Toronto FC managers are no stranger to being on the hot seat, given the underachieving MLS franchise’s woeful record.
Two months before the start of the 2014 season, Toronto’s Ryan Nelsen finds himself under the spotlight for entirely different reasons — the high expectations that come with the club’s recent spending spree.
As the slogan in the Detroit Red Wings’ dressing room says, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas clearly agrees, choosing Nelsen as his choice for coach on the hot seat during coverage of Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft.
The 36-year-old Nelsen welcomes the pressure.
“Of course. I’ve always been in that (situation) my whole career, my whole life,” he said Thursday from Philadelphia, site of the MLS SuperDraft. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work that out.
“Would I rather be in that position or what we were last year?” he asked.
An easy question to answer.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the club, has raised the bar on MLS designated player compensation with the signing of England striker Jermain Defoe and U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley.
The additions of Brazilians Gilberto and Jackson, Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario and U.S. international fullback Justin Morrow have also drawn attention to TFC.
“We normally get the wrong end of the press generally so it’s nice to be, I suppose, on the other side,” said Nelsen, who went 6-17-11 last season as he tried to sort out the salary cap and other issues he inherited. “And that’s good for the fans and the club.
“We know we’re still a couple of pieces away and we’re working really hard to get there. But we’ll see.”
Nelsen, who became the franchise’s eighth manager in seven seasons when he took over prior to the 2013 season, added two more pieces Thursday by drafting Xavier centre back Nick Hagglund in the first round and Elon left-winger Danny Lovitz in the second (24th).
The two players are ones for the future, although Nelsen says that can change depending on performance.
“Both are guys that we saw that long-term would have the best positive chance to play for Toronto FC.”
Toronto sent its 15th overall pick and allocation money to the Philadelphia Union in order to get Hagglund with the 10th pick.
“He was gone before it got to us (with the 15th pick) and we couldn’t allow that,” said Nelsen. “You’ve got to get the guy that you really want.”
The 21-year-old Hagglund won Defensive Player of the Year honours in the Big East in 2013 for the second straight year.
In his four seasons with the Musketeers, Hagglund made 80 starts with four goals and 11 assists. The Cincinnati native featured in 31 Xavier shutouts.
Nelsen says the MLS Combine confirmed what they already knew about Hagglund — a dominant centre back who’s competitive, reads the game well and is good in the air.
“I’m so excited, I’m pumped,” Hagglund said of coming to Toronto.
“I think this is the place to be playing soccer right now,” he added. “This is where the excitement is happening.”
Hagglund calls himself a reliable defender — “an athletic centre back that has the ability to outjump, outrun the guys that are coming at me.”
The six-foot-one 193-pounder started his collegiate career at forward, moving back to midfield and then centre back at the end of his freshman year after a change in coaches.
Hagglund’s selection adds depth to a Toronto backline that features captain Steven Caldwell, Canadian international Doneil Henry and Gale Agbossoumonde. Recently acquired U.S. international fullback Justin Morrow can also play centre back.
Mark Bloom played well at right fullback when he came in at the end of last season, as the freezing out of incumbent Richard Eckersley started early due to his hefty contract.
Asked what he planned at right back, Nelsen said: “Watch this space. We obviously know what we need and I wouldn’t be very surprised if something happens pretty soon.”
It would seem that the club would have to use a one-time buyout to get rid of Eckersley’s contract without impacting its salary cup. But given GM Tim Bezbatchenko’s knowledge of what goes on behind the curtain at the league’s front office, there could be another outcome.
In snapping up Bradley and squeezing a pair of draft choices out of the departing Bobby Convey and Stefan Frei, Bezbatchenko has already proved to be a canny operator.
Toronto also has to do something about Argentine midfielder Matias Laba, either finding a way to remove his designated player label and keep him or move him on.
Teams are only allowed three DPs and Toronto currently has four in Bradley, Defoe, Gilberto and Laba.
The five-foot-10 193-pound Lovitz missed the Combine due to a slight meniscus tear. That may have helped Toronto’s cause since Nelsen believes he would have turned heads had he played.
The 22-year-old from Wyndmoor, Pa., was Southern Conference player of the year in 2013. He had four goals and six assists in helping the Phoenix to a 15-5-3 record and the SoCon title.
“He’s direct, he’s left-footed, he runs at defenders,” said Nelsen. “He’s got a great work ethic. He adds something that we kind of don’t really have in our squad.”
Lovitz had nine goals and added 16 assists in 80 starts at Elon.
Toronto’s original first-round pick — third overall — went to Vancouver in the trade for French striker Eric Hassli in July 2012. The Whitecaps used that to select California defender Christian Dean.