TORONTO — Under John Herdman, the Canadian men's soccer team talked proudly — and often — of the brotherhood within the squad.
"We believe within our group," veteran midfielder Jonathan Osorio said on the eve of Canada's opening game against Belgium at the World Cup in Qatar. "With the quality that we have and our brotherhood we can go as far as we want to go.''
"We know it's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of smart work all over the pitch," added veteran defender Steven Vitoria. "Our brotherhood's going to be tested. But we're excited for all of it.''
Fast forward 11 months and Herdman is now in charge of the worst team in Major League Soccer. Toronto FC closed out its worst-ever season with a 2-0 loss to visiting Orlando City SC on Saturday.
And while Toronto's club motto is "All for One," Herdman quickly learned he has inherited a fractured mess.
Osorio, who leads all Toronto players with 341 games played in all competitions, lifted the curtain on the team a little when asked whether there was a brotherhood this season at the MLS club.
"The truth is no," he said after the Orlando loss. "We didn't do a good job of all sticking together. There's reasons for that, many reasons for why that happened. But I think at some point it became too much. The group wasn't together. There wasn't brotherhood.
"John coming in now, he's working on that and, to be honest, in the last two weeks (under Herdman) the team seemed more together than in a long time after everything that has gone on this year. But yeah, there's a lot of work to do in that sense."
Captain Michael Bradley, who played his last game Saturday before retirement, hinted of the locker-room division when asked prior to the game about what went on behind the scenes this season.
"We were trying to take a club with really big expectations, take a group of players with a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different experiences and a lot of different levels of motivation, ambition. And we were trying to make a team," he said.
"That's what it always is. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it works really well … in other moments, you don't have the right group. You don't have the right people."
Herdman says it will take three months to start ridding the team of the "arguments and the backbiting that's been going on ... so they actually want to work and play for each other."
"But we still need to add quality to this group. There's no doubting that," he added. "We need to add some quality in different positions."
Toronto (4-20-10) lost seven straight and won just one of its last 21 games (1-17-3) in finishing a season that set franchise-low records for wins (four), points (22) and wins on the road (zero). At 0-18-1, Toronto also was worst in the league when conceding the first goal of a game.
Changes are coming.
"I provoked the players to say, 'If you want to be here next year, you better be all in,'" Herdman said Saturday after the game.
"There's some players tonight (that) showed what they could be next season," he added. "And some that have showed that maybe they're not right for this club."
Herdman said he finds himself in the same predicament as in 2011 when he took over a Canadian women's team that had just finished last at the World Cup in Germany.
"Do I give these guys the chance to redeem themselves? Or do we completely look at trying to change it and rebuilding it?"
While Herdman officially took over the team Oct. 1, he and his staff watched the two road games that followed from the stands as interim coach Terry Dunfield ran the team. Herdman took over training during the international break that preceded the Orlando contest and was on the sideline for the first time for the season finale.
Changes were quick to see.
Herdman, his staff and the substitutes stood arm in arm on the sideline during the anthems. And during the game, Herdman was in perpetual motion in the coach's box, his body shifting to get a better view of the action.
He pulled out a whiteboard at one point to offer fullback Kobe Franklin a visual of what he wanted. And when Federico Bernardeschi went to take a corner at the southwest corner of the pitch, Herdman sprinted halfway down to the corner flag to shout instructions.
It was advice the 20-year-old Franklin was likely more receptive to than the 29-year-old Bernardeschi, an experienced Italian international who won seven titles - three Serie A, two Coppa Italia and two Suppercoppa Italiana - in five years with Juventus before coming to Toronto.
The future of Bernardeschi and fellow Italian Lorenzo Insigne remains to be settled. Their combined salaries of US$21.7 million produced nine goals and nine assists this season.
Consider that Orlando rookie forward Duncan McGuire, who scored both goals off the bench Saturday and has produced 13 goals and three assists at a cost of $77,360 this season. And the fact that 20-year-old Deandre Kerr tied Bernardeschi for the team lead in goals this season (five) — having played eight fewer games — at a cost of $90,767.
The blame can't all be left on the Italians, even if their body language came across as more petulant than productive at times.
Bob Bradley, fired as coach and sporting director in late June, and Dunfield never found a forward to complement the Italians.
Toronto tried Kerr, Adama Diomande, C.J. Sapong, Ayo Akinola, Hugo Mbongue, Jordan Perruzza, Prince Owusu and Cassius Mailula at forward this season.
The end result was TFC tied Colorado for the worst offence in the league with just 26 goals in 34 games. That's one less than Toronto's franchise low of 25 in its inaugural 2007 season and 48 fewer that the club scored in its treble-winning campaign of 2017.
It seems Herdman will hold the Italians more accountable next season, providing they are still here. He said their "unforced errors" have to change.
On Saturday, both Italians contributed on defence, whereas in the past they might lose the ball and then stop, throwing their hands in the air, rather than try to get it back.
"I'm taking all that information in," said Herdman. "And I think in a better context with a better build and a lead-in, I think we can get these players fully committed and dialed in.
"But at the end of the day they have to be ready to win for this club."
Still it speaks volumes that a Toronto franchise that just completed its 17th season is studying FC Cincinnati, a team that came on board to 2019, to see how it went from three years in the league basement to climbing to 10th last season and first this year.
Unlike his 12 years with Canada Soccer, Herdman essentially has unlimited resources at TFC with well-heeled Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment as owner. While acknowledging he has to operate within the MLS salary cap budget, Herdman says it is "refreshing" to have what he needs off the field.
It's what's on it that requires heaving lifting.
"We're just not delivering on the pitch," said Herdman.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press