It really should have worked. Entice a couple stars in their prime to leave Europe for North America, make them two of the five highest-paid players in MLS, surround them with veterans who know the league and watch the silverware get lifted. Oh, don’t forget the experienced manager.

The manager Toronto FC tabbed to oversee it all was Bob Bradley, a coach who has won MLS Cup (1998) and two U.S. Open Cups (1998 and 2000) with the Chicago Fire and a Supporters’ Shield with LAFC (2019). He was fired Monday, with the team sitting second to last in the Eastern Conference despite having the highest payroll in the league.

By dismissing Bradley, Toronto admitted defeat not when it comes to the competitions it’s still playing in, but against one of the strongest forces in MLS: parity.

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“I felt we needed a new direction,” TFC president Bill Manning told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s with a heavy heart because Bob’s a good man, but it wasn’t working. We should be better.”

Toronto’s roster build and current place in the table should serve as a warning to other MLS ownership groups hoping to buy their way to the top. Yes, money can lure top players, but with MLS maintaining strict roster regulations, pulling off a well-funded turnaround like Manchester City or Newcastle United is a tightrope act that can go wrong with the slightest breeze.

TFC have definitely suffered through some stormy weather. Bradley leaves having won just three of 20 matches this season, with the Reds currently on a five-match winless skid capped by a 2-1 loss to the New England Revolution on Saturday.

Last month, designated player Federico Bernardeschi told reporters, “We don’t have any idea [how] to play. We need a little bit more tactics. We need an idea how we play.”

Bradley opted against putting the former Juventus ace into the lineup in the next match, citing a coach’s decision. The following game, a home contest against D.C. United, saw fellow Italy star signing Lorenzo Insigne assist a pair of goals in a 2-1 win. Bernardeschi started in the next match, but TFC have yet to win since that May 27 moment of positivity.

While spending big money on designated players — the three players teams can sign who don’t count against the league’s rigid salary cap — is typically a key to contending for MLS Cup, few teams are able to simply spend their way to success the way clubs are in Europe. Manning’s frustration and Bradley’s dismissal might be cautionary tales for another MLS ownership group looking to put together a project based around highly paid superstars.

Of course, Inter Miami shouldn’t need any reminding. Now co-owner in Miami, David Beckham was the reason for the designated player rule coming into place, signing for the LA Galaxy in 2007. While he lifted a pair of MLS Cups (2011 and 2012) and added two Supporters’ Shields (2010 and 2011) as well, he did it in no small part thanks to players like Mike Magee, Josh Saunders and Sean Franklin (plus fellow stars Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane).

Now, Beckham, Jorge Mas and the rest of the Inter Miami ownership group are preparing to welcome Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets. Jordi Alba might join them, too, but role players play an outsized role in the importance of a team’s success in this league.

Toronto thought they had the right mix, signing MLS veterans like goalkeeper Sean Johnson and center-back Matt Hedges while bringing in strikers well acquainted with Bradley like Adama Diomande and C.J. Sapong. Even with those moves, a few injuries, international call-ups and players underperforming expectations meant TFC were heavily reliant on talented but inexperienced players from their academy.

Twenty-year-old Deandre Kerr scored the opener on Saturday before TFC conceded two, while 19-year-old Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty has drawn interest from European clubs for his ability to play right-back or on the wing. In any other circumstance, those players would be learning in training rather than on the job in the starting XI.

Bradley thought he had to put them into the lineup.

Gerardo “Tata” Martino — likely to be announced soon as Inter Miami’s new manager — is well aware of the challenges he’ll face and how to overcome them. He won MLS Cup with Atlanta United in 2018 with a roster blending rising stars Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez with long-time MLS veterans like Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz.

The formula wasn’t that different from what he’d be asked to do were he to take over in Miami. Yet, even five years later, MLS is a more competitive league than when Martino lifted the trophy.

Messi is set to arrive in MLS as a reigning World Cup champion, still near his otherworldly peak. He’ll have some quality around him, with his superstar friends wanting to join the project. MLS roster rules mean some won’t be able to, or will have to take a paycut to join the fun. Even before that happens, Inter Miami have to figure out how to make it work within the league rules — rules they violated in 2020 when trying to build a winning team out of the gate.

In MLS, it seems like it should work to throw a bunch of money at a few players and watch the wins roll in. As Bradley and TFC now know well — and Martino, Messi and Miami could find out — just because something should happen doesn’t mean it will.

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Toronto’s firing of Bradley a warning to Miami, MLS’ big spenders