As expected, Toronto FC replaced Paul Mariner as head coach on Tuesday.
It didn’t replace him with another head coach though; in fact, it didn’t replace him with a coach of any kind.
Instead it tabbed current New Zealand international and Queens Park Rangers defender Ryan Nelsen to take up the reins of Major League Soccer’s most flawed franchise.
But while TFC fans can be forgiven for wondering how a man with zero coaching qualifications can help end the club’s six-year playoff drought, Nelsen’s thoughts are likely occupied by something more pressing, namely keeping the likes of Gareth Bale and Clint Dempsey in check as his other employer, the relegation-threatened English Premier League team on the other side of the world, plays host to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.
In a move that surprised most observers – TSN analyst Jason de Vos labelled it “without a doubt, the most bizarre coaching appointment ever made in Major League Soccer” – Toronto FC has gone out and hired a head coach still under contract as a player in London, with no clear idea of exactly when he’ll be free to move over to Canada and take up his new position. QPR’s last game of the EPL season is May 19, so presumably he might arrive here shortly after that, but it’s worth remembering that in the MLS campaign just gone, TFC was in an 0-9 hole by that point – not exactly the best vantage point for a rookie head coach trying to find his feet.
In Nelsen’s stead, Irishman Fran O’Leary will be holding down the fort, putting the team through its paces in preseason and trying to get TFC off on the right foot when the season starts March 2 in Vancouver against the Whitecaps. But at least O’Leary, who just earned his UEFA pro coaching licence last weekend, will be able lean on his experience as a long-time National Collegiate Athletic Association coach, most recently spending the last six years at Bowdoin College in Maine.
Nelsen does bring MLS experience with him, though, having played under TFC president Kevin Payne for four years while both were at D.C. United, captaining the side to the 2004 MLS Cup. Payne is taking a marked gamble with his young protégé, though, and while Nelsen is more likely to dance to the beat of his boss’s drum than the headstrong Mariner, Payne has also swept aside all vestiges of last year’s five-win season, and put himself in position to take the plaudits when TFC finally finds its way to the winner’s enclosure.
To some that know both Payne and Nelsen, it’s a gamble worth taking.
“[Payne’s] got nothing to lose,” said former MLS player and general manager Alexi Lalas. “He can afford this moment to wipe the slate clean and literally start from scratch and do things, that while on the surface look preposterous, it can only get better, and in that sense, if Ryan Nelsen is able to come in and win six games, he will already have proved [himself].
“In this unique situation, Kevin Payne can look like a king very, very quickly. And I think he recognizes that opportunity and those opportunities don’t come around very often.”
In defence of Tuesday’s move, Payne has had previous experience in taking ex-players off the pitch and into the dugout, appointing former Chicago Fire midfielder Piotr Nowak as D.C. United coach in 2004 and watching him lead the club to the MLS Cup at the end of that season, and more recently handing those same coaching keys to D.C. United legend Ben Olsen three years ago, a position he still holds today.
Having taken the more conventional route of hiring experienced coaches seven times previously in the previous six seasons, maybe the unconventional approach is the way to go for Toronto FC. Given the horrors of last season, it could hardly get much worse, and while it might feel like a team undergoing another total revamp for the umpteenth time, that’s just the way it is for all teams that continually find themselves in their league’s basement.
“I’m sure supporters will say, well, we feel like we’ve started anew three or four times,” Lalas explained. “Well, you’ve got to keep starting anew until you get it.”