You could hardly blame Jermain Defoe if he wanted to head for the exit door in the aftermath of what turned to be a bloody Sunday on a very long weekend in Southern Ontario.
For the ninth time in eight years, there was a changing of the guard amongst the TFC head-coaching ranks – and with Canada’s original Major League Soccer club sitting somewhat comfortably in playoff position, too.
Gone is Ryan Nelsen and his entire coaching staff – with assistant Jason Bent being offered the olive branch of reassignment within the organization – with assistant general manager, academy director and former MLS player Greg Vanney taking his place, with rumours of an unhappy Defoe – currently in England – returning to his home country and his former Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers rife. For the record, Redknapp did not return a text message sent Sunday afternoon.
In truth though, this was always on the cards as soon as Vanney was brought on board as the de facto head coach-in-waiting late last year.
That Nelsen and TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko didn’t see eye to eye is no secret. The day before Saturday’s ultimately decisive 3-0 home loss to the New England Revolution, Bezbatchenko called out what has lately been an underperforming squad through the media, a message that Nelsen turned on in the wake of a forlorn performance, blaming the former MLS head office executive for putting too much pressure on his players in what was a crucial game.
While that may have been the tipping point, it was by no means an outlying riposte, given the rift that had developed between the two. When Bezbatchenko was hired almost a year ago, it was laid out in no uncertain terms that this was Nelsen’s project, and he was hired to manage the salary cap and utilize his extensive MLS head office contacts and experience to put TFC in the best position for success.
Nelsen, in tandem with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. president and CEO Tim Leiweke, was the one calling the shots, and this season has been case in point on that front. All four trades that TFC has made so far – the acquisitions of Collen Warner, Luke Moore, Dominic Oduro and Warren Creavalle – were Nelsen moves, moves that Bezbatchenko opposed on each occasion. That Nelsen could force them through was testament to the level of faith that Leiweke had in the former New Zealand soccer captain, a man who won over Leiweke in extensive conversations about the club’s long-term vision and did more than most to bring Defoe – along with former TFC goalkeeper Julio Cesar – to Canada, having played with both in England.
But the club’s recent slide, taking just 13 of 36 points on offer since the start of July, undermined Nelsen’s power, a grip that was further diminished once Leiweke confirmed he would be leaving MLSE by June 30, 2015. It didn’t help that, as a former player who left the QPR playing field in spring last year to take the top job at TFC, Nelsen had zero head-coaching experience when he arrived in Toronto, a fact that was exacerbated when eschewed the opportunity to hire strong assistants with long coaching resumes, instead choosing to hire some close confidantes and allies. That decision didn’t always go over well with his players, and both Defoe and Michael Bradley have expressed dissatisfaction with how training sessions are run in comparison with leagues such as the English Premier League and Serie A.
Bradley and Nelsen have had a rocky relationship at times, and after starting his TFC career with some sterling performances earlier this year, Bradley’s patience with Nelsen’s tactical acumen and methods began to run thin, with the pair having had to have private meetings to clear the air. Given Bradley’s lacklustre performance on Saturday, it seems clear that he the American World Cup player knew the writing was on the wall for the New Zealand coach, and that the jig was up.
While Vanney has no interim tag on his head-coaching appointment, whether or not he makes the playoffs will be key to his long-term future in Toronto. Like Nelsen, the 40-year-old has no head-coaching experience, and while he enjoys the support of his GM, given the money that MLSE has injected into the TFC in the past few years, – particularly the Kia training facility and the redevelopment of BMO Field into a 30,000-odd seater stadium – there will likely be no shortage of experienced coaches vying for the gig down the road, with former TFC head coach John Carver – and current Newcastle United assistant coach – having expressed a keen interest in returning to his old position in a text message on Sunday.