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Payne: TFC “can afford to wait” for Nelsen

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Ryan Nelsen will become Toronto FC’s latest head coach… eventually.

In a situation that beggars belief but underscores TFC management’s faith in its new hire, Nelsen may not be available until late May due to his existing contract as a player with Queens Park Rangers of the English Premiership. Unless an agreement can be worked out between TFC and QPR before the end of the January transfer window, Nelsen will still be playing in London until the EPL season’s end, leaving Toronto without a coach through the preseason and over a third of the regular season.

This delay is a sacrifice that TFC president and general manager Kevin Payne was willing to make to ensure that Nelsen was in the fold.

“My feeling about Ryan is that he’s going to be leading this team for five years to come and if I have to wait a couple of months for him to start that process, I can afford to wait,” Payne said. “I’d rather do that than make the wrong decision or a decision I didn’t want to make for the short term.”

It’s a controversial and bold choice for Payne in his first coaching hire for TFC. In his previous tenure with DC United, Payne had great success in hiring respected players (Piotr Nowak and Ben Olsen) with little-to-no coaching experience for the head job.

Nelsen, however, is not only still playing, but he said he doesn’t have any official coaching accreditation or badges. As Nelsen put it, the entire process seems like “a bit of a whirlwind,” as both Nelsen and Fran O’ Leary — the newly-hired assistant coach and director of player recruitment who will be interim head coach until Nelsen is available —just arrived in town and were short on specifics about their plans for the team and its roster.

“Preseason has already been planned. Every training session, everything has already been planned,” Nelsen said. “I know that when I’m not there, I’ve got 100 per cent full confidence in the coaching staff.”

Player-coaches are rare but not unfamiliar notions in the soccer world. A person serving as a player and a coach for two different clubs in two different leagues an ocean apart, however, is a singularity. Nelsen has made 20 starts on QPR’s back line this season, his last just three days ago in the team’s 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion.

In another sign of just how quickly (some might say hastily) Nelsen was brought on board, Payne said that he hadn’t directly spoken to QPR management, noting that Nelsen and his agent had been handling talks with the English team. With QPR currently at the bottom of the Premiership table and staring a relegation battle in the face, the team may be reticent to give up a first-choice defender, yet Nelsen was hopeful that an early transfer could be negotiated.

“I’ve had several conversations with Harry and Tony [QPR coach Harry Redknapp and owner Tony Fernandes] and they’ve been so understanding of my situation,” Nelsen said. “They know that when I play I’m playing on glass knees and glass ankles and it’s a bit of a struggle. They know I’m at the end but they also know the predicament they’re in and it’s a major predicament.

“They’d like me to keep playing but they understand my situation as well so we just have to sit down and talk. If we could string together five wins that would be perfect.”

Payne said Nelsen is being hired strictly as a coach and the two never discussed Nelsen playing for TFC. Nelsen, 35, also unofficially announced his retirement from international duty as New Zealand’s captain, though he noted that he had yet to speak to the national team’s management.

It’s easy for TFC supporters to see the team going to such unusual lengths to hire a completely inexperienced head coach as a sign that the club will continue to struggle under Payne and Nelsen as it did under its previous seven coaches over six seasons. Yet, circumstances aside, Nelsen carries a strong resume for a first-time coach, serving as captain for New Zealand, QPR, Blackburn Rovers and DC United since 2001. Nelsen won an MLS Cup with DC in 2004 and helped lead the All Whites to an appearance in the 2010 World Cup.

It was this history of leadership on and off the pitch that convinced Payne he had the right man to lead the Reds.

“When you’re in a job like mine…you spend time filing people away in a mental filing cabinet that you’d like to work with someday. Ryan is certainly somebody that, literally since the first time I met him, I thought would be a head coach someday,” Payne said. “[The hiring] came together pretty quickly. It hasn’t been a lengthy conversation but…in a sense we’ve been talking about this for 10 years. It was just a matter of discussing the specifics.”

Before the press conference, TFC announced that it had parted ways with former head coach Paul Mariner.

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