Jack: Nelsen says Defoe at Toronto FC 'would be incredible'

Kristian Jack
10/28/2013 10:25:50 PM
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When the final whistle blew on Toronto FC's season against the Montreal Impact on Saturday, the ball came down from the night sky and, fittingly, landed on the head of head coach Ryan Nelsen. The former central defender calmly nodded it down and quietly went about celebrating a win with his staff.

For a man who has had a lot on his shoulders this season, it was an appropriate moment. The rookie head coach now fully admits that he underestimated the task he took on when he came to Toronto after retiring as a player from QPR in the Premier League in January.

He inherited a side in shambles on and off the pitch. He went on to use 35 different players in 34 league games and watch the GM who brought him to the club get fired, yet as season number seven for the franchise officially finishes, Nelsen has never been happier as a head coach.

In a sit-down interview with on Monday, he talked about how he sleeps a lot better now, believing the team is heading in the right direction. He rolls his eyes thinking back to the state the team was in "salary cap [shape] and competitively" when he took over, but there is no anger or frustration in his voice.

Nelsen is not an easy man to shake away from calmness; his voice rarely changes its pitch as he talks about the highs and lows of his first year in charge. It is only when I ask him about Christchurch, his beloved home city in New Zealand, ravaged by an earthquake back in 2011, does his expression change as his mind reflects on a scary moment for his family.

"They were right in the middle of it. I felt completely helpless. During the earthquake, my sister went into labour – she has a brittle bone disease, so if she doesn't have a c-section she's going to die, so she is in labour, all cell phone communication is gone, the emergency services are all occupied and nobody could get hold of her. I get hold of my parents, they don't know if she made it, so it was about a five, six, seven-hour period where we didn't know if she was okay. Thankfully, eventually, everything worked out good."

The 36-year-old openly says he is forever thinking about the club, but as a man it is clear he never gets to the point of worry that he did that day.

"That's real world stress," he admitted and remains saddened by what happened back home. "Since then I have gone back and half the city is completely destroyed. It's a beautiful little city. It takes the soul out of it, but the last time I went back was the first time I saw a real sign of recovery. I can't wait to go back for Christmas to see the rebuild."

The subject turns to Major League Soccer and its complicated rules. Nelsen admits they are difficult to understand and shows small signs of frustration when talking about them as he slips back into his laidback delivery after the Christchurch chat.

"Some of the rules are incredibly frustrating, when you are a club that has the resources that we have, you get held back," he said. "It's communism, really, trying to make everyone even when we are a democracy and we are like Canada, very progressive, but we get held back by the league rules designed for parity. Some of them are just incredible. I still don't believe some of them, but that's the world we live in and it's done with the best intentions for the league."

Staying in his calm and collected mode, he talks about "learning over a thousand different things" since he arrived on the job and close to the top of that list is how to, and how not to, lead a club going forward.

"I think I have learned more about the organization than anything. If certain things aren't right, it's amazing how it trickles down and makes it very hard to move in the right direction," the coach explained. "Decisions were being made before I came back that people didn't know about. It caused a mess, but the year has been about clearing up mistakes. It's not the players' fault. It's on the administration and I underestimated how debilitating that is towards a team - really underestimated it."

Having played under big name managers such as Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Sam Allardyce, it is the current West Ham manager, Allardyce, who Nelsen singles out as giving him the best piece of advice.

"I have learned that the club has to come 100 per cent before anything else," said Nelsen. "I know that might frustrate the fans and media, who aren't in the epicentre of it, but you have to keep doing what is best for the club and cannot appease certain areas. That's what I have stuck to all season."

Part of those on the end of that have been high-priced players such as Stefan Frei, Richard Eckersley and Danny Koevermans, three big personalities, rarely playing, who didn't hide their feelings on Monday when talking about Nelsen and a lack of communication towards them. Nelsen said his door is always open, something backed up by players such as Steven Caldwell and Robert Earnshaw, and, still remaining in his calm manner, seemed disappointed that the trio ended their time in such a manner.

"It's ironic that they're the guys that haven't played much," explained Nelsen. "They will complain, but I mean, wow. One is on [a] $1.6 mill.[deal.] To me, they should be really happy for what Toronto has provided them."

Those departing open doors for new players, which include potential star Designated Players, Nelsen switches gears and talks about how essential it is to find lower-salaried players who will consistently outperform their contracts, something Toronto FC have struggled to find since it began.

"I cannot stress how important that is," said Nelsen. "It's so key - it's the foundation. DPs are the icing on the cake. It's like putting a Picasso in a dump of a house. It makes no sense. You need a good house before you think of that. If you asked me in June about DPs, I said we wouldn't be ready. We didn't have the foundation to handle it."

Now, things have changed, the coach says.

"We have enough players now [who] are starting to get hardened that know the league. We are in a salary cap and allocation situation where we could handle it. If you ask me, if Messi and Ronaldo are coming, can we handle it? I would say yes."

Messi and Ronaldo still don't raise his tone, so I tried one more attempt by dropping another name.

"You played with Jermain Defoe, would he make a good DP in this league?" I asked.

"That's not a serious question, is it?" he responded.

Before I explained how I wanted him to tell me how good Defoe is, Nelsen interrupted with his eyes wide open. Now he was as passionate as the All Blacks doing the Haka.

"Jermain Defoe in this league? Look what Di Vaio has done! My goodness - incredible player," Nelsen raved. "One of the most natural goal-scorers I have ever come across. Always out training, always trying to score, a great guy. To get a guy like Defoe for the MLS, I cannot think of many that are more suited. I think if you ask most Premier League teams, they would take Defoe."

He pauses, as if he imagines Defoe one day playing for him.

"It would be incredible. I call him and text him all the time," he said. "Him playing in Toronto would be phenomenal. If you look around the world and try and think of a realistic player – and I am not sure how realistic he is - that complements a league like ours, never gets injured, doesn't drink, can play high, low, scores all sorts of goals – do you know something I don't? Can you go over and sell it to him?"

Through comedy, Nelsen refuses to tip his hand one way or another on whether Defoe was one of the players the club spoke to on a recent trip to London, but now that the club is ready for star designated players, I propose a scenario to him that could see Defoe or another target not arriving until next August, once the World Cup is over. It is not one that Nelsen is too comfortable with.

"We want them in as soon as possible," Nelsen explained. "If we have to pick [from] A and B and A is coming in January and B is coming in August, it's January. [TFC would take] a good DP that's going to score x amount of goals over a great DP who will come in August. Look, the team wants to get to the playoffs."

And what if such a January signing would go to Brazil 2014? Nelsen doesn't see a problem.

"Look, if we have World Cup stars, just missing for a few weeks, that would be pretty good!"

Calmness restored.

Spend some time with Nelsen and it's not difficult to see why he sleeps well at night. Tonight, it is quite possible that he'll be dreaming of a Tottenham striker playing for him in the near future.

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