April 7, 2007 Toronto FC story on Mo Johnston's career (from Toronto Star)

Building Mo-mentum

Well-travelled FC coach has high hopes as debut season kicks off

Apr 07, 2007 04:30 AM
Morgan Campbell

CARSON, CALIF.–In the closing moments of yesterday's practice, Toronto FC head coach Mo Johnston spotted a ball just outside the 18-yard box and tried for the tenth time to score on starting goalie Greg Sutton. The previous nine shots had either sailed past the net or hit Sutton in his hands.

Johnston – who scored 14 goals in his international career – stepped back. Sutton crept forward. Johnston wound up as Sutton prepared to pounce.

The coach chipped a shot over Sutton's head and celebrated to himself as the ball trickled into the net.

His showdown with Sutton also revealed Johnston's approach to coaching: He works hard and perseveres but remembers to enjoy the game.

Johnston forged that philosophy during a pro career that spanned 20 years, four countries and one controversy. And as Toronto FC heads into its first-ever regular-season game tonight, Johnston hopes he has instilled that ethic in his team.

With Major League Soccer's website hyping the game against Chivas USA as "A Historic Matchup," stakes are high. And with FC's home games virtually sold out, hopes are just as high for the season.

Johnston knows his team is under pressure to win in a Toronto sports market that's unkind to losing teams, but he's comfortable sinking or swimming with his squad.

"I'm 100 per cent behind my guys in everything I do," said Johnston, who was 5-4-8 as coach of the New York Red Bulls before coming to Toronto. "I'll fight tooth and nail for everything they need. Breakfast. Lunches. A massage. No matter what happens, we're all in this together. If we sink, we sink together. That's not a problem for me.

"Will I kick their ass sometimes? Yes. But we're in a bonding period. I'm proud of what we have so far."

Media and fans in Scotland questioned that loyalty in the summer of 1989, when Johnston became the first Catholic to sign with Rangers, Glasgow's staunchly Protestant soccer club. Johnston had spent three seasons in the mid-1980s with Celtic, the town's Catholic club. After two years in France, Johnston announced he would return to Celtic, then signed with Rangers. Celtic asked FIFA to investigate the signing, and Johnston was fined $7,000 (Canadian) for reneging on his commitment.

But colleagues and former teammates never doubted Johnston's loyalty on the field.

Chivas USA coach Predrag Radosavljevic – known professionally as Preki – played with Johnston with Everton in the early 1990s, and then in Kansas City of MLS. He remembers his former teammate as a competitive striker with a fun streak.

"He was always funny and outgoing," Preki says. "He used to like a good laugh and a good drink, but that's okay.

"We were teammates but we weren't really close pals. But we respected each other. When we went on the field we understood each other."

Toronto assistant coach Bob Gansler coached Johnston when Johnston came to Kansas City in 1996. Johnston played more games with Kansas City (149) than any other team in his career. Gansler said the team valued not only Johnston's scoring touch – 31 goals in seven seasons – but his willingness to serve as a surrogate coach.

"He was an example of how high-profile players who come to our league from overseas should be," Gansler says. "He came to train hard every day and play hard every game, but it's the little things. A word here. A bit of advice there. A pat on the back. He was very generous with veterans and young players alike."

Rookie midfielder Rich Asante says Johnston helped ease his transition from college soccer to MLS. Asante, a fourth-round draft pick from Syracuse, struggled at times when training camp opened in February. He says Johnston noticed all his rookie mistakes, and his small triumphs, too, and would encourage Asante either way.

"He expects a lot of his players, but I love him as a coach," Asante said.

But don't misunderstand it. Johnston still doesn't mess around. Ask Loes Andrade.

The Portuguese midfielder joined the team for a tryout last week and started a pre-season game against the Red Bulls. After 15 minutes and one New York goal, Johnston had already made up his mind. Andrade hasn't been seen since.

Playing 21 years taught Johnston to distinguish talent fast and act even faster.

"I played for 25 coaches," he said. "Probably some of the best in the world. They make decisions quickly. If you snooze, you lose. I'm not going to do that."

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