Make it nine coaches in eight years for Toronto FC.
Coach Ryan Nelsen was fired by the Major League Soccer club on Sunday, less than 24 hours after he publicly took issue with comments made by general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. Also fired were all but one member of Nelsen’s coaching staff, including assistants Jim Brennan and Fran O’Leary. Assistant Jason Bent has been offered a position to remain with the club.
TFC assistant GM Greg Vanney will take over as the club’s full-time coach. Vanney, 40, will remain as the team’s youth academy director for the time being, and is in the process of putting together his coaching staff, looking at both internal and external options.
In the wake of this news, a team source told Sportsnet that Premier League club Queens Park Rangers has offered $11 million for TFC’s leading goal-scorer Jermain Defoe.
Defoe is currently in his native England getting a second opinion on his nagging groin injury that has sidelined him four of the Reds’ last five games. If Toronto is going to sell Defoe, it has until the end of the transfer window which closes on Monday. Bezbatchenko confirmed that Toronto has received a transfer offer for the English striker, but wouldn't specify who has asked.
“No decision has been made. We’ll discuss it over the next 24 hours... We’ve been in communication with [Defoe] and his people,” Bezbatchenko told reporters during a Sunday evening press conference.
He later added: “I believe he’s going to stay but there’s still time between now and the end of the transfer window. I don’t think he wants to leave. There’s obviously some changes at the club and he’s dealing with an injury. As a player you can go in a number of ways during your rehab.”
Toronto sits fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 9-9-6 record, and is tied with New England and Columbus on 33 points. The top five clubs qualify for the playoffs. New York (31 points), Philadelphia (30) and Chicago (29) have all made up ground on TFC recently, although the Reds still have games in hand on all the teams chasing them.
With 10 matches left in the season, TFC, who has never qualified for the post-season, controls its playoff fate. But there’s reason to worry, what with three key starters out injured (Defoe, and defenders Steven Caldwell and Justin Morrow) and a poor run of defensive form (26 goals against in 13 matches).
“We have 10 games remaining with 30 points [available]. If we waited any longer then it may have been too late,” Bezbatchenko stated.
The decision to fire the coaching staff comes in the aftermath of Nelsen criticizing Bezbatchenko after the GM told reporters on Friday that TFC players have to “take it up a notch” following a string of poor performances in recent weeks. At the start of the summer the Reds looked a sure bet to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. But with just three wins and one clean sheet in its last 13 games, Toronto has been dragged down into a tight and heated playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve assembled an extremely talented squad [with a lot of experience] and together it’s time to for all of that experience to show and take it up a notch,” Bezbatchenko said Friday.
The Reds then sputtered to a 3-0 loss to the New England Revolution on Saturday. Nelsen was asked in the post-match press conference if Bezbatchenko’s comments about the players needing to turn it up a notch were helpful.
“Not at all. Absolutely not. … I’ve played in some hot pressure games. One thing I do know is that this was not one of them. It affected the guys. What we do at TFC is we keep it in house. Everything we do we keep inside the four walls. Everything stays inside the four walls,” Nelsen said.
But Bezbatchenko stated in the strongest possible manner that the decision to fire Nelsen had nothing to do with his post-match rant.
“Absolutely not. Over the past two weeks we’ve been discussing this among our leadership team. I made the decision last night but it was something I was considering, holding off on before the game to see if we could turn it around. Last night’s performance, obviously, was lacking something, lacking energy,” Bezbatchenko said.
“So the decision was made after the game but it goes back over a two-week period of time and looking back at the last  matches. The decision was completely unrelated to the comments made by Ryan.”
Bezbatchenko later added: “We’re in a results-oriented business and over the past 13 matches we’ve won three times. ... I know we can get more out of this group of players. I think we’ve lacked purpose, both offensively and defensively, and I think that’s something that Greg can provide.”
Asked about Nelsen’s claim that Bezbatchenko’s public challenge put undue pressure on the players, the club’s GM responded: “I think they’re excuses. We’re not in the excuse business here.”
More on TFC: To listen to John Molinaro’s interview with Sportsnet FAN 590 on Ryan Nelsen being fired and Jermian Defoe possibly being on his way out, CLICK HERE
Nelsen joins a growing list of departed TFC coaches that includes Mo Johnston (2006-08), John Carver (2008-09), Chris Cummins (2009), Preki (2009-10), Nick Dasovic (2010), Aaron Winter (2011-12) and Paul Mariner (2012-13).
“I am very sensitive to the fact that we’ve gone through a number of coaching changes. But I can’t let history dictate what I feel is the appropriate decision to make,” Bezbatchenko offered. “I can’t use the past and dwell on the past. I really want to look forward.”
Nelsen, a former New Zealand international, was still playing for QPR when he was hired by Toronto. He retired as a player a few weeks later. In two seasons in charge of the Reds, Nelsen led the team to an 18-28-18 record in MLS and Amway Canadian Championship play.
Bezbatchenko said that his relationship with Nelsen hadn’t deteriorated.
“It was a strong relationship. It wasn’t personal. This was just about results and a long-term plan we have at TFC. ... It’s primarily about results,” Bezbatchenko explained.
Vanney has to hit the ground running—Toronto travels to Philadelphia to take on the Union on Wednesday night, and then hosts Philadelphia next Saturday afternoon. A crucial road match in Chicago, another team in the playoff mix in the East, looms after that, followed by games against Chivas USA, Portland and Los Angeles. It’s a six-game stretch that could seal TFC’s post-season fate one way or another.
Vanney, who played for the LA Galaxy during his playing career, wants to increase the team’s energy level on the field compared to what it’s been at in recent games under Nelsen.
“I think we need to be more aggressive, we need to be less fearful of making mistakes and looking to be more aggressive, to try to go and get three points, and not necessarily [play] not lose points. The priority here is to unleash the players, take the burden and allow them to express themselves and change the energy,” Vanney said.
Asked point blank if TFC will make the playoffs, Bezbatchenko didn’t flinch in answering, “Yeah, absolutely.”
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