Toronto FC’s next general manager will have to be a master salary cap strategist and retain Ryan Nelsen as the team’s coach for the 2014 Major League Soccer season.
That was the message Thursday from Tim Leiweke, president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, after the club officially announced it relieved Kevin Payne of his duties as TFC president and GM.
Leiweke cited "differences in direction" as the reason for firing Payne, who was hired last November by interim MLSE boss Tom Anselmi. Leiweke took over from Anselmi on June 30, having previously served as the former president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles Kings.
"We have not been afraid of making some tough and difficult decisions. This one was the hardest one so far, simply because not only was Kevin fairly new here, but Kevin and I go back a long way," Leiweke told reporters during a Thursday morning conference call.
"But it was an important decision because we got to get everyone on the same page at TFC. Kevin and I had some difference of opinion on direction, and over the last few weeks we realized it was best to ultimately part ways in order to get everyone on the same page here."
Known as the man who brought David Beckham to MLS, Leiweke confirmed that Earl Cochrane, TFC’s director of team and player operations, was also fired. Pat Onstad, hired by Payne as the team’s head scout, will remain with TFC for the time being, but will be reassigned.
Leiweke said that he and Payne agreed philosophically on the ways to build a successful team, referring to what he called the "four boxes": youth development, the collegiate draft, MLS trades and designated players. The difference of opinion between the two was over implementation of their shared philosophy, Leiweke said.
Leiweke confirmed a search for a new GM has already begun, and whoever replaces Payne will have to have MLS experience and know how to be able to exploit and master the intricacies of the league’s salary-cap system.
"I’ve seen the evolution of the league and the maturity of the league, and I think that calls for us to learn how to grow in the scope and the requirements of a general manager going forward," Leiweke explained. "We’ll steal a page from the NBA book here, and whoever we bring in, one of the disciplines and the scope they’ll have is (being) a capologist."
Leiweke also made it clear that Nelsen, hired by Payne in January, will remain as coach of TFC next season. The new general manager will have the freedom to build his staff, but he won’t be allowed to fire Nelsen.
"I’m comfortable with Ryan. He will be our coach next year. Ryan and I have spent a lot of time in the last week beginning to think through how we fill in the boxes that are necessary for us to be a great club. Ryan and I share the same philosophy and vision for where we want to go with the club," Leiweke stated.
He later added: "They have to inherit our decision on Ryan… They have to respect our decision and our support of Nelsen and getting behind Ryan. That’s the only restriction we’re going to have on the GM."
Before coming to Toronto, Payne spent the previous 17 seasons with D.C. United where he was the key figure in building the franchise into one of the most successful teams in league history. During his time as president and chief executive officer, D.C. United won four MLS Cup titles, four MLS Supporters Shields and two U.S. Open Cups.
The hope was he could do the same for TFC and end the team’s six season playoff drought. It didn’t work out that way, though. Payne leaves Toronto with the club sitting in second-last place in the 19-team league, with a 4-12-10 record and 22 points, and with the fan base even angrier than when he arrived. Although mathematically alive, TFC has been out of the playoff race since the beginning of the summer.
Despite the club’s failures on the field, Leiweke lauded Payne for some of the good work he did while in charge, specifically shedding some of the team’s hefty contracts, freeing up valuable salary cap space and acquiring a tidy amount of allocation money.
"He did a Yeoman’s job here on cleaning up bad contracts and giving us a chance to build going forward without some of the heavy burden and lack of cap space that we’ve been dealing with for a while here. He did a lot of good things. Clearly, that was the best gift that he will give back to us and to the next general manager – a lot more flexibility and freedom to go in the direction we want to go in," Leiweke said.
But ultimately, Leiweke felt a change had to be made right away and that the team had to get a new GM in place well ahead of the January transfer window, especially as the team has its sights on signing two designated players in the New Year.
"Some of the differences in direction (we had) relate to decisions that need to be made in the near future. Those decisions are going to be absolutely critical to the future success of this organization," Leiweke said.
"I knew that we wanted to find the right person that could come in and make those decisions and build the staff in advance of those decisions, instead of trying to do everything on the fly come January. It doesn’t make sense to me to have one person chasing and another person closing. That would not have helped our purpose."
Leiweke said that he and Nelsen have had conversations about specific DP targets.
But adding star power and marquee players is just one thing TFC has to do to help turn its fortunes around. Leiweke said the organization has to do a much better job of developing young and local talent.
"We have to double down on our commitment to growing some of the players and filling some of the boxes from within. Within a cap world that we live in, you are not going to solve our problems with DPs. You have to have great development from within… That is as high priority as a DP," Leiweke stated.
With the salary cap space and allocation money it has, Leiweke said he feels TFC can be competitive next season if it makes the right moves in the off-season.
We’ve all heard this before from previous Toronto FC coaches and GMs who have promised a lot but delivered very little.
Leiweke is well aware of this, and that’s why he extended the season ticket deadline until January, giving fans extra time to assess the club’s off-season moves before they decide whether or not to renew.
"I’m done with spinning… we have to roll up our sleeves here and quietly go out and get our job done," Leiweke said.
"I don’t want to build a marketing campaign around ‘we’re going to go do this; trust us.’ I’d rather go back to everyone and say keep your money until January and then we’ll come calling. Between now and then we better do a good job because I don’t think a marketing campaign is going to cut it this time."