Author Series: Joshua Kloke
Late last year I made it my goal to read every single book written about an MLS franchise so that I could acquire a better understanding of the history of the sport in the United States and Canada.
It's a goal that isn't particularly far-reaching -- there aren't that many books about MLS teams. Something like half of the texts that do exist are about the Columbus Crew and written by Steve Sirk.
So I was surprised to find that someone had written about Toronto FC, one of the more compelling franchises in the history of the league. That someone was Joshua Kloke, who writes about TFC and the Toronto Maple Leafs for The Athletic.
I will never feature a book on here that I don't enjoy, so, obviously, I really enjoyed Come on You Reds: The Story of Toronto FC. For the first few years of the club's history, I called them my favorite reality TV show because their incredible levels of organizational incompetence that proved inversely proportional to the level of support they enjoyed in the stands.
The product on the field finally caught up to its off-field counterpart a few years ago and now Toronto are perennially one of the best. It's an incredible turnaround captured in detail by Kloke.
Evan Ream: What compelled you about Toronto FC’s story that led you to writing this book?
Joshua Kloke: I think when you look at Toronto FC, they’ve had a really interesting history. If you look at the way Toronto FC is framed within Toronto, it’s interesting because they’re obviously the new kid on the block -- their first season was in 2007 and they’re going against some real titans in the town. I’ve always argued that very few cities are dominated by one team in the way that the Leafs dominate Toronto. The Jays are still relatively young, they came around in the 70s, but they’re a summer institution. And then you have the Raptors as well, who are relatively new in that they came around in the 90s, but they’re still a really popular franchise. So what’s interesting is all these teams have a very generalized fan base. What I mean by that is you’ll find that a lot of the Leafs’ fan base is dominated by people outside of Toronto. The love of that team is ingrained from generation to generation. You grow up a Leafs fan because your parents are Leafs fans. But maybe you could argue that they’ve lost a little bit of their foothold within Toronto proper. You could argue that a lot of that has been taken out by the Raptors, who, and I don’t want to generalize too much, but are safe to say have a little bit more of a multicultural following. I want to be careful there, I’m not saying that the Leafs don’t, that’s not what I’m saying at all, it’s just a fanbase that represents the changing look of the city and that’s really good, that’s important. The Jays are just this kind of summer tradition that reaches across a whole group of people. The point is that Toronto FC comes on and they’re unique because they latch on with a group of fans in the city right away. I think it’s surprised a lot of people how quickly they caught on because in 2007 soccer isn’t what it is today, it was a growing sport. What a lot of people outside of Toronto and outside of Canada don’t know is that soccer is the most played team sport among people under the age of 16 in Canada, more than hockey. So they explode right away with this really fervent fan base formed with a lot of immigrants who didn’t have a team of their own. It just exploded right away. The Jays took off right away as well and management saw this real heightened interest in the team and had an influx of cash so the Jays became contenders very early on in their history. TFC were the exact opposite, it didn’t happen for so, so long, but the fanbase didn’t go away. So I guess what attracted me originally was the question of how they maintained such a strong connection to this city as an outsider. They were outsiders but the fanbase didn’t dissipate -- we’ve seen outsiders in MLS go belly up very quickly if they don’t get results. TFC didn’t get results, but their fanbase didn’t waver. I found that really, really interesting. I initially came about this project not as a fan of the club but just a fan of a lot of things. I count myself a fan of other soccer clubs, I count myself a fan of other sports teams, I count myself as a big fan of a few bands, I love that idea of just being a fan, a fanatic. So I kind of approached it with that lens to start and kind of narrowed my focus. It was really interesting to learn more about the city and how to capture and maintain that connection (with the fans). If you look around the world, it’s hard for new organizations to do that. So that’s where I started.
Ream: I was going to ask you about the fans because I’ve been to one Toronto FC game in my life and it was in the 2012 season where they finished with club-record lows of 23 points and a -26 goal differential.
Kloke: You could argue that that was probably their worst year.
Ream: They won 3-2 in stoppage time against the Vancouver Whitecaps and it was actually pretty crazy. But TFC fandom came in hot in 2007. Do you think the club was ever close to screwing up what they had with that incredible fan base because they were so bad for so long?
Kloke: Like were they ever close to screwing it up?
Ream: I mean just losing that fanbase because they were one of the worst teams in the league for such a long time.
