The lessons of Toronto FC

Photo: Earl Gardner

In the week ahead, the Union will take on Toronto FC twice in four days, a home-and-home series unlike any in Union history.

(The only other time the Union have played a home-and-home with the same opponent in MLS competition was last year, with Chicago as the opponent. Those games were a week apart, with a home game against LA Galaxy in midweek. The weirdness of MLS scheduling truly has no limits.)

The matchup also comes at a tumultuous time for Toronto, who on Sunday fired head coach Ryan Nelsen. Nelsen challenged 32-year-old general manager Tim Bezbatchenko after a toothless 3-0 defeat to the Revs, claiming that the GM’s pre-match comments unsettled TFC. The result was a dramatic weekend which saw Nelsen and his staff leave and the club receive and reject a transfer offer “right up there with the highest transfer fee ever received from MLS” for Jermain Defoe, keeping the England international in MLS.

Different nations, twin franchises

Toronto and the Union are, in many ways, similar franchises. Both started as pure expansion squads (unlike Seattle or Portland), both constructed top-notch soccer-specific stadiums, and both have largely squandered the advantage of a rabid fanbase through poor front-office management.

These similarities carry over to this most recent offseason. Toronto brought in Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, and Gilberto — three high-priced designated players representing an outlay of nearly $100 million — while the Union made similar strong (albeit cheaper) signings in Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Cristian Maidana. Both of these revamped rosters were entrusted to inexperienced managers in ex-England man Ryan Nelsen and longtime youth coach John Hackworth. 

And now, both men are gone, and both teams are in a dogfight to secure a playoff birth.

Heading into this crazy doubleheader with the Reds, it’s worth considering what the Union can learn from the failures of their counterparts over the border.

Too many cooks spoil the squad…

The precipitating event which finally pushed Nelsen over the edge and into the waters of unemployment came in a public scuffle between GM and manager. Though it seemed relatively innocuous for Bezbatchenko to challenge the TFC players to “raise their game” for the Revs clash, Nelsen clearly believed that the words were counter-productive.

Having your GM and your manager singing from the same songbook — publicly and privately — is essential in any sport, not just in MLS. Witness the other firing of the weekend, longtime relegation candidate Houston Astros parting ways with manager Bo Porter after evidence of a philosophical rift with GM Jeff Luhnow. Baseball, like soccer, is a sport where the long-time norm of complete deference to the field manager is rapidly changing, whether to more active front offices in baseball or a division of responsibilities in soccer. Interpersonal relationships within the organization must be strong, and a shared level of trust is key. (It seems to me that the young ages of the two men, combined with their complete and total inexperience — 32 for Bezbatchenko and 36 for Nelsen, with a combined two-and-a-half years in their respective gigs — made this a tandem that was doomed from the onset.)

How is this relevant to Philadelphia? For the entire history of the franchise, there has been no “general manager,” with Hackworth and Peter Nowak before him controlling personnel decisions. This structure has been imperfect at best, with CEO Nick Sakiewicz also involved in an informal and irregular way in some decisions.

But, with a search for a third permanent manager well underway, Sakiewicz has spoken about reviewing the structure of the Union’s front office. The early reports that European coaches such as Rene Muelensteen had the inside track on the vacancy would imply that Sak could look to bring in a general manager — someone who would understand the intricacies of MLS and take the lead in constructing a talented roster.

If the Union are to go this route, it is imperative that the new manager and GM share a vision for the direction of the franchise and have clearly defined roles. Too often have the Union struggled from front-office dysfunction, and Toronto FC’s example makes it plain that moving to this new structure without an effective partnership in the two positions will do little to solve Philadelphia’s persistent problems.

Beware the lure of rookie managers

The other, as-yet-unmentioned flaw with Ryan Nelsen was that he was a terrible manager. Hired directly off the substitute’s bench at Queen’s Park Rangers, many considered it quite a surprise that Nelsen even made it to a second season. Nelsen was accused of a negative style of play which didn’t get the most out of his players. Compounding Nelsen’s inexperience was his choice of a staff which was similarly unprepared — for his number two, he chose Bowdoin College coach Fran O’Leary, a man with no MLS experience.

Now, it’s certainly possible that given time and a better situation Nelsen could be quite a good manager. But Toronto entrusted their massive influx of veteran talent to a 36-year-old rookie, and asked him to turn them into a powerhouse. He could not.

Different types of teams need different types of coaches. A young, rookie coach can grow along with a younger, less complete team if given time and patience. But a team designed to win now, equipped with veteran players who have proven talent and the egos to match, needs a coach with the capacity to manage those difficulties. Nelsen didn’t have that. Neither did John Hackworth, a youth coach for much of his career who acted like it through constant position changes and an emphasis on practice performance. 

The Union are a veteran team. Their core has years of seasoning, both in MLS (Le Toux, Casey, Okugo, Williams) and around the world (Mbolhi, Valdes, Edu, Nogueira, and Maidana). This team should be in the playoffs this year, and they should be hunting a title next year. Jim Curtin has done an undeniably solid job righting the ship after a disastrous first half. But he’s only 34, and handing him the keys to this veteran team for the long-term may prove to be a poor decision. 

The Union’s long-term success or failure will rest on the new manager’s ability to get this veteran squad to gel into something greater than the sum of their parts, something no Union team to date has been able to do. After just three months on the job, it’s not yet evident that Curtin, despite the team’s resurgence under his command, has that capacity.

For success this year, though, the Union must get past a challenging week with their Canadian doppelgängers. Over 180 minutes of soccer, Nick Sakiewicz will have much to ponder from the Northerners’ example as he plots the future of the organization.


  1. We’ll always have the 2011 playoffs.

  2. The Nelson firing is classic TFC. When everyone was talking about TFC’s signings at the beginning of the year, I knew that it was all hype and they would not be the powerhouse they looked to be. It’s TFC, they fail in epic proportions. At least Chivas was decent at one point. TFC has never made the playoffs, they might not this year either. I think we are catching them at a perfect time. I don’t expect a performance surge when the assistant GM becomes Manager like Curtin and Albright have seen. At least for the Union it was assistants with relationships to draw upon with the players. This is “the man” coming in and telling you what to do.

  3. Not to nitpick, but Ryan Nelson is from New Zealand, for which he has 49 caps – “ex-England man” he ain’t. Otherwise good article!

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