The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Ryan Nelsen loses power struggle at Toronto FC, fails to complete turnaround
TORONTO - It was the worst and lowest-paying job offer on the table.
But Ryan Nelsen said yes to Toronto FC in January 2013, reckoning he could learn more from trying to resuscitate a perennial MLS loser than sit on a bench as an assistant coach at an English Premier League club.
Twenty months later, Nelsen's education in Toronto is over. General manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who inherited Nelsen as coach when he was hired last September, fired the former New Zealand international Sunday.
In an interview with The Canadian Press last Wednesday — when he suspected the axe was coming — Nelsen mused about why he chose to become Toronto's eighth coach in seven years.
The biggest challenge is the most rewarding, he reasoned.
"For me, my biggest enjoyment I get from work — whether it's in little business stuff or anything — is to take something that's nothing or crap (and) build it into something that's respectable and good ... because that's where you learn the most," a relaxed Nelsen said while sitting in the sunshine at the club's $20-million-plus training centre.
"And once you've turned into something that's really good, then it doesn't have the same interest for me ... Then I'll probably move on."
He never reached his goal in Toronto despite rebuilding the roster, earning the franchise much-needed respect and steering the club towards the playoffs for the first time.
In axing Nelsen and five assistant coaches, Bezbatchenko cited the 9-9-6's team's disappointing record of late — Toronto is 3-5-5 in its last 13 games. Greg Vanney, Bezbatchenko's assistant GM and academy director, took over as coach.
In truth, the 32-year-old rookie GM had been at odds with Nelsen for some time.
Bezbatchenko, a former league official described as "wicked smart" by MLS commissioner Don Garber, won a power play to rid himself of Nelsen and his assistant coaches.
The coaching staff had been responsible for many of the team's recent deals, having filling a void left by the previous regime. Toronto went from being a franchise routinely fleeced to one Nelsen believed was one of the league's "stealthiest."
Bezbatchenko, who clearly was not on the same page as the coaching staff, was not willing to sit on the sidelines.
A recent point of contention was the purchase of a pricey analytics service. Nelsen is not averse to analytics but saw the outlay — and the front office's focus on numbers — as somewhat out of whack given the team's success in horse-trading.
Bezbatchenko and Vanney made a point Sunday of talking up the worth of analytics.
In recent weeks, as Bezbatchenko flexed his muscle, Nelsen resisted — only to see support from outgoing MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke fade.
Leiweke once had Nelsen's back, retaining "Nellie" as coach when he axed team president Kevin Payne in September 2013.
"What I am certain of is that with respect to the way that we need to go as an organization, Ryan sees the world exactly the way we do," Leiweke said at the time. "I'm supportive of Ryan. He will be our coach next year."
That changed. Nelson, it appears, was on a short leash.
"I was loyal to Nellie and I think Nellie was loyal to the organization," Leiweke said Sunday after the firing. "But that said, we always knew that there would be a pretty short window here as to if things went south, due to how competitive everything is.
"And with that said the team obviously not only did not play well but really didn't show up."
Leiweke has his own masters. And Toronto FC was his baby, with a playoff guarantee and buckets of money poured into his pet project.
Even while headed to the MLSE door, Leiweke could not afford to see his team fail to deliver. Especially when the franchise, traditionally a cash generator, will lose money this season due to the megabucks lavished on star striker Jermain Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley.
Reminded that Toronto FC was one win away from tying the franchise record of 10, set in 2009, Leiweke replied: "We're also one game away from being out of the playoffs."
Still Leiweke made a point of saying the decision to unseat Nelsen was Bezbatchenko's — an employee he has jokingly referred to as Harry Potter.
"This was a decision Tim made and I fully supported," Leiweke said. "You can't have a team quit on you. And it's unfortunate and I'm not sure it's all Nellie's fault. I think the team has to step up and accept some of the blame here too. But that said we can't let the season slip away. But that said and we're going to do anything and everything we can to try and make the playoffs."
Nelsen, not surprising, saw things differently. He believed his revamped team was headed in the right direction, but hitting dips or plateaus as it learned along the way.
"We'll kick on again and then we'll have our roadblocks where everyone will call us crap again," he said with a smile. "And next thing you know — whatever time, and it will be in the future — we'll be crushing teams and you'll be going 'Oh you only won 3-0 today.'"
Nelsen firmly believed that Toronto FC would be the class of the league next year.
