Ryan Nelsen is out as Toronto FC manager, a statement that was almost inevitable. But in doing so at this point in the season the club may have created an unnecessary mess when the playoffs are still well within reach.
Ryan Nelsen never should have been hired by Toronto FC. This isn't a slight to the man's coaching abilities, or his personality. It isn't a way of verbally ensuring the door hits him on the way out. Instead, it is simply pointing out the obvious trend that should have negated him ever managing the club: he had no experience whatsoever. In fact, he famously was still playing in the Premier League when Kevin Payne tapped him to be the next manager of TFC.
Long ago, Toronto should have learned their lesson when it came to letting coaches cut their teeth on the red and white, now sometimes onyx, threads of the football club. Mo Johnson, John Carver, Chris Cummings, Nick Dasovic, Aron Winter and finally Paul Mariner had little or no experience as a first team manager. The only manager with any sort of suitable resume was Preki, though after some initial success, that didn't end up as the greatest advert for experience.
All that being said, Ryan Nelsen and his staff also never should have been fired yesterday, midseason and just prior to two games that will be crucial to their chances of making the playoff this year. At the same time, by hiring Greg Vanney as their ninth manager in eight seasons, it seems Toronto still have learnt nothing from their history. Absolutely, Vanney may sound good at a press conference and he knows the league. But there is no evidence that he can lead a squad of high end players at this level.
This isn't the MLS of the past, the league has absolutely changed for the better. The rosters are no longer filled with easily manageable North Americans, who likely have nothing more to their career than playing in Major League Soccer. Toronto FC now have some high end talent, recognized globally, in their lineup, players who have played for some of the best soccer organizations in the world. While a club eight years old cannot be expected to match that level, having a rookie head coach try to manage this talent is ridiculous.
Nelsen should have left with Payne, but the club missed their second logical opportunity. Bezbatchenko, or maybe even better Lieweke, should have been charged with putting a more experienced man in place who would be able to adequately deal with the pressures of coaching a team built to win. Instead, they forced their hand to make a decision like this that cripples the team at this crucial stage of the season.
Nelsen was never going to be the coach long-term in Toronto unless his learning curve on the job was absurd. He would have had to be an absolute natural to be expected to deliver on the lofty goals that this club created by opening the chequebook. He was also subjected to a savvy and ruthless Toronto media group, as well as a fan base made cynical by years of mismanagement and failure.
Instead, while he did show growth in these areas, it was the same problems game in and game out that likely ended up costing him his job. Tactics and formations were never his forte, and on several occasions he would be outcoached by more experienced managers with a better grasp on their team's construction. He was also incredibly stubborn with these tactics, refusing to change them, via a substitute or otherwise, even when they were visibly self-destructive for his club.
Lately, it was his failure to inspire the men he directed that may have been the final straw for the management team. As of late, Toronto has not only been mired in disappointing form in terms of wins and losses, they have looked lethargic, at best, in the process. Some matches they were only capable of one half of decent play, others they truly never showed up at all. This is also indicative of the player's performances, but will almost always end up at the feet of the manager.
His handling of the media was no better. He truly still had a player's mentality, as with many other things, something that is not surprising but also not ideal for a manager. This included a tendency to make what could be easily attributed as excuses, even when they maybe weren't mean to be. It also meant that he often deflected criticism away from himself and his decisions. More often than not, he felt "sorry for the guys" about the way a result had gone, instead of pointing out the underlying reasons why it had gone that way.
But make no mistake, the timing and nature of this move is debilitating for the club both on the field and off. For one, it makes the club once again appear weak during a season where they were supposed to be a "big deal". The time to make this move was either before the season or in the offseason, when it did not have an effect on the proceedings at hand. Especially when a playoff position is still well within reach.
The issues with this team are not something that can be fixed overnight, and Vanney's task may be even more precarious than Nelsen's. He is still without his captain Steven Caldwell, his star striker Jermain Defoe and the most consistent player on the roster in Justin Morrow. It is doubtful that in this short period of time Vanney will be able to get Toronto to play in a way that is better, or maybe even as good as Nelsen.
Sure this move may help the future, but one more colossal screw up, the likes of which this could be, and there may not be much longer for this club. You can only dangle shinny objects, your Defoe's and Michael Bradley's, in front of a fanbase so many times before they realize they aren't working and lose interest. Toronto may well need a playoff appearance this year, and blowing up the coaching staff days before two massive matches to kick off a crucial stretch isn't the answer.
Just as Ryan Nelsen was doomed to fail in Toronto so might this latest move by Toronto FC's front office. Manager number nine probably won't turn out to be the exception to the first time manager not working rule. Suddenly a bloody big deal has become a bloody big mess.
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