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New Toronto FC coach Nelsen still under contract to QPR

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The Canadian Press
1/8/2013 6:05:22 PM
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TORONTO, Ontario -- Nothing comes easy for Toronto FC, it seems, be it posting a win or hiring a manager.

In a somewhat bizarre turn of events Tuesday, the struggling MLS franchise unveiled new head coach Ryan Nelsen only to acknowledge it's not sure when the veteran New Zealand defender will be free to lead the club.

The 35-year-old Nelsen is under contract through June 30 to Queens Park Rangers, which is mired at the bottom of the English Premier League's relegation zone.

The MLS season kicks off March 2, with players reporting to training camp later this month. QPR finishes its league schedule May 19.

Nelson will not be involved in this month's MLS combine or SuperDraft, although TFC said he would be in daily contact with the club.

With the cost of relegation pegged at $40 million in the first year alone, despite league parachute payments to soften the blow, QPR (2-12-7) is understandably reluctant to release a defensive stalwart like Nelsen without a ready replacement.

So Toronto's new manager could suit up for QPR this weekend. Then again, QPR boss Harry Redknapp could give him the green light to leave at any time.

Tuesday's news conference came just three days after Nelsen played 71 minutes in QPR's 1-1 FA Cup tie with West Bromwich Albion.

Nelsen was unable to say when he might be able to devote his full attention to Toronto, noting only that he had to be "respectful" of his obligations to QPR.

Talks on securing his English club release are planned but Nelsen suggested a winning streak that takes the team out of the drop zone would help.

Nelsen's hiring is the latest move by Toronto president and GM Kevin Payne to turn around a team that posted a league-worst 5-21-8 record last season.

For Payne, Nelsen is worth the wait.

"My feeling about Ryan is that he's going to be leading this team for five years to come and if I have to wait a couple of months to start that process, I can afford to wait. I'd rather do that than make the wrong decision or decision I didn't want to make for the short-term."

Payne called Nelsen's hiring "the dawn of a new era." For those keeping track, the Kiwi is Toronto's eighth coach in six playoff-free years.

To make way for Nelsen, Payne fired manager Paul Mariner. The former England international, who took over 10 games into the disastrous 2012 season, joins the long list of TFC coaches paid to take an early exit.

Mariner, who joined the club in January 2011 as director of player development, leaves with a managerial record of 4-12-8 record in MLS play -- which is not bad, considering he took over a 1-9-0 team.

But his thin squad, beset by injuries, finished the season with an 0-10-4 run. Payne said he needed to change the culture at the club.

As a novice coach, Nelsen is a bold hire. But Payne has a history of choosing managers fresh from the playing ranks in Peter Nowak, Ben Olsen and now Nelsen.

"You understand, by definition, they don't have coaching experience but they have the intangibles that make them leaders," Payne said. "And that's the most important quality.

"They need the right kind of support around them."

For Nelsen, that will be Fran O'Leary. The Irish native, a longtime friend of Nelsen's who most recently was head coach at Bowdoin College, has been appointed assistant coach and director of player recruitment. O'Leary, a veteran coach with the licenses to show for it, will lead the team in Nelsen's absence.

Payne and Nelsen go back to 2001 when Payne drafted Nelsen fourth overall in the MLS Superdraft. Nelsen left for England in 2005 to play for Blackburn Rovers and then Tottenham and QPR under the likes of Mark Hughes, Sam Allardyce, Paul Ince and Harry Redknapp.

A steady defender, he has made more than 200 Premier League appearances, mostly for Blackburn.

Nelsen said while he has obligations to QPR, his knees have been telling him it's time to retire as a player.

"It feels right now. I feel it's a really good time now to put my fingerprint, my DNA on a team," he said.

"This is a challenge that I think is so exciting. I can't wait. I can't wait to get going," he added.

Payne said there are no plans for Nelsen to ever play for Toronto FC.

Nelsen has not taken the coaching badges that many managers collect. But he has captained D.C. United, Blackburn and the New Zealand national team and made a study of his managers.

"Ryan has better leadership qualities than any professional athlete than I have ever been around," said Payne, who said Nelsen was his only managerial candidate.

"Of all the players that have ever played on my teams -- and there's have been a lot of them and a lot of phenomenal players, -- Ryan Nelsen, more than any one of those, convinced me at an early age that he would be a very very very successful head coach when he was done playing," Payne added.

Nelsen referred to Toronto FC several times as "a shining light" and "beacon" for MLS franchises.

He promised fans his team will match their intensity and passion on the field.

"They'll never give up," he said. "They'll never die, they'll never fall over for any team."

Nelsen said he has to study up on his new team. But Payne said his new coach has already been burning the midnight oil, studying videos of his new players.

Nelsen adds to a team whose spine has been stiffened with the recent addition of veteran defender Danny Califf, a former U.S. national team captain. Payne also said he expects captain Torsten Frings, a former German World Cup star, to be back in full health this season.

"Califf is a big add for this team," said Payne, who has not finished adding to the squad.

"We're looking for men, we're looking for real character on this team," he added. "We're going to have a lot of young players too. We're going to invest money in young players but we need to have the right people around to teach those young players what it takes to be successful."

Payne acknowledged the circumstances of Nelsen's delayed arrival were unusual.

"It's not an ideal situation. I'd love it if Ryan was able to start full-time tomorrow or today," Payne said. "But we understand the situation.

"And frankly one of Ryan's qualities that I appreciate so much is his sense of responsibility. And his understanding he needs to fulfil his (QPR) obligation. Ryan wouldn't be the person that I know he is if he just walked away from QPR at a time when they're in a critical situation."

Asked to name a similar player-manager-different-club situation, Payne pointed to Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash, who doubles as general manager of the Canadian men's team.

As for QPR, the club acknowledged Nelsen's new position in Toronto while noting he remains on its roster.

"Nelsen is under contract with QPR until June 30th 2013, however, he has requested to enter dialogue with QPR boss Harry Redknapp to discuss when he will join up with his new club," the London club said in a statement.

"In the meantime, Nelsen will be available for the R's Barclays Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotspur this weekend."

Said Payne: "In the long term, it is worth the wait."

NOTES -- Payne says he expects Ecuador winger Joao Plata to remain on loan this season ... The Toronto boss also says he has had a lot of interest in Toronto's first and third overall pick in the MLS draft.

Ryan Nelsen (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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