Imagine a football franchise that has only existed for 6 years. Imagine that franchise being owned by one of the most wealthy sports entities in North America. And in those 6 years, this franchise never been run by a “football” guy, and instead by a corporate guy who barely knew what a football was. Now if I were to tell you that this team would go through 7 coaches in 6 seasons, would it be hard to imagine that this team has never made the playoffs? Or, that in their previous two seasons, the team would only be able to manage 11 wins.
Actually, you do not have to imagine any of this. This is Toronto FC.
Toronto FC’s list of coaches goes something like this:
Mo Johnston was hired as the original coach and led the team in their expansion season in 2007. After that season, Johnston was moved to the position of Director of Football, and assistant John Carver became the head coach for season two. Two months into the third season, Carver resigned as coach, and his assistant Chris Cummins was named Interim Head Coach. Cummins left the team at the end of the season and moved back to the UK, as his wife and children were not able to get work visas. Next on the list was former USA International, Preki (Predrag Raddosavljevic), who didn’t last until the end of the fourth season, as he was fired, along with Johnston, in TFC’s latest “restructuring” plan. Nick Dasovic finished off the fourth season. The year 2011, would bring former Dutch international Aron Winter to lead the Reds. His brand of “Total Football” would only last for 18 months, as he was fired after starting his second year (and the team’s 6th) with an MLS record 9 straight losses to open a season. He would be replaced by Paul Mariner, who was the Director of Player Development. Mariner would finish the season, however MLSE, the owner of the TFC, were finally looking for a President of the team.
In November of 2012, Kevin Payne was named as President, and he confirmed Mariner as the coach for the following season, however this would not remain the case. At the beginning of this calendar year, Payne let Mariner go. The general assumption among the TFC faithful had been that Payne was starting to restructure this team in his vision, and that he would bring in an experienced coach with MLS experience, as many of the Reds previous coaches were missing one of those two attributes.
On January 7th, Payne announced, to the surprise of almost everyone in Toronto, that New Zealand’s very own Ryan Nelsen would be the Head Coach for the coming season. However there were a few wrinkles in this appointment. At the time, Nelsen was still a major factor in Queens Park Rangers bid to remain in the Premier League, and it was suggested that Nelsen would not be on the bench to start the season in Toronto, but rather still in England playing. He would “coach” the team through video, giving his opinions to the coaching staff in Toronto. There was also no mention of this international playing status. And by “coach”, well, Nelsen had no previous coaching experience at any kind of level, nor did he have any type of coaching certification.
Payne and Nelsen know each other from their days together at DC United, and Nelsen must have made a huge impression as a future coach on him. At the time of his appointment, I wrote “I don’t think there was a lineup of teams for Nelsen, …and he couldn’t have felt pressure to hire him now…. Heck, he could have brought him in as a player for a year (or half year), and then moved him in to the coaches’ roll next season. I mean, TFC’s best defender may now just be the “coach” of this team.”
Perhaps the pressure of not starting the season with the team was weighing on him, as Nelsen would soon decide to hang up his boots, playing his last game at home and holding league champions Manchester City to a 0-0 draw. While he had no previous coaching experience, his former coach had given him a ringing endorsement, with Harry Redknapp calling Nelsen “one of the best pros I have ever met in my life”.
Nelsen takes over a TFC squad in transition. There is very little expectation for this team to complete at all, and this season is being positioned as a season to build upon. The squad had many holes to fill, even signing 5 new players (yes five!) on the day before the season opener, including Nelsen’s former QPR teammate Hogan Ephraim on loan.
Nelsen so far, has impressed both the Reds faithful, and the media. He has shown an unrelenting work rate, the same with which he played. His team has started a respectable 1-2-2, so far gaining 5 points in their first 5 games. Last year after 5 games: 0 points.
The Reds only win came in their “home” opener, against Sporting KC, and they were only moments away from a second win at home against current MLS champions LA Galaxy, until a stoppage time goal tied the game. In what had become a habit in previous seasons for TFC, a late goal for a tie or a loss came back to haunt the fans. However in this past week’s game versus FC Dallas, with the Reds down 2-0 with 5 minutes remaining, the fans saw something that they haven’t been used to seeing from their team; a comeback. Justin Braun scored in the 85’ minute, and Darel Russell scored a rocket of a goal in injury time to snatch a point away from the MLS league leaders, sending the faithful that had stuck around on a cool, blustery day, into a wild frenzy that had not been seen in some time.
Nelsen, who has never shown a lack of character, said after the game he was “delighted to come back and show a second-half effort like that,” but was “frustrated in the fact that it took us adversity to get the character out”. The Reds managed zero attempts in first half, so his frustrations were warranted, but the ability to come back is something that this team has rarely shown, especially in the last couple of years.
When Toronto FC first started playing in MLS, they were the hottest ticket in town, and there was a waiting list for season tickets. MLSE even went so far as expanding seating and creating a new level on the north side of BMO field, and there was talk of further expansion to increase capacity to accommodate the demand. For the first few summers of TFC’s existence, BMO Field was the place to be in Toronto. After 5 seasons of very little success, last season was a turning point for the fans. BMO Field looked half empty at some games, and in what used to be a sea of red shirts, was now a sea of red seats. What used to be a ticket that was almost too valuable to sell, had turned into a ticket that people had trouble giving away for free. Even the supporter sections in the south end of BMO were thinning out. Of those that remained, many were disgruntled, with some fans even going so far as to wear paper bags on their heads, holding signs and creating chants to voice their displeasure. There was even a protest organized outside the TFC offices after the last game of the season outside of BMO. Even the faithful were turning against the team.
While many doubted Nelsen’s appointment as coach, he has brought the fans some hope. Toronto fans have always loved gritty, work horse type players in all their sports, and Nelsen seems to bring that in his coaching style, including an always positive outlook. And although it may not seem it now, it will get better. He will work with the team, and get it to a place that it is meant to be in. There was a reason that Nelsen was brought to this team. If the team follows Nelsen’s lead, and always work hard, the faith the fans have in him can be translated into a hope that his team can do well.
Faith, hope and positive thoughts. For fans of this team, things that have been sorely missed for some time.
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma.