Kevin Payne did many great things for D.C. United and MLS, overseeing an early dynasty, serving as face of an prosperous organization and lending an influential voice to the sport for two decades. But his fault was always thinking he was the smartest guy in the room on soccer matters. With the hiring of Ryan Nelsen as Toronto FC’s head coach, he might have outsmarted himself.
This is not the first time an MLS club has hired someone with no head coaching experience. Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis turned in his jersey for a jacket and tie in the blink of an eye. In Washington, Payne hired Peter Nowak, who was a year removed from a distinguished playing career, and in 2010 promoted Ben Olsen with less than a year’s experience as an assistant (but only after declaring during the search process that Olsen wasn’t quite ready for the full-time gig).
All three went on to become successful leaders: Kreis and Nowak won MLS Cup titles and Olsen has overseen United’s two-year resurrection. But what they all had in common was MLS continuity. They were invested in American soccer and in the league, lived and worked in the country. Each had a deep understanding of league mechanics – of its personality, quirks and unique demands.
Nelsen is no stranger to MLS, having captained United to the 2004 championship in his fourth and final season here. A New Zealander who played at Greensboro College and Stanford, he also appreciates MLS player development, which relies on a university feeder system for a portion of roster makeup. (Nellie was a first-round draft pick himself in 2001.) It’s a concept that foreign coaches don’t understand or appreciate.
That said, because of the abrupt decision and the fact he remains under contract with QPR, Nelsen will miss the MLS scouting combine and draft this year. It also remains unclear when he will report to Toronto for full-time duty — not exactly the best arrangement for a club in the dumps.
In the future, Nelsen won’t need a tutorial on the draft or about submitting discovery claims on potential targets. And he will be able to turn to Payne for guidance. For better or worse, the former D.C. United president had his hands in personnel matters in Washington and is well-versed in player acquisition protocol.
But Nelsen has been gone for more than eight years, and besides transitioning from a player into a coach, he must calibrate his soccer mind from the workings of the world’s most popular league to one of the world’s youngest leagues – one that has made massive strides the past decade but is far from a finished product.
He also must adjust to a club that has been adrift for most of its six seasons and sank to new lows last year. Aside from four straight Canadian Championship titles, CONCACAF appearances, a handsome lakeside stadium and once-perfect attendance figures, Toronto has had little to show for itself.
The hiring of Nelsen — natural-born leader, tenacious worker, as well as Olympic, World Cup and EPL veteran — was a bold move by a team in need of bold change. (I might bet on Nelsen having more success than Montreal’s new hire, who has years of experience in the Swiss league and worked as a FIFA instructor in, among other places, Mongolia.) But it’s also a decision that comes with enormous uncertainty and, given Nelsen’s coaching inexperience, asks for even more patience from a fed-up fan base.