Toronto FC has fired manager Ryan Nelsen and virtually his entire coaching staff in the wake of Nelsen’s public dressing down of general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.
The official announcement was made at a news conference Sunday, after Nelsen had confirmed his firing to The Canadian Press.
Greg Vanney, head of TFC Academy, was named Nelsen’s replacement. Jason Bent has been offered a position to remain with club, while five other assistants were let go.
There could be more change in the offing. Star striker Jermain Defoe could be headed to England’s Queens Park Rangers, according to someone close to the situation. Bezbatchenko confirmed he’d received an offer for Defoe.
Nelsen declined to go into reasons for his dismissal. But it is clear that he and Bezbatchenko were at odds with the rookie GM flexing his muscle in the wake of news that MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, a champion of Nelsen and the team, is planning to leave.
Defoe is unhappy at the direction of the club without Leiweke, the source said, and wants out.
Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley were at the heart of a $100-million revamping this season of the traditionally underachieving MLS franchise.
The 9-9-6 team, while ravaged with injuries to Defoe and key defenders, stood fourth going into Sunday’s schedule with a shot at the playoffs for the first time ever. The top five in each division advance to the post-season.
Nelsen, in his second year at Toronto’s helm, was also one win away from matching Toronto’s franchise high of 10 — with 10 games to go.
The club wasted little time removing evidence of Nelsen. Photos of the coaching staff that hung at the team’s north Toronto training facility were gone Sunday, although Nelsen’s empty parking space still bore his name.
Security officials screened reporters and others arriving for the news conference.
The 36-year-old Nelsen leaves with a record of 15-26-17. None of the seven coaches before him notched more wins.
But in the wake of Saturday’s 3-0 loss to New England, the manager put himself in the firing line after lambasting Bezbatchenko at the post-game news conference for telling reporters on the eve of the game that the team had to do better.
Nelsen apparently knew the writing was on the wall this week, and the timetable was accelerated when Bezbatchenko summoned local reporters Friday to challenge his team “to take it up a notch.”
Nelsen was not made aware that the GM was going to speak out and was furious.
Knowing that the axe was poised, he spoke out after Saturday’s game, saying Bezbatchenko’s words had not helped matters.
Nelsen then went on to accuse Bezbatchenko of effectively sabotaging his own team by unnecessarily raising the stakes before a match that was not crucial, given there were 10 more remaining after it.
“I’ve won this league, played in it for four years, been in the (English) Premier League for 10 years, played in a World Cup, Olympics. I’ve played in some pretty hot pressure games,” said Nelsen, a former New Zealand international defender. “One thing that I do know is this was not one of them.”
The inference was clear. Nelsen had paid his dues in the game. Bezbatchenko, a 32-year-old rookie GM hired out of the league office by Leiweke last September, hadn’t.
“It affected the guys,” Nelsen said of Bezbatchenko’s words. “What we do at Toronto FC is we keep it in-house — everything we do, we keep inside the four walls. And the players, coaching staff, everything, stays within the four walls.”
The message a day earlier from Bezbatchenko was that the revamped MLS team has had time to gel. Now it has to fire on all cylinders.
“I think everyone would agree — the coaches, the players — that over the last 12 or so games, it hasn’t been good enough, at least for making a run in MLS,” Bezbatchenko said.
He also said his message to the fans and the club was: “The time is now ... It’s we mean business now.”