Richard Eckersley plans to be watching when Queens Park Rangers battle Manchester City — because it’s not every day you get to watch your new coach in action, moreover going out near the top of his game.
Ryan Nelsen has set Feb. 1 as a firm date for taking over as coach as Toronto FC. But first, the 35-year-old, who’s an active defender with English Premier League side QPR, will play one last game next Tuesday at home against Manchester City.
“I’m excited to see him play bossing the back four. I tell ya, I’ll be cheering for him,” Eckersley, a TFC defender, said Tuesday. “It’s a different way of coaching, but it’s also good to see him on the TV, playing week in and week out.
“In the long run I think it will benefit the club because I think he’s going to be a fantastic manager.”
Nelsen announced when he would be joining TFC at Tuesday’s annual media day at the team’s new training facility in the city’s north end. The 35-year-old New Zealand international was hired Jan. 8 by new Toronto president and general manager Kevin Payne while still under contract with QPR.
There was speculation Nelsen would have to finish the season in England, where QPR is in last place in the Premier League and fighting to avoid relegation to a lesser league.
“I just had to be respectful to my club, and obviously the media is pretty ruthless, the fans are pretty ruthless, so it just had to be handled properly,” Nelsen said. “It was always going to happen, once we sat down with QPR and had an adult conversation, and that’s been done.
“I’m just really looking forward to properly being here full-time.”
Nelsen will join the team Feb. 1 in Orlando to continue training camp in the warmth of the Sunshine State.
The MLS season kicks off March 2, while QPR doesn’t wrap up its league schedule May 19.
Nelsen, who played a full 90 minutes in QPR’s 1-1 tie with West Ham United last Saturday, said he has no regrets leaving a squad in the midst of its relegation battle.
“I’m 35-and-a-half, if they’re relying on me to get them out of situation like that, then they’re in a bit of trouble,” he said laughing. “They understood when I came in that I’ve had job offers before in coaching, and they knew I was going to go at some stage.”
Nelsen takes over a Toronto club that has never made the playoffs and finished last in the league in 2012 with a 5-21-8 record.
But media day is traditionally a time for optimism, and Tuesday was no different.
The players pointed to Payne, who was hired in November after 17 years at D.C. United and helped that franchise to four MLS championships.
Toronto also added former Canadian international goalkeeper Pat Onstad as chief scout and manager of football partnerships.
Meanwhile, captain Torsten Frings, who missed almost half of last season with a hip injury, is healthy again, and striker Eric Hassli insists he wants to stay, dispelling rumours he had requested a trade.
For their part, the players like what they’ve seen from Nelsen so far.
“Obviously Nelsen knows the game, I hope he can transfer what you see with QPR, some of that relentless fight not to surrender. That could go a long way for us here at TFC,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who was impressed by Nelsen’s first speech to his team. “He was almost a bit nervous, and I think it’s a great sign because you can have a guy who takes his first job and comes in here and maybe realizes that he needs to hold a sceptre and show you how it’s done and be very comfortable.
“But he didn’t come across like that, he came across as: we need to work, I know I need to maybe learn on the job as well, but we’re all in this together and we’re all going to make it happen.
“So I was very excited.”
Onstad is happy to be back home in Canada. The 44-year-old Vancouver native spent the past two seasons on D.C. United’s staff as an assistant coach.
In addition to his duties as chief scout, he’ll be responsible for managing relationships with Major League Soccer teams and international clubs.
“It’s a change, I’ve been with a club for 27 years, kind of walk into a locker-room on a daily basis. It’s a big change to have to come in dressed up, it’s a bit strange,” said Onstad, who won three MLS Cup championships as a player and earned 57 caps on the Canadian men’s team.
“It’s nice to be back in Canada. The nice thing is I made it up for ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ on Saturday, so that was the most important thing, and then somehow snuck into (Monday’s) Leafs game.”
Hassli insisted he’s also excited, saying — contrary to reports — he hadn’t asked for a trade.
“I’m a TFC player, I have a contract with TFC, I’m back. I’m happy,” the striker said.
Frings, one of Toronto’s two designated players to start last season — the other was Danny Koevermans — is back healthy after undergoing hip surgery in September.
“I feel great, I work a lot in Germany to get my fitness back and I’m really satisfied with my fitness now,” said the former German international midfielder. “A new president’s coming and a new coach, it’s an exciting year for Toronto. I’m pretty sure everybody knows we played a bad season last season, and we have no excuses as players.”
Koevermans, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in July, has been told he could return in late May. Payne, however, is pleading patience with the big striker.
“From my experience, guys tend to not be fully fit from an ACL for at least 12 months,” Payne said. “Our hope is he’ll be a little quicker than that, but they’re usually not quite the same for a period of 12 months.
“They might be medically cleared to play but they don’t have the same explosiveness, their brain and their body don’t work together quite as quickly as they should.”
Payne continues to build Toronto’s roster, acquiring the two players he wanted in last week’s MLS Superdraft in Canadians Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman, and setting the stage for acquiring more talent by stockpiling allocation money.
Payne said he has eye on a couple of players overseas that “we think will be very impactful that that money will allow us to get.”
While there was plenty of optimism around the team’s meeting with the media on Tuesday, Payne was asked why fans — who’ve grown increasingly impatient over the years — should feel the same sense of optimism.
“I want to tell them that there’s a process in place, we all want to see playoff games, but you don’t just wake up one day and make the playoffs,” he said. “We have to do a whole lot of things between now and the first game, and then between the first game and the second game and so on before we can start talking about playoffs.
“It’s a multiple year plan. Right now it’s actually a couple of weeks plan through restocking this roster and beginning the change of the culture.”