By Paul Gardner
It can't be a good day for American soccer when one of its liveliest and most knowledgeable general managers is summarily fired. OK, he may well be one of the prickliest GMs, too. It's Kevin Payne I'm talking about, suddenly defenestrated by Toronto.
What is it about Toronto that they (whoever “they” may be), having gotten themselves involved in the global game, seem unable to think beyond the boundaries of a local businessman? And a pretty poor businessman, at that.
The playing record of the club is appalling -- that hardly needs stressing yet again. Nor does the extraordinary support that the long-suffering Toronto fans have given the team. What does need hammering home is that a successful team in MLS cannot be -- or is highly unlikely to be -- built on a cozy arrangement of ethnic connections and old-pal player signings.
I would have thought that much would have been obvious by now. But there must be something in the Toronto atmosphere that clouds it. For when Payne moved to Toronto his first step was to hire Ryan Nelsen as coach. A move that simply staggered. An old-pal of Payne’s, Nelsen had no coaching experience at all. Payne, with a straight face, praised Nelsen as someone who, as a player, had once been caught reading a book on soccer tactics.
But the most worrying thing about Nelsen was that he very much represented a continuation of the club’s doleful policy of relying on Brits -- in this case a heavily Brit-influenced New Zealander.
Four months ago I expressed my bewilderment at the situation, dubbing it a “right royal muddle.” It has worsened since then, as the team has continued to labor, and an inexplicable assortment of players has come -- and some of them already gone -- in a futile attempt to stop the rot.
As a spectacular example of precisely what should not have happened, but didhappen, we have Toronto reverting to the worst of its defects. Coach Nelsen making the now obligatory old-pal ethnic signing, and bringing in Jeremy Brockie. Virtually unknown outside of New Zealand, Brockie was hailed by Nelsen as a player who “works really hard. He is a really hard guy as well and won’t back down from anything.” Great. Brockie, as could surely have been predicted, was a non-event, playing 15 games for Toronto, contributing little and scoring just one goal. Having signed Brockie, Nelsen then traded away promising American youngster Luis Silva to D.C. United.
Meanwhile Payne, we learn, was trying to sign Diego Forlan, a move that stalled and contributed to Payne’s downfall. But why does Payne get the axe, while Nelsen stays on as coach?
That needs considerable explanation -- but club president Tim Leiweke says nothing more than that he and Nelsen are “on the same page.” Cliches evidently come easily up in Toronto, for Leiweke then informs us that, with Payne’s departure, “the team will be moving in a different direction.” Well, yes -- considering that Toronto’s direction in the standings has always tended to be downward, the idea that an upward direction would be better is hardly a revelation.
What would be much more helpful from Leiweke would be details of just what this new “direction” entails. And I mean details. Announcing an overall policy of wanting to reward fans, or of wanting to win things, gets us nowhere. It is, frankly, downright insulting to these Toronto fans who have heard all this guff before and seen it evaporate into inaction, while they have put up with season after season of the same old same old.
Leiweke seems completely shot in the backside with Nelsen as coach, which is hard to explain, given the club’s rotten record under Nelsen -- they’ve won only four games so far this season, the sort of record that usually gets coaches fired. But not in Toronto. Again it’s the detailsthat are missing. Exactly what is it about Nelsen’s coaching that Leiweke finds so entrancing? Because it surely cannot be anything that Leiweke has seen on the field so far. The team has assuredly not been fun to watch.
But Leiweke is promising immediate action, and of course the magic word “Europe” surfaces at once when it comes to looking for players. Which must raise the ominous suspicion that Nelsen will be targeting EPL players. Or ex-players. And Nelsen has an obvious preference for “hard” players. Players in his own image, in other words -- and Nelsen was never a player you’d want to rely on as a crowd-puller.
What we’ve seen so far from Nelsen the coach is unsophisticated stuff -- plenty of long-balls, plenty of getting stuck in. Nor can it be argued that Nelsen had to work with players who were already at the club -- he has brought in plenty of his own choices. Prime among those choices being the totally unsatisfactory Brockie.
So there we are. A new GM will be signed, but he’s going to have to work with the in-a-hurry Leiweke, anxious to be seen as a decisive Alexander cutting the Gordian knot of Toronto’s soccer problems, to give the impression that he knows exactly where he’s going with this club.
Does he? All we have to go on is, firstly, that Leiweke has fired Payne -- but that sounds more like a personality clash than anything to do with soccer. And secondly that Nelsen will be retained -- and if that is a soccer decision, there is nothing to say that it is a good one. Persisting with Nelsen as coach does not look like a new direction.