by Craig Forrest, Sportsnet, January 10
I’ve been to all eight press conferences for the unveiling of Toronto FC coaches since the team entered Major League Soccer in 2007, from Mo Johnston to Paul Mariner and everybody in between.
But I have to admit that this week’s event at BMO Field announcing Ryan Nelsen as the Reds’ new coach was easily the strangest of them all.
The buzz word amongst the media at the press conference was “bizarre,” and that word perfectly describes this situation.
Nelsen is a good, reliable and solid player. He’s been one of QPR’s best players this season, and before that he distinguished himself during his time at Blackburn. And based on his leadership skills both for club and country on the field, I think it’s fair to say he has what it takes to be a good coach one day.
But being a good player doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be successful coach right off the bat. Like anything else, it takes time.
During my time in the Premiership, I was a teammate of a number of players (players who had far more successful careers than Nelsen) who went into coaching. Guys like Paolo Di Canio, Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit, Mark Hughes, Dan Petrescu, Gianfranco Zola, Stuart Pearce, Frank Yallop and Robero Di Matteo. All of them struggled at the beginning of their coaching careers before eventually finding their way. Some are still struggling.
My point is that I believe TFC acted in haste in making this decision. It’s far too early to for Nelsen, a New Zealand international who played at the 2010 World Cup, to get his first head coaching job at the professional level, especially considering he has no coaching badges or coaching license.
For me, it would have made a lot more sense to bring him in as an assistant coach and let him learn, and gain some seasoning and experience what it’s like to deal with players as a manager. Nelsen is a young man, at 35, so he has plenty of time to be groomed and develop into a proper coach.
The way TFC are doing it, they are essentially throwing Nelsen into the deep end of the pool, and that’s not exactly fair to him as they’re not providing him a platform to succeed.
Ideally, Nelsen will be at Toronto for the start of the MLS season, but he still has to work things out with QPR in order to get an early release. But if he can’t and he has to wait until May when the Premiership season ends to begin with TFC, I think that’s a disaster waiting to happen, especially as interim coach Fran O’Leary has also never coached at the professional level.
I respect the fact Kevin Payne likes to give coaching opportunities to young guys. He has a track record of success with it. Peter Nowak and Ben Olsen are proof of that. And I’d like to see more young coaches, especially Canadians, be given more opportunities within MLS.
But considering how much trouble TFC is in (having not made the playoffs in six years and with the fans’ distrust at an all-time high), it would have made more sense to go with a more established coach who at the very least has some experience.
What the situation called for was a safer bet, going with someone who ideally (but not necessarily) had coached in MLS before. Picking someone who has never coached before is a very big gamble, and I can’t help but wonder how badly things will turn for TFC if this fails. What would MLSE do then?
The club is trouble as it is, but can you imagine what it would be like if this team is even worse than last season when it finished last place? Things are pretty ugly right now with Toronto FC. But I shudder to think how uglier they could get if Nelsen turns out to be a disaster as a coach.