The Ryan Nelsen Gambit

This is about as insane as it gets in Major League Soccer. Hiring a 35 year-old New Zealander to be head coach at a Canadian soccer club in who is still under contract as a player in a relegation-threatened West London team in the Premier League during the January transfer window.

Everyone knows how batshit crazy this sounds, particularly other MLS markets. My DCU followees on the old Twitter machine were practically cackling with laughter, all save Washington Post beat guy Steven Goff, who surmised the move for Nelsen was in part to avoid the issue of a “front office ego.”

Everyone’s currently bandying about the thing about Toronto FC being a terrible club because they’ve hired 8 managers since 2007, and have made the playoffs a total of no times at all. But that in and of itself isn’t an indication that Ryan Nelsen will work out terribly for Toronto FC. It’s interesting that many who were eager to trust in Paul Mariner were equally quick to consign not only Nelsen, but ex-DC United president Kevin Payne to the dust bin of history.

Jaws also dropped when it became clear that Nelsen was still under contract with QPR as a defender. No one asked the question, but surely one has to believe that QPR will be looking for a defender by the end of the transfer window and Don Garber and others will be working with Tony Fernandes and Harry Redknapp to secure Nelsen’s arrival. It was likely Garber after all who glad-handled Payne into TFC; he’ll want to get this sorted ASAP before the inevitable PR shitbag that will be Fran O’Leary as first team coach in April—he who earned his coaching license not 48 hours ago, and whose experience is limited to coaching a little known NCAA side.

In the end, this move poses an enormous risk for both Payne and Nelsen. The latter’s managerial career hangs in the balance, and the former’s reputation as a durable MLS president is on the line. Tom Anselmi was in attendance today but didn’t take the microphone, but this will all eventually land in his lap should this turn out as badly as many think it will. Which as MLSE slaves will know, means absolutely nothing.

It also smacks heavily of the gritty old NASL days. Interestingly enough, the US afforded Nelsen’s current manager Harry Redknapp joined the Seattle Sounders in 1976 as player coach. He’ll likely have some advice for the defender on making a rapid transition from pitch to technical area.

The whole lack of UEFA badges thing…I don’t know. We often have a very Football Manager-esque view of coaching that fits a very elite paradigm (i.e. Barcelona), but Major League Soccer is something else, a league in which possession is normally conceded by teams on the way to victory. As much as the technical ability in the league has progressed, many winning sides have discovered you don’t necessarily need a Rhodes scholar to teach high school algebra.

Do I think it will fail miserably? I have no idea. Maybe it will be an enormous success, Payne will be hailed as a genius, and MLSE can take pride it did something right. Certainly Kevin Payne’s assurance that the philosophy of personal accountability and work ethic sounded a little encouraging, but those are vague Platonic concepts that don’t have a clear causal relationship with points or table position.

If anything, it’s really, really weird.