Fletcher on MLS: TFC coach Nelsen doing it his way

Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen. (CP)

When Kevin Payne was introduced as Toronto FC’s new president and GM, fans and pundits alike examined his time at D.C. United where he won four MLS Cups to try to get an idea of what to expect.

His titles speak louder than anything else, but one criticism that came up was that he had a tendency to interfere, and that he worked better with a strong coach who could stand up to him.

Is Ryan Nelsen that coach? Almost halfway through his first season, the early indications are that yes, yes he is.

Nelsen has shown he’s focused on winning more than any other consideration and is determined to do it his way. Just look at some of the players he’s pushed aside.

It was assumed that Stefan Frei would reclaim the number one goalkeeping spot from Joe Bendik when he recovered from his broken nose. That hasn’t happened and there have even been reports (denied by Nelsen) of Frei being offered in trade, presumably for salary cap saving purposes.

Ashtone Morgan came into the season as TFC’s undoubted first choice left back, the academy poster boy on the fringes of the national team and the one undeniable feel-good story of the last few years. It was the third game of the campaign when he was subbed out with Richard Eckersley moving out to the left to replace him. Since then Eckersley, Logan Emory and now Darren O’Dea have all been used ahead of Morgan.

Terry Dunfield was a big part of last year’s team and though polarizing, he was the sort of big-hearted player TFC fans get behind. After starting the first few games, he was unceremoniously waived when he came back from injury.

So there’s no sentimentality or PR related favouritism being shown at all, but none of those moves would risk making Payne look bad, as those players were here well before he arrived. There are plenty of other moves, though, that show Nelsen isn’t too concerned with appeasing his boss.

Julio Cesar was brought in while Nelsen himself was still in England with QPR. Cesar never saw the pitch before being released a few weeks into the season.

Payne’s biggest off-season signing was Danny Califf, talked up as the experienced leader the team needed to anchor the defence. That didn’t last long and all appearances suggest TFC would trade him if they could.

The one player who combined being a big Payne acquisition with the positive PR angle was top draft pick Kyle Bekker. His status as a local boy was predictably played up before the season started and he received his first cap for Canada, and was relatively impressive in friendlies against Denmark and the U.S. But after the rookie had an underwhelming start to the campaign, Nelsen dropped him and now Bekker is only intermittently on the bench.

Nelsen is even ruthless when it comes to his own signings. Hogan Ephraim and John Bostock were both brought in using Nelsen’s contacts from England, and both returned home rather quickly after not impressing at all.

Those signings, alongside Robert Earnshaw, Steven Caldwell and the attempted procurements of Tal Ben Haim and Kevin Davies fly in the face of what Payne described what he was looking for: younger players, ideally from South or Central America, where there are more bargains to be found.

What we’re seeing here is two competing philosophies. Payne can afford to take the long-term view. His signing of Matias Laba certainly fits the young Latin American model, as does Jonathan Osorio to a certain extent. There are plenty other young players earning their place in the team, and Morgan and Bekker surely remain very much part of the long-term plan.

Nelsen, though, like most coaches seems to have different priorities. If you’re not helping the team compete now, no matter your name and personal story or who brought you to the club, you won’t play. If he thinks you can help, then welcome aboard. It’s as simple as that.

There’s a long way to go before we’ll know if this combination can be successful; if it can get the balance right between short- and long-term considerations, and compete quickly enough to retain fan interest.

One thing’s for sure though: Ryan Nelsen is very much his own man.


Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.