By Ridge Mahoney
The return to MLS of former D.C. United defender Ryan Nelsen had been expected. His new job title and employer certainly weren’t.
Drastic measures were necessary after Toronto FC finished the 2012 season with the league’s worst record, 5-21-8, under interim head coach Paul Mariner. The first shock came when Kevin Payne left his post as D.C. president to cross the border, and after Mariner was ousted, Payne crossed the Atlantic Ocean to hire Nelsen away from the lineup of Premier League club Queens Park Rangers.
TFC fans, disgruntled by coaching fiasco and seven playoff-less campaigns, thought they’d seen it all, but hiring a current player with no coaching experience was a new one. Another twist came when Nelsen bargained an early departure from QPR instead of finishing out the season while assistant coach Fran O’Leary tended to TFC matters, as was originally announced. That scenario never seemed plausible.
One of the league’s top defenders during his MLS tenure (2001-04), Nelsen backstopped United’s championship team in his final season before starting a long stint with Blackburn, followed by shorter stays with Spurs and QPR. He holds no coaching certificates but is a student of the game laced with leadership ability.
The “new era” envisioned by Payne under Nelsen, 35, hasn’t started so well. Lingering injuries have sidelined Designated Players Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings, and goalkeeper Stefan Frei is recovering from a broken nose suffered in a preseason game Feb. 9 against Columbus. TFC lost to the Crew and the Union at the Disney World Pro Soccer Classic though it did drill Orlando City, 3-0.
Reviving fan interest at BMO Field will take some doing, as acres of empty seats appeared in many games last year. Nelsen’s fiery, engaging persona will play well at the start but this franchise long ago tired of colorful personalities when they couldn’t get the job done.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. The trade to Portland of Milos Kocic, who replaced Frei (broken leg) last year, leaves the short-term goalkeeping duties in the hands of Joe Bendik, whom TFC acquired in exchange for Kocic. The well-traveled Justin Braun gets a chance to fill the forward hole vacated by Eric Hassli (traded to FC Dallas) and Ryan Johnson (also to Portland). To shore up a leaky core (a league-high 62 goals allowed in 2012) veteran Danny Califf and former U.S. U-20 defender Gale Agbossoumonde have been signed, along with holding mid Julio Cesar, formerly of Sporting Kansas City. Young Canadian Kyle Bekker impressed enough at the MLS Combine that Toronto took him with the No. 3 in the SuperDraft and he could start in midfield.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The presence of Cesar and Califf should provide some stability in the middle, and Koevermans proved last year that he’s capable in the goalmouth by scoring nine goals in just 16 games for a bad team. Luis Silva (five goals, five assists) deservedly ranked among the league’s top rookies and there are role players -- Ashtone Morgan, Terry Dunfield Logan Emory – who can be effective playing with the right teammates in the right system. Irish international defender Darren O’Dea played nine games after arriving in August from Glasgow Celtic; with Nelsen at the helm and Califf in the team, he can blossom into a reliable centerback. Payne helped build D.C. United into a respected franchise and has set out to do the same in Toronto.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? A coaching neophyte is going up against some very sharp rivals in the Eastern Conference, and the attack looks thin without Johnson, Hassli and Joao Plata, who was traded to Real Salt Lake. Frei is sidelined again after missing the entire 2012 season with that broken leg and didn’t get much competitive action in preseason before the broken nose. The starting XI looks average and there isn’t yet much depth, so the dependence on Frings (36) and Koevermans (34) will be extreme, and neither of them is young.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Nelsen’s team won’t lack for spirit and determination, and despite his age Frings plays with a poise seldom seen in MLS. Silva’s skill and vision can light up a match, Koevermans is a sharp finisher, and when Frei is on his game he’s spectacular. If TFC can be competitive, the crowds at BMO Field will revert to raucous mode.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: New England | Philadelphia
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | Portland