You already knew that Ryan Nelsen was going to be introduced as coach today, and maybe thought 'meh, I've seen Toronto FC do this a bunch of times before, no need to watch'. That's the way it started as well, all the usual platitudes about the amazing fans, and what a fantastic organisation TFC/MLSE are off the pitch etc etc, but then boom, the surprise twist that had even veteran TFC watchers gasping and chuckling, and no doubt had Tom Anselmi thanking whatever almighty dollar he worships that he wasn't up there to have to deal with this one.
Yes, Nelsen will actually be a player/coach, but the 'player' portion of that still refers to EPL side Queens Park Rangers, where he's under contract until the end of this season. ie May. ie a very large chunk of the MLS season away. Yep.
My initial reaction was a mix of shock and dismay at the thought of the 2013 season looking even more like a write off than it did before when all we had to worry about was a thoroughly unprepared looking squad, and amusement/admiration at just how brazenly and cavalierly Kevin Payne, Nelsen and new assistant coach Fran O'Leary went through the press conference. Nope, he certainly wouldn't be around for the MLS Combine and SuperDraft. Nope he probably wouldn't be around for first kick, yep he may well be staying with QPR all the way to the end of the season. But that's OK, O'leary can take care of the coaching until then, and nope he doesn't have anypro head coaching experience either, but that's ok as well. Wheeeeee.
After a few hours to get past the stunned initial reaction, I'm a little more sanguine about the curious QPR player/TFC coach aspect of it, for a few different reasons, some more definite than others.
Firstly, You've got to think that TFC are negotiating to have Nelsen released from QPR sooner than the end of the season, so hopefully his absence won't be as long as described. Obviously until any deal is set, Nelsen has to say that he's committed to QPR until the end, so that timeline should be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, maybe he will be seeing out the season with them though, Payne suggested that to not do that would be out of character for such a model professional, and it may well be just too expensive or impractical to get him out of his contract even if he wanted to.
Whether Nelsen does arrive in mid season to take over, or gets out of his QPR contract earlier than that, it wouldn't really have been fair to Paul Mariner to keep him on as a lame duck coach, or string him along that he was still the first choice. Also, it wouldn't really make sense for the future of the club to keep going with Mariner and then have to change course in mid season. Best to let him go now, bite the bullet, suffer through the jokes and mockery and a few months of awkwardness with the head coach on the other side of the Atlantic, for the sake of what's best for the long term.
Is this actually what's best for the long term? Once you get past the farce of the announcement, I'd say yes it will be. Nelsen is obviously someone that Payne has wanted to work with for a long time, the only candidate considered for this job he said, and the opportunity may not have come up in the future. O'Leary has worked with Nelsen in the past and obviously impressed him and so it now seems like we have 3 people in a clear line of command, all on the same page (where Thomas Rongen and Earl Cochrane fit in exactly is another question), which is a nice change to what we ended up with after the Winter/Mariner/De Klerk hiring.
I wrote yesterday about how bringing in Nelsen was Kevin Payne putting his stamp on the club, well it's even bigger than we thought. The easy way, the safe way, would have been to keep going with Paul Mariner, with the idea of bringing in Nelsen as a replacement if things go wrong, or as an assistant if things go well. By taking this risk and doing it this way, leaving himself coachless for potentially months, for an eventual rookie coach no less, Payne has taken away the safety net beneath him, he'll need to get results faster. Nobody was realistically expecting much in 2013, but after letting Mariner go for the sake of this half prepared solution, there'll be a lot more scrutiny, more heat and fewer excuses accepted if struggles last into the 2014 season.
Many supporters wanted an experienced football man brought in as president and allowed to do whatever he wanted, to build his own staff, his own team. Well, Caveat Emptor everyone, that's what we've got and after a month or so to figure things out, that's what he's done. He's put his neck on the line, and shortened his own leash with this move. If it all goes wrong, this day will be looked back on as the day the emperors nakedness was exposed. If it goes right, it'll be seen as a turning point, the day Payne took the club by the scruff of the neck and the dysfunction was stopped (though in a very dysfunctional fashion). Is Payne crazy like a fox or just plain crazy? Hindsight's going to be a lot of fun.