Leadership Qualities Wins The Job

Ryan Nelsen's passion for coaching struck Kevin Payne early in their time together at D.C.

Ryan Nelsen, the new head coach of Toronto FC is a master of the first, second and third impression.

How else to explain the decision by Toronto FC General Manager Kevin Payne to tap the 35-year-old Nelsen, still a playing member of Queens Park Rangers,  as the MLS team’s head coach?

Payne brought Nelsen into Major League Soccer in the 2001 draft with the fourth overall pick. From the beginning, Nelsen was asking questions.

He never stopped, through four years in Washington, the captaincy, a championship with D.C. United and then a long stay in the English Premier League and the New Zealand National teams.

“Ryan has better leadership qualities than any professional athlete I have been around,” Payne said. “I always thought Ryan would end up becoming an outstanding head coach some day when he was done playing.”

“I’ve been thinking about coaching since I was 21,” Nelsen said. “I’ve been curious. I’ve begged my managers for information. I annoy them constantly about how they run teams. It feels right to put my fingerprint, my DNA, on this team.”

Twice voted one of the league’s top 11 players at D.C. United, Nelsen played seven years for Blackburn Rovers. He spent a year with Tottenham Hotspur and went to QPR last summer. Nelsen has more than 40 caps for New Zealand and captained the team at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics as well as the 2010 World Cup.

He may not be quite done. Despite aching knees and ankles, Nelsen remains a valued defender for QPR. The squad has 17 games left to avoid relegation and by that schedule, Nelsen may not be available until May 19. Based on last year’s schedule he would have missed 16 league and tournament games. Amiable negotiations between Nelsen, his agent and QPR are continuing and the team’s ownership has been supportive of his career move.

For Nelsen, the move to the sidelines comes with no regrets. As if he needed a reminder of his age, Nelsen’s arrival in Toronto was delayed a day so he could take treatment.

“I probably accepted the end of my playing career about a year ago,” he said.

Nelsen will not be with the team at this week’s combine and the MLS SuperDraft, January 17 in Indianapolis. Veteran collegiate coach Fran O’Leary, who met Nelsen when the MLS rookie showed up at a varsity practice and asked to help coach, will be the head man until Nelsen is available.

“I have 100 per cent confidence in Fran,” Nelsen said. “We’ve known each other for over 10 years. We think very similarly in terms of styles and how you should play. I know when I’m not there Fran will lead the show 100 per cent.”

Earlier, the team announced last year’s coach, Paul Mariner, would not be back.

“It was really my decision,” Payne said. “We needed to change the culture around the club and the way to do that was to send a new message to the club, the players and the fans. I have great regard for Paul Mariner but I believed it was best for us and ultimately best for him if we parted ways.”

Payne said the wait for Nelsen won’t seem onerous in hindsight if, as expected,  he spends a long time coaching TFC. Teaming Nelsen with O’Leary, he said, adds a necessary veteran voice to the coaching staff.

“If you hire a former player because the qualities of leadership they exhibit, you understand they don’t have coaching experience but they have the intangibles that make them leaders,” he said. “They need the right kind of support around them.”