MLS Changes: A big loss and a puzzling addition

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.

10 comments about "MLS Changes: A big loss and a puzzling addition".
  1. eric olmstead, January 9, 2013 at 6:35 p.m. are way off base. I've been a season ticket holder from the first game. Freddy is good....he would be very good if he had any work rate but he is not DP worthy and that's the cold hard truth. The business end of this game comes during the playoffs. That's when your DP's earn their money. Freddy has been non existent during all playoff games. Someone has to go......the smart move was to get rid of who doesn't perform in the playoffs and that is Freddy.

  2. Allan Lindh, January 9, 2013 at 6:38 p.m.

    My heavens, can Mr Gardner not have watched Ryan Nelsen performance in SA? I believe he became New Zealand Captain at age of 19, and has been ever since. He is tough, smart, and yes -- funny. For instance, when asked in SA if it wouldn't be a problem with all the noise, they wouldn't be able to instructions from the coach -- he responded with big, albeit crooked smile, that maybe it would be better if they couldn't. I suspect that if Mr Gardner were to talk to any of the myriad of players that Nelsen has played with, and coaches he has played for, they will to a man say that it was just a matter of time before he became a top coach. A total class act.

  3. Jogo Bonito, January 9, 2013 at 8:41 p.m.

    Players like Montero and Fernandez will continue to be a mystery to the koaches and experts that value only the predictable and koachable things soccer has to offer. These players walk into training camp already labeled as lazy and overindulgent before they even touch a ball. These players always have to prove that they're koachable and are koached everyday to become more predictable. On the hand, the European (often Northern European or British) players arrive at camp with a certain presumption that they will be reliable and yes, predictable. A koaches dream, but a nightmare for anyone looking to be entertained enough to spend any money at all to go watch play.

  4. Scott Nelson, January 9, 2013 at 9:42 p.m.

    I agree with Paul in that I never understood why Sigi didn't put full faith in Fernandez,and so far I don't get what Tiffert is trying to accomplish when he is on the pitch, but as for Montero it's been pretty clear for years that Paul is only watching the highlight reels. When Freddy is in the midst of one of his hot streaks he looks world class and can score spectacular goals in bunches. But in his bad performances and cold streaks (which occur in equal measure) he is moribund. And unfortunately those cold streaks occur every season around October. To be fair to Schmid, a look at the team's lineups over the past three seasons indicates no bias against Latin players. Half the Seattle field players are typically latin. But with Seattle over the salary cap and winning only 1 of 4 playoff series all time, something has to give if the franchise is to achieve the stated goal of reaching a final. Freddy's inability to get it done in the postseason (and during large chunks of the regular season) mean that Freddy amounts to a luxury item in a league on a shoestring budget.

  5. beautiful game, January 10, 2013 at 12:11 a.m.

    If Monttero had Rosales' work ethic, he would have been gone a lot sooner...yet, it's obvious that Rosales and his mates are not exactly on the same page for the most part ditto Montero.

  6. Ted Westervelt, January 10, 2013 at 10:57 a.m.

    Paul - Over the past 40 years you've looked at this stuff from every angle. Do you ever wonder if doing soccer like a like an insulated closed US league is a problem? What other stones haven't you looked under?

  7. Ramon Creager, January 11, 2013 at 12:52 p.m.

    If there is one think in coach-speak that bugs me it's "work rate." (Actually, it's right up there with "winning the 50-50 balls.") What is work? Is it the distance traveled during a game? Number of tackles? Fouls? Because if a player has a high "work rate" but is spending all the time chasing the game, he's not much use. I'd love to hear the evaluation of the "work rate" of Barcelona players. They do work hard, but not the way some of these coaches expect. (For example, those guys spend a lot of time minimizing those proverbial 50-50 balls, so they don't win many; they don't have to.) It pains me to say this, because I'm a DCU fan, but Ben Olsen did irritate me a bit with this canard last season. Typically when Boskovic and Salihi were on the field, DC was a better scoring team. But both spent a lot of time on the bench in favor of "work rate" players. And when De Ro got hurt, the product became nearly unwatchable. Sure they won, but, ugh.

  8. eric olmstead, January 11, 2013 at 2:29 p.m.

    Ramon...if you are having trouble with the definition of work rate watch what the Barca players do when they lose possession of the ball. That is the websters definition of work rate. Almost all of them work their tails off to apply high pressure to get it back. Not every player has to have a high work rate but if you are a forward and you are a DP and you have not performed in 4 yrs worth of playoff games AND you have a poor work rate you are not going to be on any good team for long and Freddy found that out.

  9. Brian Something, January 11, 2013 at 7:29 p.m.

    Jogo Bonito hits the nail on the head. American coaches, heavily influenced by Northern Europeans, would much rather have a player who works his socks off to little effect that a player who expends energy in a more targeted way and accomplishes a lot more. In other words, it's better to have someone who runs around in circles constantly than someone who is still quite often but occasionally takes steps forward. Brian Mullan no doubt works harder in a match than, say, Andrea Pirlo. But there's no doubt in my mind which I'd rather have on my team.

  10. Brian Something, January 11, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.

    Ramon: "work rate" is what coaches harp on to the media when their team has no skill and/or executed poorly.

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