TORONTO – Manager Ryan Nelsen and five assistant coaches are gone. And a question mark looms over star striker Jermain Defoe’s future.
The latest grand vision for Toronto FC may not be in tatters. But a team that can’t seem to step forward without taking two steps back has hit another huge bump in the road.
Tim Leiweke, CEO of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko both pointed the finger at the 9-9-6 club’s recent lacklustre performances in making the move to remove Nelsen two-thirds of the way through his second season at the helm.
“The team obviously not only did not play well but we really didn’t show up,” Leiweke told in an interview. “And people pay good money to come see these games.”
“We are in a results-oriented business,” Bezbatchenko told a hastily called news conference Sunday at the team’s north Toronto training facility. “And over the past 13 matches, we’ve won three games. More important for our fans in Toronto, we’ve won one game in the past six matches … I know we can get more out of this group of guys.”
Whether Defoe is one of them is unclear.
With 11 goals in 16 games, the star forward has clearly shown that he can score in this league when healthy. But a source close to the situation told that Defoe doesn’t like the direction of the club and wants out, with England’s Queens Park Rangers a likely destination.
Bezbatchenko confirmed that the MLS team has received an offer for the 31-year-old England striker, who is currently back in England dealing with a groin injury.
“We’re speaking with him (Defoe) and then we’ll make a decision,” said Bezbatchenko. “No decision has been made. We’ll discuss it over the next 24 hours.”
With the transfer window closing at 5 p.m. ET Monday, the drama will be over soon.
Bezbatchenko and Leiweke both rejected the notion that Defoe wants to leave.
“We’ve got an offer on a lot of guys and we haven’t bitten on any of them,” said Leiweke. “Nor have we haven’t bitten on any offer on Jermain. That’s just the course of business as the (transfer) window closes on the EPL (English Premier League). And right now, there’s no offer that we would take. So I would say that’s much ado about nothing.
“Doesn’t mean someone doesn’t come in (Monday) the last day of the window, and do something amazing. But right now I think people are getting more wound up than they should. And Jermain has not asked to leave.”
Bezbatchenko too said he expects to hang onto the striker. But he added “If you’re not 100 per cent committed in what we’re doing, then we have to sit down and talk and figure out what’s the best plan of action.”
Translation, Defoe is gone unless he wants to be here. Or can be convinced to stay here.
“If things change then we’ll adjust,” Bezbatchenko said.
And if Defoe does go, Toronto will expect “a lot of money. More than we paid for him,” he added.
Defoe, whose signing was billed by the team as “a bloody big deal” and seen as a showcase acquisition for the North American league, may end up in quickie divorce.
The good news for fans is that star midfielder Michael Bradley, the team’s other prize acquisition this season, is staying despite several offers from other clubs.
“Michael is on the same page. Very much so,” Bezbatchenko said.
The coaching announcement came one day after a poor showing in a 3-0 loss to the visiting New England Revolution.
Greg Vanney, Toronto’s assistant GM and academy director, takes over as full-time manager – Toronto’s ninth in eight years – and jumps into the deep end with confusion over Defoe’s future and a Sept. 15 roster freeze looming.
He faces a crucial home-and-away series with the Philadelphia Union – with games Wednesday in Philadelphia and Saturday in Toronto – with key players injured and no coaching staff.
Toronto’s record over the last 13 games is 3-5-5. It has not won at home since July 12, going 0-2-2 at BMO Field since. The team has also given up bad goals and late goals.
Against New England, Toronto was down 2-0 by the 21st minute after Revolution players pounced on giveaways and then drove unimpeded at goal.
But in its defence, the club has also been ravaged by injuries to key players (Defoe and defenders Steven Caldwell, Mark Bloom and Justin Morrow among them) and, despite the recent slump, stands one win away from matching the franchise high for wins in a season (10, set in 2009).
The club stands fourth in the East, tied with New England and Columbus, in the playoff hunt.
The 36-year-old Nelsen leaves with a league record of 15-26-17. None of the seven coaches before him notched more wins.
In a brief interview with on Sunday, Nelsen declined to go into reasons for his dismissal. He did express his thanks to the players and fans, saying it was a pleasure to work with them.
But it is clear that he and Bezbatchenko were at odds, with the rookie GM flexing his muscle in the wake of news that Leiweke, a champion of Nelsen of team and – for a time – of Nelsen, is planning to leave.
Nelsen apparently knew the writing was on the wall this week, and the timetable was accelerated when Bezbatchenko summoned local reporters Friday to challenge his team “to take it up a notch.”
In the wake of Saturday’s loss, Nelsen put himself in the firing line by lambasting Bezbatchenko for making the comments. He was not made aware that the GM was going to speak out and was furious.
Knowing that the axe was poised, Nelsen accused Bezbatchenko of effectively sabotaging his own team by unnecessarily raising the stakes before a match that was not crucial, given there were 10 more remaining after it.
“I’ve won this league, played in it for four years, been in the (English) Premier League for 10 years, played in a World Cup, Olympics. I’ve played in some pretty hot pressure games,” said Nelsen, a former New Zealand international defender. “One thing that I do know is this was not one of them.”
The inference was clear. Nelsen had paid his dues in the game. Bezbatchenko, a 32-year-old rookie GM hired out of the league office by Leiweke last September, hadn’t.
“It affected the guys,” Nelsen said of Bezbatchenko’s words. “What we do at Toronto FC is we keep it in-house – everything we do, we keep inside the four walls. And the players, coaching staff, everything, stays within the four walls.”
The message a day earlier from Bezbatchenko was that the revamped MLS team has had time to gel. Now it has to fire on all cylinders.
“I think everyone would agree – the coaches, the players – that over the last 12 or so games, it hasn’t been good enough, at least for making a run in MLS,” Bezbatchenko said.
The GM denied Nelsen’s post-match comments had figured into his decision to fire him.
“I think they’re excuses and we’re just not in the excuse business here,” said Bezbatchenko. “And so we’re happy to turn the page here and forge a new future that’s based on the vision that we’ve had since I’ve been here and Tim Leiweke came in. And I think that Greg shares that vision.”
The inference clearly was Nelsen did not.
Vanney, who played professionally in MLS and France, follows Mo Johnston, John Carver, Chris Cummins, Preki, Nick Dasovic, Aron Winter, Paul Mariner and Nelsen as manager.
Only Carver (11) and Nelsen (15) managed double-digit wins in their tenure.
The 40-year-old Vanney said his goal is to have team be more aggressive – to focus on winning points rather than fear losing them.
“The priority here is to sort of unleash the players a little bit and take the burden and allow them to express themselves and just change the energy. I think over the last several games, we’ve looked energy-less, really. And I think our team looks at its best when we’re out and we’re sprinting and we’re running and we’re getting after other teams.”
Bezbatchenko, meanwhile, talked of the players’ body language, energy and focus – “the lack thereof.”
Assistant coaches Fran O’Leary, Jim Brennan, Duncan Oughton, as well as goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr and strength and conditioning coach Adrian Lamb were all fired. Assistant coach Jason Bent was offered a position to remain with the team.
Brennan was the franchise’s first team and captain.
The club wasted little time removing evidence of them. Photos of the coaching staff that hung at the TFC training facility were gone Sunday, although Nelsen’s empty parking space still bore his name.