Soccer: Nelsen is in the firing line

By Michael Burgess

Ryan Nelsen says he is "loving the challenge" of football management at Toronto. Photo / Getty Images
Ryan Nelsen says he is "loving the challenge" of football management at Toronto. Photo / Getty Images

Ryan Nelsen admits he is on the edge.

At the end of a difficult first season at Toronto FC, which saw the team win only six games and the rookie manager sent off during one match, the always frank Nelsen is realistic about his prospects at the MLS team.

"They won't give me much more time," Nelsen told the Herald on Sunday. "It was pretty awful here when I arrived and we are in much better shape now but we will have to start turning things around soon."

Toronto finished 17th of 19 teams in the MLS, a whopping 20 points from a play-off position. They lost five matches on the trot at one point and goalscoring was a major issue, netting only 30 goals in 34 games (only one team scored less). Statistically, Nelsen has the worst winning percentage (19.4 per cent) of any manager in the club's eight-year history.

General manager Kevin Payne, seen as the major ally and driver of Nelsen's surprise appointment (and who had won six championships with D.C.

United), was fired in September by the club's owners.

"I've learned more in a year here than I did in the past 10 years of football," says Nelsen. "The club was in a hole when I arrived - it was pretty awful."

Toronto, who have never reached the MLS play-offs, had churned through seven managers in the previous six seasons. Nelsen inherited a poor quality squad with over-paid players on badly structured contracts and many players not up to MLS standard.

"We had five players that were taking up 81 per cent of the wage bill," explains Nelsen, "and three of those players couldn't take the field, for various reasons. The club was just stuck with these bad contracts."

For someone in his first season in the dugout, Nelsen didn't shirk responsibility. He shipped out 26 players and 27 new faces were brought to the club in a huge re-building job.

"We had to stop the bleeding," says Nelsen. "We had to try and provide a base for the future. The fans and media can get on top of you but you need to stick to your guns. It's not about me, it's about the club. Even if I did get fired, the club will be in good shape in terms of the playing personnel and the salary cap situation; I'm quite proud of the transformation here."

Not surprisingly, Nelsen's Toronto excelled at the defensive end of the field. Despite languishing at the foot of the league table, they were rarely cannon fodder - 12 of their 17 defeats were by a one-goal margin. In terms of goals conceded, they had the second best record in the history of the franchise - but it wasn't enough.

"I was probably a bit naive," admits Nelsen. "No matter how organised you are and how good your work ethic is, it still comes down to quality. It is quite nerve-wracking watching - you make one mistake and it can be all over."

Nelsen has backed his instincts despite his managerial inexperience. After a rival coach said he found out about Toronto's starting XI from journalists' tweeting at training sessions, he quickly moved to restrict access to daily practices to the MLS minimum. Locally, he won admirers for refusing to criticise individual players publicly, saying it was unnecessary and just a tool used by coaches to deflect criticism.

The 36-year-old is still mystified by his ejection during a match against Kansas City in September. It came shortly after his assistant manager had been sent from the field, as both of them had questioned several decisions from the men in the middle.

"Fran [O'Leary] was sent off for something very minor," remembers Nelsen. "I approached him and said 'That's fine, but I bet you don't have the guts to sent me off'. It turned out he did."

Nelsen says he is "loving the challenge" of management and can't wait for next season to begin. Toronto are on the hunt for strikers and the club has been strongly linked with Tottenham's Jermain Defoe, as well as Samuel Eto'o and Alberto Gilardino. Nelsen played with Defoe at Spurs - "he's a clinical, quality striker and would be a great buy" but won't be drawn on the prospects of Defoe moving across the Atlantic Ocean.

As he has struggled in North America, the All Whites struggled without him in November, conceding nine goals to Mexico to kill their World Cup dreams. Nelsen confirmed he was asked "four or five days" before the match at the Azteca Stadium if he would join the team in a mentor role.

"I needed more notice," says Nelsen. "I would have liked to but I had some obligations over here that I just couldn't get out of."

Despite the defeats, the former All Whites captain remains positive about the future of New Zealand football. He is enthusiastic about the core of young professionals coming into the All Whites and points out that the massive television rights (said to be $5 million) for the Wellington match has secured the financial future of the game for the next World Cup cycle.

Meanwhile, Nelsen is not surprised by the current match-fixing dramas in British football, saying that it was "often talked about" in dressing rooms during his long Premier League career.

The issue has come to the fore in recent weeks, following the arrest of six people, including Nelsen's former team-mate DJ Campbell, for alleged match-fixing. Nelsen played for Blackburn, Spurs and QPR between 2005 and 2013 and says it was a common subject.

"We always used to hear a lot of stories," says Nelsen, "About giving away a penalty in the second half or getting a yellow card. It was often talked about and there were chuckles around the changing room. You assumed that they were urban myths - but maybe some of them were true."

Nelsen says he "never saw anything" but concedes match-fixing wouldn't be difficult, especially in terms of spot-fixing like conceding throw-ins, yellow cards, penalties or even players going off injured.

He didn't spend much time with Campbell as their careers only intersected for a few months at Loftus Road.

- Herald on Sunday

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