On August 30th, Toronto FC lost 3 – 0 to the New England Revolution in what many referred to as a “must win” game. Within twenty four hours of this sub par performance, management fired coach Ryan Nelsen and his staff.
In his post game press conference, Nelsen had openly expressed his disapproval of General Manager Tim Bazbatchenko’s earlier comments that for this assembled group of experienced professionals, the “time of gelling was over,” and the time had come to turn it up a notch.
Nelsen openly stated that he did not see the New England game as the pressure situation Bezbatchenko described. He also disapproved of the public nature of such comments, saying that they only served to “aggravate” players. He clearly he saw the GM’s comments as counter productive.
Following a phase of meetings with departing staff, and with players, Bezbatchenko announced the firing and brought in TFC Academy coach Greg Vanney as immediate head coach. He categorized Nelsen’s comments as excuses. In another surprising piece, he confirmed that several offers had been made for team-leading goal scorer and designated player Jermain Defoe, and that a decision would be made within 24 hours. Rumors at the time were flying that Queens Park Rangers were an interested party. Defoe is currently nursing a groin strain and is expected to be out until late September.
The sudden nature of these events have cast a sense of doom over the organization. TFC currently sits fourth in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference and is in contention for its best season ever and a possible playoff spot. The downside is that with only 3 wins in the last 13 games, injuries to key players, and totally disorganized, lackluster, uninspired play, the team is now losing ground in the standings. Despite the fact that this is the best and most promising season the team has ever had, panic seems to have set in. While Nelsen refused to see it that way, results on the field were not encouraging. Against the Revs, early gifted goals coming off turnovers. and a failure to respond, left no doubt that the team is troubled and unable to find that free flowing counter attack style they had begun to develop earlier on.
Regardless of who coaches, the organization has major challenges going forward. The early fan response appears to be a mix of support for Nelsen, along with a disapproval seeing the move as a creation of even greater instability. It’s a “here we go again” type of response that has dominated early on; certainly unsurprising given this is the ninth coach in eight years. The situation was fragile at TFC and has appeared graver with each game. Many have not been fans of Nelsen, citing his inexperience, but very few believe his dismissal was timed properly. Over the past three years, fan support for TFC has diminished and Tim Leiweke was clearly intent on restoring fan faith. One wonders if these events will result in steps backward.
The pressure filled environment in Toronto is also a challenge for any professional athlete. Many coaches who have come through have identified it (Paul Mariner in 2012, for example). Some may see it as part of the job. While Nelsen viewed Bezbatchenko’s comments as creating undue pressure, it is management that has had the final say, and without dramatic changes in the lineup, it is the same group of players that now have to deal with it, minus the efforts Nelsen may have made to buffer or protect them from it. The counter argument or course is that given the payroll, experience, and influx of quality personnel, there are no excuses. This is essentially Bezbeatchenko’s position.
One of Bezabatcheko’s greatest concerns was the lack of energy the team has shown of late. They were dominated in every section of the park and allowed the Revolution to play their game, hold possession for extended periods of time, and run some glorious combinations deep in the TFC zone. And this picture is one not limited to New England; a number of teams of late have taken advantage of the space left between TFC’s midfield and defense and the inability of Bardley and company to close the gap. Possession is given far too easily and turnovers commonplace. In response very little is done to trouble and certainly shut down forward who are able to take the time to make beautiful efforts on goal. In anyone’s world, this is not good enough. The organization’s slogan for BMO field has long been “this is our house.” The unfortunate turn of events is that TFC has been largely ineffective at home and that visiting teams are easily having their way.
As important as coaching is, it is the players on the field who get the job done. The time is now for Michael Bradley or Gilberto, or whoever, to step up and show committed leadership in taking this group by the back of the neck lead it into something that at least looks like a competent squad that is worth their billing.
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