Since becoming Ryan Nelsen’s right-hand man at Toronto FC a month ago, assistant coach Fran O’Leary has only managed to get home to Maine for a day.
Bowdoin College, his former employer in Brunswick, Maine, wouldn’t mind if he cleared out his former office so the new soccer coach could move in.
And he’d like to see his family in person, rather than on a smartphone. Or stop having to worry about finding time to pay bills from afar.
But the Irish native appears to be having the time of his life, despite a whirlwind month.
O’Leary broke away from the UEFA Pro Licence coaching course in Scotland to fly to London and join Nelsen for the flight back for the Jan. 8 Toronto FC news conference announcing their hiring. After that, it was the MLS Combine in Florida and the MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis.
Then it was home for a day, and back to Toronto FC.
The long-time collegiate coach likes what he has seen from the MLS club, whose roster and culture president and GM Kevin Payne has been hard at work remaking.
“I think there’s a real eagerness and hunger to turn this thing around,” O’Leary said in an interview at the team’s Florida preseason hotel.
O’Leary is no mug, however. He knows it’s early days.
“Obviously we’re in the romantic phase right now,” he added. “It’s just us right how. There’ll be difficult times ahead and we’ll all learn about each other when it gets really difficult.”
O’Leary, a Dublin native, has carved out a successful career as an assistant coach at Boston College, the University of New Hampshire and then head coach at Elmira College, Kenyon College, Dartmouth College, George Mason University and Bowdoin.
He has had other opportunities to leave the collegiate ranks for MLS over the years but says Toronto trumped all of those.
“There was one reason I came in and that was Ryan,” he said.
O’Leary is giving up the security of a long-term college contract to join a 5-21-8 MLS team. But he is confident in TFC’s new regime.
“I know Ryan and I know what he’ll bring here,” he said simply.
O’Leary says it took him 10 minutes to take the Toronto job, a time frame that convinced him he was making the right move. His rationale is if you have to debate a job’s merits or talk it over with others, you’re trying to convince yourself.
He knows the new job will mean longer hours and a little more stress.
“But stress sometimes is good, it keeps you young. Sometimes it keeps you vibrant, you’re out of your comfort zone, it’s exciting,” said O’Leary, who just turned 50.
His American wife — they have a six-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter — was a slightly harder sell.
“Luckily she knows Ryan well and she’s always been very supportive,” he said, admitting he had to have “a wee word” with her.
On the practice field, he and the 35-year-old Nelsen are obviously close.
“Fran knows what I want and I know when I turn my back his instructions will be to the letter from what I want,” Nelsen says.
In typical Nelsen fashion, he then widens the praise.
“And that’s including all the assistants as well, Jimmy (Brennan, J (Jason Bent) and Stewart (Kerr), all the way to all the staff,” added the former New Zealand international defender.
O’Leary has a nice way about him, with a ready smile on a world-weary face. He’ll sidle up to a player getting ready for practice and ask the “big man” how he’s feeling.
If you were casting a movie, the soft-spoken entertaining Irishman would fit nicely in “Jaws,” swapping stories with Quint (Robert Shaw) aboard The Orca.
But his role has always been soccer coach.
O’Leary was a right back during — in his words — “a very mediocre” playing career.
“I played at decent level in Ireland, but I think my lack of pace was always going to be a ceiling on where I went. I knew that at a fairly early age.”
O’Leary played under some good coaches, however, and started looking to that side of the game by taking the first of many courses.
He came over to the U.S. in 1985 to attend the NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) convention in Washington, D.C. That led to some summer camp work and he was offered an assistant coaching position at Boston College.
He says it didn’t take him long to know he would stay in North America.
Most recently, in his seven years at Bowdoin, he led the Polar Bears to a record of 74-39-14 and, in 2010, its first ever appearance in the Division III Final Four.
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