Kloke: I think they were, I think they were really close in that time you talked about, 2012. Maybe it’s just hindsight but I think before Tom Leiweke took over at MLSE, I think TFC felt kind of abandoned because you have to remember that the Leafs weren’t purchased by MLSE until 2011 so at least in the beginning, TFC fans kind of believed that they were important within MLSE. Yes, there was this big, corporate structure, but they knew they were important because MLSE invested in the club. When the results didn’t come, I think people thought, “yeah, we’re at risk of becoming an afterthought here.” It’s interesting. People have long thought that Leafs ownership was fine with them not contending because people kept coming. That’s not true at all because teams make a shitton of money in the playoffs, but that was definitely the perception around some Leafs haters who thought they weren’t going to try to build a winner because they knew people were going to show up anyway. I think in some parts of the TFC fanbase, that was a concern. So 2012, 2013, there were people showing up with bags on their heads and people were really upset. Tim Leiweke stepped in and made TFC and the Raptors big priorities for the organization. That was the difference. So yeah, I would say that right in that time when you were talking about, 2012, when the results weren’t coming (it got close). The problem was really just spending on the wrong players. A lot of this is hindsight, but what I learned researching the book was that they didn’t have soccer people at the top. I think soccer is a weird sport, especially in North America and especially in MLS where you have all these strange salary cap rules. I think a lot of the executives were used to North American markets where you trade for players and you draft players. But then you get to MLS and the draft is not where you find young players. Signing players from abroad is a completely different animal so if you don’t have soccer people at the top, you’re not going to make prudent decisions that benefit the club on the pitch. I think that’s what angered a lot of TFC fans early on, or not even necessarily early on, but after it was becoming clear that the people making decisions didn’t have soccer at their forefront if that makes sense.
Ream: Yeah, 100 percent, that definitely makes sense. Changing topics, what did you find challenging about the process of actually writing the book?
Kloke: It’s interesting. In my job I really love finding people and tracking down people and that was a challenge early on because I was faced with just this list of coaches. I mean they had at least one new coach every season for a while there so there were all these coaches dotted around the globe. At that point maybe I didn’t have all the, I don’t want to say connections, but people who could help me out with phone numbers or whatever. So there was a lot of hunting people down or texting people who may or may not have been employed by TFC a year ago. The funny thing I found early on was that people who are no longer with the club and people who were fired by TFC have great things to say about the club. It was tough to kind of transition from people wanting to say really good and positive and flowery things because when I was writing the book in 2017 they were having one of the best seasons in North American soccer history. So people wanted to look at it with rose-tinted glasses. That was difficult to transition to expose why things went the way they did (in the early days). So the challenge was just finding people and then getting them to open up and be critical about things.
Ream: Did you ever get in touch with Preki for the book?
Kloke: Yup. Preki was interesting. He was one of the last coaches I got. He was just a cold call, someone gave me his number. I thought to myself that Preki doesn’t strike me as much of a texter so I figured that maybe I would just call him and then if he wasn’t free try to set something up. I called him and explained who I was and he just said, “okay, let’s talk.” So we just got it going right there. That was kind of surprising, but Preki was fun.
Ream: I just ask because I cover Sac Republic so I interviewed him regularly until he disappeared off the face of the planet midway through 2015. That sounds exactly like him.
Kloke: It seems like that’s when he did disappear, right when I was trying to find him.
Ream: Are there any really interesting stories or details that you wanted to put in the book but just couldn’t because of the narrative, or how the book all flowed together, or just space?
Kloke: Yeah, I think there were a lot of things. There were a lot of quotes that I couldn’t really get in. It’s interesting, I found that people shared stories or told me things off the record that were juicy, but didn’t really fit. It’s something I really struggled with because I was trying to write about how this team turned itself around but a lot of stuff didn’t get in there that was maybe best to just keep in the vault anyway.
Ream: I know that you wrote another book before this one, but are there any plans for more in your future?
Kloke: Not about TFC but I’m kind of kicking around an idea now. It’s surprisingly difficult to write a book when your job is writing. I don’t know why, maybe I thought it would be easier, but when I wrote that in 2017, 2018, my wife was pregnant and we didn’t have a kid yet. Now we have a two-and-a-half year old and free time is hard to come by. So yes I have plans to maybe do something, definitely sports related, a lot of which is dependent on how certain teams play. But I’m kicking around an idea.
Ream: Is there anything else that you found interesting about the writing process or that you learned that you’d like to add?
Kloke: It’s funny, I have a copy of it on this record stand slash bookstand that I keep a lot of stuff on and I don’t think about it as much as I used to. I will say that I loved interviewing more than anything else. I loved learning about the whole story. There were people who were way more qualified than me to write the book, people who had covered the team for longer. What I appreciated was the opportunity to go at it with a bit of a blank state and use as many of other people’s voices as possible and just get out of the way. I toyed with actually making it a straight up oral history, I love reading those. I toyed with that and I suppose if I had the chance to do it again, I would have so I could get so many of those quotes in there and more anecdotes in. But I loved doing that. I don’t know if it was evident in the book, but I did the majority of the interviews with that 2017 team after they won. I went down to LA for their training camp and I spent a few days there hanging out with them in the hotel for these interviews and they were in such a positive state of mind because they just won. Obviously 2018 turns out very differently for them, but they had just won. So that’s what I’m talking about because it was hard for me to get Jozy Altidore to say anything negative because he had just cemented himself in Toronto lore. But I loved doing it and loved the interviews. I don’t know if this is interesting, but I had a very tight timeline, I had about six months to put the whole thing together, which is crazy. I would say six or seven months, which is very unorthodox, very different. I think I signed the contract in August and the first draft was due in late March. I was just flying, which is not something I would advise, but it was also kind of fun in a way to just completely immerse myself in the work, which I did.
Ream: Deadlines are great motivators.
Kloke: Yup, it was wild.