Any doubts that Kevin Payne was his own man were blown away today with Paul Mariner replaced as head coach by Ryan Nelsen. For years now, since Toronto FC's special level of dysfunction became clear, fans have hoped that TFC would take the next step down MLSE's standard path, that of admitting they don't know what they're doing and bringing in the big name executive with the record of success.
Bryan Colangelo and Brian Burke were brought in amid much fanfare, Payne would obviously be TFC's equivalent. It's a surprise though that he's already taken it one step further than those two. They both had head coaches already in place, Sam Mitchell and Ron Wilson respectively, and both kept them on for a while before eventually firing them. Payne of course inherited Mariner, but has now fired him before the first season started, bringing in his own man in Ryan Nelsen.
The question has to be, was this Payne's plan all along? Nelsen obviously made an impression on Payne while both were at DC, and was linked with coming back to DC in the 2012 transfer window before Tottenham Hotspur tempted him into keeping going in, from where he moved on to Queens Park Rangers. How long has this deal been in the works? Is it a recent development, or something that Payne has been working on but had to keep quiet until the transfer window opened?
At his introduction as President, Payne gave what seemed a qualified endorsement of Mariner's status, saying "Paul Mariner is the coach of Toronto FC. He's a person I have a lot of respect for, competed against for a number of years in the East, when he was a key member of the success in New England...I'll need to spend more time with folks and understand them, but we'll take that time in due course." Was it during that time that he realised it wouldn't work? Did Nelsen reach out to Payne to let him know he'd be interested in starting his managerial career, or was this the plan all along?
The question of timing really rears it's head when you think about the moves that have been made since Payne came on board at the end of November. The re-entry draft, all the players released for that, the re-signing of Andrew Wiedeman and Jeremy Hall, the selection of Danny Califf, the signing of Gale Agbosssoumonde, the reported signing of Arnold Peralta (apparently CD Vida's president was meeting on Monday with Peralta and his agent to finalise the transfer, those reports form kind of got lost amid all this.) Was Nelsen consulted on any of those deals? Was Mariner? Do we once again have someone coming in and having to deal with someone else's team?
We'll hopefully get some kind of clarity on all that from tomorrow's press conference and hopefully any lingering questions on his role will be cleared up as well. Early rumours were suggesting player/assistant coach, will he be able to combine head coaching duties with playing or is hanging up his boots? He was after all a regular in QPR's defence this season, some would suggest their most important defender, and New Zealand are right in the middle of World Cup Qualifying (as an aside, When New Zealand win Oceania, they have to play the 4th place Concacaf team from the Hex, how sweet would it be if TFC's coach knocked Honduras out). The World Cup itself is only a year and a half away, Nelsen would surely be a part of that if he wanted to be, is he really ready to walk away from his playing career?
That question leads to another as if he were to go off to play with New Zealand, his assistant would have to take over, so who's his assistant going to be? Jim Brennan's still holding on to that for now, but will Nelsen and Payne be bringing in someone else, someone with more experience perhaps to accompany the neophyte coach?
Whatever the answer to those questions, Nelsen's the new coach, and it's a huge gamble, as TFC have done the rookie coach thing a lot, never with any great success, Preki remains the most experienced coach TFC have ever hired, with 3 (count 'em 3!) seasons under his belt.
Payne is obviously by the far most qualified person we've ever had hiring a coach and he obviously has a lot of respect for Nelsen, as do most who know him though his playing career. There are plenty of good players who don't become good coaches and obviously some of them do, and usually it's not about skill, but it's more about brains, integrity and leadership, by all accounts Nelsen has those by the bucketful, so this might well work out. He's certainly got the playing career to garner respect, with plenty of time in the EPL following a very successful MLS career at DC.
Payne's got a track record as well, with Ben Olsen, and Piotr Nowak, and you can look at Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake for another example of a player successfully moving to coach. Olsen and Kreis are probably the best comparisons, as both took over clubs that were struggling. Neither of them made the playoffs in their first year, and even in their more successful years were touch and go to make it. More than likely that's what TFC will be looking at as their best case scenario. Signs of improvement are what we'll have to be looking for, and hanging on to in 2013.
That probably would have been the case even if Mariner had still been in the job. This extra change in direction may make things a little harder for TFC in the short term as Nelsen gets to grips with the job and the squad of players he inherits. Conversely though, it should make it easier for those fans who grew jaded in 2012 to give the club a clean slate and give them the time necessary.
Once again Ladies and Gentlemen, give it up for TFC's whistler in chief, Axl Rose.