By Paul Gardner
The situation in Toronto continues to fascinate me. They now have a new GM up there, Tim Bezbatchenko, who comes straight from the MLS administrative offices. He is the replacement for Kevin Payne, who got himself canned by the new CEO of owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
One of Bezbatchenko’s first tasks has been to attempt to set new coach Ryan Nelsen‘s thinking straight on the matter of Designated Players. New, new, new -- seems like everyone’s new in Toronto. Not quite. We’re still waiting for some new players. In the meantime, Nelsen keeps referring to a “league DP” when he’s talking about the young Argentine Maximiliano Urruti. Bezbatchenko will then patiently explain that there is no such thing as a league DP.
Urruti was, fleetingly, a new player, signed by Toronto in August this year. Which makes him a player who was signed by Kevin Payne ... and Nelsen. A few weeks later Payne was fired. And shortly after that, Urruti was traded to the Portland Timbers, having been with Toronto for less than a month. He played in just two games.
Evidently, Nelsen now regrets that Urruti was ever signed, hence his attempt -- by using the “league DP” appellation -- to make it sound as though MLS is somehow responsible for this signing. But Nelsen’s reasoning is tangled, to put it mildly. High among his objections to Urruti comes the fact that the player is only 22. As though there are no good 22-year-old players? The experienced Nelsen has to know better than that. But he talks -- with evident reference to Urruti -- of players “we can develop to be a good player in two to three years.”
So Urruti, having played 57 games for Newells Old Boys in the Primera Divisionin Argentina, having scored 12 goals there, now needs at least two years of coaching from Nelsen before he becomes “a good player”?
Nelsen’s financial argument -- that Urruti’s salary was too high for a player with only limited chances of playing right now makes sense only if Nelsen has already decided against those chances.
We can get a better insight into the way Nelsen thinks about this matter -- and about soccer in general -- by looking at the player traded by Portland to Toronto as part of the Urruti deal: Bright Dike. Like Urruti, a forward. But where Urruti is 5-foot-10," Dike is 6-1.
A rather different type of forward -- anyone who has seen Dike in action knows that he is hardly an exponent of the beautiful game. Nelsen for sure knows that, having explained that he sees Dike entering the field for the last 20 minutes of a game when he can “potentially cause carnage.”
Dike won’t be starting because Nelsen is seeking an experienced, proven goalscorer as a DP. He has been -- of course -- to England trying to set something up. Rumor has it that Tottenham’s Emmanuel Adebayor is a target. We move even further up the age and height scale here -- the 29-year-old Adebayor is 6-3." Bigger . . . and better?
In Nelsen’s mind, where carnage reigns, obviously yes. Nelsen and -- more particularly – Tim Leiweke have been promising the long-suffering Toronto fans drastic action. It’s going to be full-blooded action, too, from the look of things. Slam-bang soccer -- actually not dissimilar from the sort of stuff that the Toronto fans have been putting up with for seven barren years.
The sort of soccer played by Richard Eckersley, an imported Brit defender of the type known as hard-nosed or vigorous or unforgiving etc, etc. Eckersley, though, is the victim of a unkind twist of fate. He will also be leaving Toronto, and Nelsen’s explanation on this one is far more convincing. Eckersley is earning far too much money ... for a left back. He’ll have to depart so that some of that money can be used for more urgent needs -- that striker, or maybe two strikers.
Nelsen found it difficult to admit any sorrow at the departure of Urruti -- shuffling him off to Toronto as undeveloped, while welcoming the carnage-bringer Dike as “a fantastic deal for us.” But Nelsen feels for the physical defender Eckersley: “Richard’s a fantastic player ... I kind of feel really bad for Richard.” How many coaches, I wonder, would define the 24-year-old, 6-foot Eckersley as a fantastic player?
Eckersley is very much a player after Nelsen’s own heart, a battling, gritty defender. Yes, I’m sure it does hurt Nelsen to have to unload such a player. But he still has his captain Steve Caldwell, the Scot he imported from England, another rugged defender who has brought little beside his ruggedness.
I fear it is simply asking too much to expect a coach who spent years playing as a no-nonsense defender to devote much attention to having his team play good soccer. I fear the long ball hovers over BMO Field, with the ensuing battling and hacking and elbowing up front -- battles for which you need the big, strong 6-foot-plus forward. Anyone for carnage?