By Paul Gardner
Entrances and exits. It's that time of the year for MLS. Players and coaches coming and going.
The biggest loss to MLS -- however the Seattle Sounders may dress it up -- will be the departure of Fredy Montero. How many players are there in this league who are alone worth the price of admission? Not many. Montero is one of them.
It was never going to be easy to hang on to him, but one can seriously ask how determined the Sounders were to retain him. The flavor of the Sounders has been changing. That’s what happens when you don’t win things and when you have an owner who thinks you deserve to win everything.
The shift is always in the same direction -- out go the skillful and creative players (one invariably cited reason: they don’t work hard enough) and in come the runners and the grafters. For Seattle the picture was brought sharply into focus last year when the Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez was dumped in favor of the German Christian Tiffert -- to the accompaniment of a flood of crocodile tears telling us how the Sounders really, really wanted to hold on to Fernandez. They let him go, of course.
Enter Tiffert. Not in the category, not even close, of players you’d pay to watch. Exactly what Tiffert has brought to Seattle and how he has made it a better team is best left to the Sounders to explain. It certainly escaped me.
And now, it seems, it’s crocodile tear time again as Montero disappears. All of this is regrettable, as the Sounders under Sigi Schmid have always had the shape and the style of a good soccer team. Results? Patience, patience. The team has been unlucky with injuries. I could fall back on the cliche -- they were just one player away from success. Maybe so. But that one player was not Tiffert.
Off we go to Toronto. To long-suffering Toronto FC. Where the admirable Kevin Payne has done the sensible thing and ditched Paul Mariner and the inevitable Brit influence he carried with him. After all, Toronto did finish dead last in 2012, with only five wins to show for its efforts.
So -- exit Mariner, enter ... Ryan Nelsen. Yes, of course, that was unexpected. Here is Payne spelling out why he thinks the appointment makes sense -- it seems that the key word is “leadership,” probably with a capital L. Says Payne: “Ryan is a guy who has made a study of leadership. He pays attention to what great leaders do, and that is very unusual, too ... Ryan has actually thought about it and that, combined with his personal qualities, has made him a great leader.”
I’ll admit to a massive amount of suspicion when it comes to players -- and coaches -- who are lauded for their leadership. Too often that word gets used when there’s nothing else to say. Alexi Lalas was a case in point -- repeatedly praised for his “leadership qualities,” yet he was never part of a winning team until 2002, the year before he retired.
Maybe it’s OK for Payne -- who certainly should know a lot about Nelsen -- to stress the leadership thing, because Nelsen has no experience as a coach, so there’s not much to talk about there. Things are hardly made better when Payne recalls that, during his days at D.C. United, Nelsen was to be found reading a book on soccer tactics.
But we have seen plenty of Nelsen as a player, and I find this a much more worrying aspect. Watching him play for Stanford U, D.C. United, Blackburn Rovers and lately Queens Park Rangers, I can seriously ask myself whether I have ever seen Nelsen smiling on the field. I mean, does this guy always have to snarl? Does he like playing, or is it the snarling that he enjoys?
A trivial point? No, not at all. When it comes to attacking soccer, entertaining soccer -- which is certainly what I would prefer to see, and what MLS needs -- I do not think one should expect too much from coaches who spent their time playing defense. And Nelsen was always your utterly defensive player, thoroughly deserving all those no-nonsense, hard-nosed, takes-no-prisoners, uncompromising accolades.
An almost totally destructive force on the field. A talent that inevitably ensured him of a career as a “centre-half” in England -- though only with smaller clubs Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers (a venture into the headier realm of Tottenham Hotspur lasted only five games). All of which is a strong reminder that hiring Nelsen prolongs the Brit influence that has had such a harmful effect at BMO Field over the past six years.
Payne -- unwittingly, no doubt -- emphasizes the very trait that I fear most in coaches who come from a relentlessly pro-defense background. Commenting on how quickly Nelsen had immersed himself in Toronto FC’s background, Payne had this to say: “He knew all of the stats of how many games the team had played in the last two years, how many games they had won, how many goals they had surrendered. He had watched games on video and was telling me how many times one pass beat the back four.”
How many goals had been surrendered. How the defense got beaten. Yes, you can make the case that Toronto needs that sort of thinking -- it did, after all, ship nearly two goals per game in 2012. But I still find it discouraging, because it confirms my worst fears that Nelsen -- the hard-boiled English Premier League defender -- will set down in Canada accompanied by a posse of similarly inclined players.
I have been trying to amuse myself wondering what sort of attacking or creative players Nelsen might approve of. The amusement didn’t last too long, because I couldn’t think of any. The idea of a sparkling soccer team coached by the snarling Ryan Nelsen quickly faded.
But Kevin Payne would surely not allow a negative approach. So maybe a new smiling Nelsen awaits, to scatter all my apprehensions. He will have one massive advantage -- he cannot possibly do worse than those who have preceded him.