With great power comes great responsibility.
If Ryan Nelsen hadn’t already heard of this famous quote, popularized by the iconic Spider-Man comic book, you can bet he has familiarized himself with it by now.
A major off-season overhaul—highlighted by the signings of three new DPS in Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto—has not only transformed Toronto FC into a contender, but it’s made the Reds the talk of the town.
For the first time in a very long time there is legitimate buzz about TFC. The soccer club’s off-season exploits was the lead story on Sportsnet’s Connected and TSN’s SportsCentre on Monday night, with both networks giving the Reds up to seven minutes of coverage at the top of their respective broadcasts. TFC made the front cover of Tuesday’s edition of the Toronto Sun—not the front page of the sports section, but the front of the entire newspaper—and the city’s all-sports radio stations have dedicated massive amounts of air time to the MLS club. TFC never gets, or deserves, that kind of top billing—and certainly never for anything good.
Want more proof that TFC is red hot? Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment told the Toronto Star that 92 per cent of the club’s 17,000 season tickets have been sold, with most being snapped up over the last few days.
The size and magnitude of what TFC has done this off-season can’t be over-stated. MLSE reportedly spent over $100 million on transfer fees and salaries to lure Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto to Toronto. The club is going to lose money this season, and MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke is thinking long-term. Preliminary plans to expand BMO Field to 30,000 seats (with temporary seating for 40,000), at a cost of $140 million, are being driven not only by the possibility of hosting the Winter Classic but putting a soccer team on the pitch that can fill the stadium each week.
You don’t spend that kind of money without expecting a major return on your investment. Failure is not an option for Toronto FC at this point. Nobody at MLSE is planning the parade route to celebrate a league championship in 2014 or making room in the trophy cabinet for the MLS Cup.
But making the playoffs? That’s the bare minimum this season, which means Nelsen is firmly in the hot seat. Make no mistake about it: His job is on the line.
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Nelsen has to guide the Reds into the post-season in 2014, and how far the team goes in the playoffs, not to mention the team’s immediate on-field fortunes, rest almost entirely on his shoulders. That’s a massive responsibility for any manager, never mind an inexperienced coach such as Nelsen.
Is he up for the challenge? The jury is still out on that score.
TFC was not the most talent-laden side in MLS last season, to be sure. But Nelsen had enough to work with that this team should have been better than 6-17-11 and 29 points, and even those numbers flattered the Reds—keep in mind that two wins and seven points were earned over three games against last-place D.C. United. Even with the litany of injures he had to deal with, there was no excuse for such a poor season with the quality of players Nelsen had at his disposal.
TFC’s decision last January to hire Nelsen, who at the time was an active player and admitted he hadn’t even taken any coaching courses, was a bold move. It’s an even bolder now that he’s in charge of franchise with so much high-priced talent that is also looking to put seven losing seasons behind itself.
It’s one thing to take a chance on a young coach when you’re rebuilding. Ben Olsen and Jason Kreis were both given opportunities while young and unproven, yet they’ve proven to be two of the league’s brightest and most promising coaches. Those gambles paid off.
But it’s another matter entirely when a young and experienced coach such as Nelsen finds himself at the helm of a Toronto FC side whose rebuilding project is being fuelled by over $100 million. There is absolutely no room for error, as Nelsen will have already been told by Leiweke.
More than one member of the TFC press pack suggested the club gambled in picking Nelsen to succeed Paul Mariner, and this correspondent has routinely said that the former New Zealand international shouldn’t have been hired in the first place.
That ship has long sailed, though, and Nelsen has been charged with turning things around. He received a free pass last season. That’s over. The excuses that he trotted out so often last season after losses won’t be accepted. He’s had a major hand in rebuilding the roster. This is his team. It’s all on him now.
Nelsen played crucial roles in bringing both Defoe and Gilberto to Toronto, and for that he deserves all the credit in the world.
He’s shown that he has the contacts and networking skills to build a club. Now he has to prove he has the managerial acumen to shape this diverse collection of players into a winning team.
John Molinaro is Sportsnet’s chief soccer reporter. Follow him on Twitter.