The manager did not go out quietly. The night before his firing was announced, Nelsen lambasted Bezbatchenko for issuing a challenge to his club "to take it up a notch."
In an astonishing rebuke to his superior, Nelsen essentially accused his GM of sabotaging his club by ratcheting up the pressure on the players. Nelsen, it should be noted, waited until he was asked about Bezbatchenko's comments before firing his broadside at the news conference following Toronto's 3-0 loss to New England.
On Sunday, Bezbatchenko dismissed Nelsen's tirade as "excuses."
Saturday's loss was a lacklustre performance, the kind that gets coaches fired. But there had been forces behind the scenes in the days leading up to the match.
In hindsight, one can see Bezbatchenko's pre-game comments as piling the pressure on Nelsen and setting the stage for the firing. The GM chose his words carefully, ensuring he did not throw anyone under the bus. But it was nearby and the engine was running.
Nelsen's approach to the media was always more guarded and less Machiavellian.
"In all honesty here, do you really think I'm the same person in front of the media and in front of people I don't know as I am in the changing room with the guys I have to be with in day in and day out?'' he said in 2013. "I mean it's professional football, this is proper stuff, this is not a Sunday kickaround.
"There's ripple effects of whatever you say in the media.''
Still Nelsen's raw reaction to Bezbatchenko's comments was not entirely unexpected.
While captain at Blackburn Rovers, he spoke out against the ownership for failing to communicate properly with the players over the firing of manager Sam Allardyce. Nelsen, who had learned of the sacking via TV, was unceremoniously shown the door himself a little more than a year later.
In hiring Nelsen, Toronto was taking a gamble on a player with no managerial experience.
But Nelsen is driven. Not the most physically gifted athlete, he earned his keep at the highest levels on the field through hard work and smarts.
And he had been planning for his move to the sidelines for years, observing other managers and making notes. Every training session in his first Toronto FC pre-season was planned weeks or months in advance.
Nelsen also arrived with a substantial Rolodex, contacts that benefited Toronto FC greatly.
His ties to QPR and manager Harry Redknapp — not to mention MLSE's deep pockets — resulted in the arrival of Defoe and Brazil No. 1 goalkeeper Julio Cesar, acquisitions that earned TFC worldwide coverage.
Nelsen's network, via an agent, also helped net Brazil's Gilberto.
On the minus side, Nelsen was stubborn at times. Players like veteran Canadian attacking midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, a local favourite, simply fell off his radar.
Given DeRo's lack of playing time under Nelsen and Bezbatchenko's support of the player in the wake of Nelsen's firing, one can guess whose signing that was.
Nelsen, who kept his player opinions in-house, acknowledged he could improve in the area of management.
"I think if you asked anybody they'd probably always tell you they could be a bit better. It's really hard because you have 23 guys who all want to play, so there's always going to be 12 pissed-off guys."
He also rued the gap in sports science systems the club instituted going into this season, meaning the club's fitness regimen started with a hiccup.
Some things were out of his control. He did not particularly want to hold training camp in Florida again but the league was anxious to have its teams take part in the pre-season tournament there.
Next year, he hoped to take the club to New Zealand to take advantage of the summer conditions and local opposition. But he feared such an adventure might be unfeasible, given the league's looming labour negotiations.
Shed no tears for Nelsen, whose canny business instincts have already led to his own winery and real estate holdings around the globe. He will land on his feet.
"I wish the players all the success as they make the playoffs and I enjoyed every moment working with the other coaches putting the team together," Nelsen said in a text Monday to The Canadian Press. "Wish only success for TFC."
Lost in the coverage of Nelsen's departure is the 5-21-8 team he inherited at the beginning of 2013.
"What we had in pre-season was probably the worst put-together squad in the history of the league,'' he said in December 2013. "It was that bad. It was actually terminal.''
In its 2013 transactions section, the MLS website lists 26 players going out the door at Toronto FC and 27 coming in. The 2014 list has 10 more players coming in and 17 leaving.
Nelsen will look back at Toronto FC and wonder what might have been.
"When you're on the outside, you just want to flick a switch, you just want everything to be great," he lamented last week. "Fans just want it to be great ... but no matter what, every team has to go through these little ups and downs."
The clock is now on Bezbatchenko, who has his hand-picked coach and a looming void in the corporate structure above him. Toronto FC, warts and all, is his team now.
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