because it's never a few things that go wrong; sparks fly and smoke billows when the franchise malfunctions. The 2023 season not only outdid the previous annus horribilis of 2012 due to its wretched numbers, it roundly thumped it because the gap between hopes and reality was so damn big.

"We should be at the top of the food chain just sharpening our teeth," Herdman said, "and we're not."

The new head coach's infectious positivity sparked some on-pitch improvement against a much-changed Orlando City lineup. But unless there are further changes to front-office personnel, or at least wholesale changes to its methods, Herdman's appointment will be like a surgeon bringing a box of Band-Aids into the operating room.

This offseason is a pivotal moment for Toronto FC. It's a time for the club to find its identity, an opportunity to determine an approach that ensures the spendthrift franchise gets its money's worth from now on.

Of course, that would be easier to achieve with Insigne and Bernardeschi off the payroll.

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