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The only crime is to be surprised




“And they expect you to be happy
And they expect you to be pleased
That you’ve only got the symptoms
You haven’t got the whole disease”
-Elvis Costello: “Tramp the Dirt Down”

Relationships are tricky, be they with your sweetie or your football team.

In the beginning, you enjoy some of the giddiest and freest moments of your life. That warm, magical bliss – a high so brilliant and clear you could easily spend the rest of your life just trying to get there again.

If you’re lucky, it lasts, grows, matures and settles in.

If you’re a Toronto FC fan, that didn’t happen.
[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
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And so it came to a cloudy, cool, swirling October Saturday. Ambling off the turf at Lamport Stadium, in the warehouse district north of BMO Field, members of the supporters’ group U-Sector had just wrapped up their weekly house league soccer matches.

As you might expect with TFC mired in ultimate last place, no one was too excited about that afternoon’s upcoming game against D.C. United. Some said, sure, they’d go. Others weren’t sure. Most seemed resigned – the duty you’d feel to another day on a job that really isn’t working for you.

A few of us settled in for food, drinks and drinks at the Red Patch Boys watering hole on King Street. Very few people there for a game day. Nothing you’d even optimistically call a buzz.

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Always, in relationships, stuff gets in the way. Childhood stuff, emotional stuff, things-you-can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-that-keep-mucking-stuff-up stuff. This stuff ends up ending most relationships, but it’s also manageable if there’s devotion both ways, and you’re willing to do a bit of honest self-learning and self-examination.

And then there are those sad, stomach-dropping times, when you gradually realize the object of your affection has some very deep and serious problems.

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I watched the match in the north end, with a young couple I know from Peterborough, Ontario. They actually met as TFC fans. He was trudging home from the bar after yet another loss. She saw his TFC scarf across a park, and called out “Did we win?” Along with Danny Dichio’s famous first goal, they’re probably the best thing Toronto FC has ever put together.

Her bright-eyed, curious six-year-old son was with us, more interested in red licorice Twizzlers than in the action on the pitch. Any why not, really? The Twizzlers delivered on their promise, and were good.

TFC sagged and sogged, and to absolutely no one’s surprise they eventually hair-balled up the game, on a brutal 88th-minute goaltending gaffe from Milos Kocic, who’s tried his blessed heart out all season, with little or no help – from anybody.

It didn’t even hurt that much, honestly. We were stunned by the magnitude of the mistake, but you can’t be surprised, can you?

At this point, among Toronto FC fans, the only real crime is to be surprised.

They went off to catch their train or maybe go to High Park, happily enjoying their day out. I went off to the post-game press conference, amused to discover – once I was undistracted and on my own – that I was getting really, really angry.

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Hey, we’ve all got problems, but sometimes all the figuring out and healing is being done only on one side. That’s when you begin to see that loving someone or something does not mean you’re getting loved in return.

You notice it’s you that’s making all the sacrifices. You notice it’s you that’s paying all the bills.

Occasionally, you speak up. You get shut down, frosted or ignored.

And you start a slow, dark, smouldering burn.

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By the time I got to the cinderblock bunker that is the BMO Field pressroom, I was seething. I actually told TFC press guy Mike Masaro not to let me ask any questions.

I’ve been trying to think of the right way to describe the way TFC coach/manager Paul Mariner enters a room after yet another bad loss. It’s a kind of float, oddly married to a slight jerky awkwardness. A bit Muppetish, really. (I mean no scorn by that. I love the Muppets.)

The first question (Dan Girard of the Toronto Star): “Paul, is there anything left to say?”

Mariner concedes that there really isn’t. He still praises his players, saying he asked them for hard work and commitment, and that he hadn’t seen them play that well in quite a while.

Really!?

I’m an inch away from thrusting up a hand, calling bullshit on Mariner, the team and the entire organization, and asking whether there’s anything at all the long-suffering fans of Toronto FC can actually look forward to for the coming season?

I’m tossing coins in my head (go/no-go; blurt/no-blurt), when John Molinaro of Sportsnet.ca saves me the trip:

“Paul, are you seeing anything out there that gives you encouragement looking ahead to next season?”

Again, Mariner praises the side, and says there’s nothing to be done about all the injuries. He talks about shape and strategy, even though he must know everyone in the room just saw TFC play yet another bland and largely shapeless game.

The conference ends abruptly. Compared to normal, very little has been asked, very little answered.

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TFC’s principle investors, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, have made three – possibly four – crippling mistakes since the franchise was granted in 2006:

- Hiring Mo Johnston to run the operation.
- Rehiring Mo Johnston after the Jersey Swamp debacle flushed the 2009 playoff push.
- Hiring Aron Winter to bring Total Football to BMO Field in 2011.

Tom Anselmi, MLSE’s head suit, has been overlooking Toronto FC since the get-go. He is deeply implicated in all three of these hideous, horn-honking howlers.

The possible fourth screech-job was the recent decision to bring Paul Mariner back for 2013.

There are many strong opinions, back-and-forth, both ways on this one.

Yes, the players responded well to Mariner initially, winning four games very quickly. But it’s also true they haven’t won any league matches since. Yes, the dressing room was much happier after Winter was ousted. No, it isn’t like that now.

I’ve heard people I really trust say that if TFC sacked Mariner now, no manager worth his salt would even answer the phone. This is yet another symptom of how deep this chasm really is.

But I’m having trouble seeing how they have any choice at all.

Mariner’s job, when he took over, really wasn’t to make the playoffs. Even four quick wins only barely nudged them back into vague contention, and that didn’t last long.

Mariner’s job was to get these guys playing together, and feeling like a team. It’s clearly evident now that he has totally failed to do this.

Now maybe he’s being hampered by the chronic toxic MLSE workplace environment that drove A-list Canadian stars Dwayne de Rosario and Julian de Guzman out of town.

Maybe he just doesn't have the wisdom and experience to run a pro soccer squad at this level.

Or maybe his players are tired of being YELLED AT!

ALL THE TIME!

If there were a TV show called Soccer Team Rescue, the decision to keep Mariner on would be the moment when the hot-headed expert explodes, turning to Anselmi and screaming “What are you doing??? Are you freaking kidding???”

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Outside Gate 4, a small group of angry fans were holding a sign comparing Mariner and the MLSE braintrust to Muppets. (They do mean scorn by that. And they love the Muppets.)

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I finally blew up in the parking lot.

Two friendly fellow scribes – whom I’ll decline to identify – were treated to a rough and colourful early draft of this very article. F-bombs were included at key moments.

And I wandered off up Dufferin Street, still bitter, still snarly, thinking about contrast.

Away from the pitch, while all this footy fantasy was going on, I truly came so far in six joyous years of positive thinking, building a lovely life – and a wonderful relationship! – forgiving and closing the door on old errors and anger.

… And this freak-beating soccer team can undo it completely – even when I’m having a lovely afternoon eating Twizzlers with dear friends.

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In the end, there is a choice.

Relationships end. Hearts move on.

No one could fairly blame any of the thousands of Toronto FC fans who have decided they just don’t want to pay more and more money every year for less and less joy.

The team they loved has a horrible, untreatable affliction – Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

For those fans who remain, the danger is clear.

By all means, give your heart, your time, your hopes, your cash. But be warned:

The only hope to fix this battered, battering relationship is change. And the team you love hasn’t changed.

And once again, the only crime is to be surprised.

Onward!


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