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Wileman: Nelsen firing another chapter in TFC's troubled saga

Luke Wileman
8/31/2014 10:22:27 PM
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By now, we shouldn't be surprised at anything that happens at Toronto FC - and yet events on Sunday at the long-troubled MLS club added another incredible chapter in its short history.

Just eight months ago, MLSE President Tim Leiweke was announcing the team's ambition to be a "super club" following the arrival of big name players, and Ryan Nelsen was heading into his second season as head coach with the team, with a vastly improved squad and aiming to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

On Sunday, just days after Leiweke's impending departure from MLSE was confirmed, Nelsen was fired following an embarrassing 3-0 loss at home to New England Revolution after which he criticized General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko during his post-match press conference.

Bezbatchenko had made it clear to media ahead of the game that he wasn't happy with the team's current form. "I think everyone would agree that over the last 12 or so games, it hasn't been good enough," he said. Nelsen hit back voicing his concern that the GM's comments should have been kept in-house and that they added unnecessary extra pressure onto his players.

It was clear evidence that Bezbatchenko and Nelsen were not on the same page, something that has been brewing for a while and is an unworkable situation for any sports organization. "We are in a results-oriented business," Bezbatchenko said on Sunday. "I know we can get more out of this group of guys."

Of course changing the coach position at Toronto FC is nothing new. Through eight seasons, Nelsen is the ninth coach to leave he club, but there are a couple of significant differences this time. First is that the new coach takes over a team in the playoff positions rather than languishing in the basement of the Eastern Conference. Second is that the house has been cleaned with Nelsen's other staff leaving with him. Greg Vanney will have a clean slate to work with - Jason Bent is the only current assistant coach to be offered a role in the new setup.

Back in January of 2013, Nelsen's hiring as head coach of Toronto FC was described by my colleague Jason deVos as "the most bizarre hiring," he had ever seen in football. Nelsen was arriving without any coaching experience or qualifications and while still a player with QPR in the Premier League. It was a very strange appointment for a club that at the time needed stability and veteran leadership.

He had an extremely difficult task during his rookie season working with a squad that wasn't anywhere good enough to compete in Major League Soccer, but this year having been given the pieces to work with, he didn't get enough out of the team.

The early months of the season were about building and gelling as a team.  There were lots of new pieces learning to play together and key injuries to contend with as well, but watching the them play, you didn't really get the feeling they had an identity.

There was no clear vision of what they wanted to be as a team, or how they were going to get there. Even this month, they were still experimenting and looking for a winning formula.

Nelsen was learning on the job, and I have always believed he would have been in a much stronger position if he had hired more experienced veteran coaches to complement some of the younger assistant coaches within the organization.

The club has now appointed Greg Vanney who is another young coach, but has plenty of experience as a player in MLS and also knows the inner workings of TFC having been Assistant GM and Academy Director.

He will have the opportunity to build a coaching staff around him, but has been thrown in at the deep end. Despite the change in coach, making the playoffs should be the only acceptable outcome for this team. Failure isn't an option if they want to remain relevant in the city.

It's not often a club manages to overshadow the firing and hiring of a head coach, but that's what happened on Sunday. The departure of Nelsen was almost secondary to the speculation about the future of Jermain Defoe.

Defoe has been excellent for Toronto FC this season, despite missing games through injury. On the field, they could cope with his departure, off the pitch if Defoe leaves it could potentially have massive consequences, especially given the much heralded arrival of the England striker in January and the marketing campaign that surrounded his signing.

Bezbatchenko has made it clear that there is no done deal yet - but there is interest in Defoe from QPR and the way things stand, it would be no surprise if he departs MLS before the transfer window closes.

Eight years in, the merry-go-round continues at a club that has been one of the most dysfunctional in MLS history. Each time there is change, there is always the hope that the right people will be in place to bring success. Once again, Toronto FC fans are left waiting to see if this will be the time they finally get things right.

Luke Wileman

Luke Wileman


Luke Wileman is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on TSN.ca.

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