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Making a case for keeping/firing Ryan Nelsen

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Opinions on Ryan Nelsen are split and so are the numbers but here are a few figures to help you make your case about whether the bench boss should be back for the 2014 season.

Even Nelsen looks confused
Even Nelsen looks confused
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

The offseason has just begun for most teams in MLS but that has not stopped the coaching carousel from spinning full steam ahead.  With some coaches already being shown the door during the MLS season it was already setting up to be a crazy offseason but the surprising part is that the three teams with the worst records in MLS might be among the ones not making a coaching change.

There have been changes by the Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, and FC Dallas already with the chance of some more to follow if some playoff teams decide to change directions or coaches like Oscar Pareja get offers they can't refuse.  Sigi Schmid could still leave the Seattle Sounders if they don't get past the Portland Timbers, Jason Kreis may be wooed away from Real Salt Lake by the deep pockets of New York City FC.  It is going to be a wild ride.

With all that movement taking place in the coaching ranks it is surprising that the three teams at the bottom of the table may wind up staying put.  Now, Chivas USA have already made a coaching change this year when they replaced Chelis with Jose Louis Real so they are a bit of a different case, but Toronto FC and D.C. United seem set to put their faith in Ryan Nelsen and Ben Olsen despite both men leading their squads to terrible seasons.

There have been plenty of reasons offered for why DCU might make the decision to keep Olsen in charge.  Some of them being financial, others about loyalty to the man who led them on a good run in 2012 and helped them win the US Open Cup in 2013.  Either way it seems they are sticking with their man and so are Toronto FC.

The question is are Toronto right to put faith in Ryan Nelsen as the man to help turn this team around?  If you were to take a survey of fans who watched the team on a regular basis you would probably find that the opinions on Nelsen are extremely divided.  There is no clear consensus because Nelsen did not really show enough either way to prove just what he is capable of moving forward.

Were there signs of improvement over the course of the 2013 season? I would say that there were as the team became more solid defensively, conceded fewer goals (though 47 allowed was still 6th worst in MLS), were stronger against set pieces, and kept most games close.

Was there enough there to believe Nelsen is not about to turn the corner with this squad? You could also make a strong case for that considering the team only won 6 games, finished 17th in the league, had a terrible time scoring goals (30 is tied for 2nd worst in MLS), and they kept games close by barely hanging on and not actually looking like they had a chance of winning.

Depending on how you feel about Nelsen you can probably make a pretty strong case to support those feelings.  So here are some numbers to help you make a case one way or the other.

Ryan Nelsen won 6 out of 34 MLS games this season which is good for a win percentage of just 17.6%.  When you add in his cup performance (1 win, 1 defeat) that percentage moves up a bit 19.4% but that is the worst winning percentage of any coach Toronto FC have had.

Coach Winning % Points per Game
Chris Cummins 38.7 1.42
Preki 34.4 1.34
John Carver 30.6 1.20
Nick Dasovic 30 1.19
Aron Winter 28.1 1.17
Paul Mariner 21.4 0.93
Mo Johnston 20 0.83
Ryan Nelsen 19.4 0.94

The 11 draws that the team managed in MLS play under Nelsen this year do drive up his points per game total a bit but he is still only slightly better than Paul Mariner was in that department which is not exactly a good thing.  If the only thing that matters is results then Nelsen is among the worst coaches Toronto FC have ever had and that is saying something considering not one of them has ever led the team to a playoff appearance.

The strongest case that can be made for Nelsen seems to be that the team has made defensive improvements under his watch.  I look at the validity of the claim back in September but it is worth updating the numbers through to the end of the season to see where things stand.

Season Games Played Goals Allowed Goals against average
2007 30 49 1.63
2008 30 43 1.43
2009 30 46 1.53
2010 30 41 1.37
2011 34 59 1.74
2012 34 62 1.82
2013 34 47 1.38

That 1.38 goals against per game is actually a decent number and is comparable to many of the teams that are competing in the playoffs this year.  The best teams in MLS are closer to that 1 goal against range but only 5 teams allowed fewer than 40 goals (1.18 per game) this season.  There is certainly a case to be made there for Nelsen and the improvements that he made for the club.

The attacking side of things is where it all gets ugly for Nelsen and why this team lost so many games this year.  His teams 0.88 goals per game this season was not nearly good enough.

Season Games Played Goals Scored Goals per Game
2007 30 25 0.83
2008 30 34 1.13
2009 30 37 1.23
2010 30 33 1.1
2011 34 36 1.06
2012 34 36 1.06
2013 34 30 0.88

It does not look good for Nelsen as his team are the first Toronto FC squad to finish a season averaging under a goal per game since the inaugural season.  Considering that the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs this year found the back of the net 41 times while the average was closer to 50 there is a long way for TFC to go in terms of being competitive in the scoring department.

So now you have some numbers to backup your argument but the problem is that in this case the numbers only paint a limited picture.  Is it Nelsen's fault that the team could not score goals or was he just getting the best out of what he had to work with? Are the defensive improvements enough to validate keeping Nelsen on as head coach for next season?  Even if the club does bring in better forwards will Nelsen have any idea how to get the most out of them?

I am not going to sit here and try to make up anyone's mind about Ryan Nelsen as the head coach at Toronto FC.  The fact of the matter is that the numbers are just as split as the opinions seem to be and it remains easy to make a case one way or the other depending on how you feel about Nelsen.

There were some signs of improvement in 2013 and the team seems to be heading in a better direction but it is not like we have not seen these things before around the club only to have it all go terribly wrong.  Just remember though that for every Caleb Porter who is a smashing success in his first season there is a Jason Kreis who went 4-13-9 with Real Salt Lake in 2007 before turning them into a team capable of winning the MLS Cup.