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Toronto FC confirms Payne firing, delays ticket renewals

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The Canadian Press
9/5/2013 3:08:57 PM
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TORONTO -- Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment boss Tim Leiweke has cleaned house at Toronto FC while hitching his wagon to rookie manager Ryan Nelsen.

For anyone wondering, the path at the beleaguered Major League Soccer franchise is now crystal clear -- it's Leiweke's way or the highway.

And Nelsen is riding shotgun.

Gone are president and general manager Kevin Payne, as well as Earl Cochrane, Payne's right-hand man and Toronto's director of team and player operations.

The future of Pat Onstad, chief scout and manager of football partnerships, seems uncertain. Leiweke said Onstad will not continue in his current position but "may have a role going forward" elsewhere at the 4-12-10 club.

But Nelsen stays and Leiweke told a media conference call Thursday that whoever succeeds Payne will have to work with the former New Zealand international as manager.

It appears the new GM will also have to get in step with Leiweke and Nelsen on planned high-profile player acquisitions in the January transfer window.

"Ryan and I are not only 100 per cent on the same page on this January window and what we're looking for, the positions we're looking for, we have had very specific conversations about (players)," Leiweke said.

Not being in lockstep with the president and CEO of MLSE proved to be Payne's demise.

Leiweke, who took over on June 30, said it had become clear that he and Payne had differences.

"Philosophically there was no difference of opinion on the four building points (the academy, draft, trading within MLS, and designated players) but there was a difference of opinion on implementation," he said. "And I had to get everybody on the same page. Thus changes."

Nelsen apparently ticks the right boxes.

"I'm comfortable with Ryan. He will be our coach next year," said Leiweke. "Ryan sees the world exactly the way we do."

For Nelsen, it's an impressive show of survival by a newcomer to MLS -- especially considering that the well-connected Payne has been in the league since its inception.

Leiweke, who stressed there was no rift at the club, did not detail his differences with Payne. But it seems clear that Payne's inability to land a marquee talent was a major stumbling block.

"Remember we have the hardest part of thing (done). Which is our owners gave us the money (to acquire players)," Leiweke said.

The MLSE boss did say he didn't see the sense of having one person chase players and another person attempting to close the deal, which seemed to be the way Onstad and Payne operated.

And Leiweke is a closer. He was active in bringing David Beckham and Robbie Keane to the Los Angeles Galaxy while he ran AEG.

For the fans, it's yet another changing of the guard at a floundering franchise that seems in a never-ending state of flux.

Nelsen is the team's eighth manager in seven years. The team has never progressed to the playoffs and sports a woeful all-time league record of 49-100-65.

Payne and Nelsen inherited a horror show. Toronto (5-21-8) posted franchise worsts in 2012 for wins (five), losses (21), points (23), goals against (62) and winless string (14).

Privately they were shocked at the state of the team's salary cap, which was squeezed by bloated, ill-conceived contracts.

Payne took a scalpel to the cap, shedding players while dealing to acquire allocation money to increase their resources.

"I have nothing but good things to say about Kevin," Leiweke said. "He did a yeoman's job here on cleaning up bad contracts and giving us a chance to build going forward without some of the heavy burden and the lack of cap space that we've been dealing with for a while here."

The dismal showing in 2012 prompted MLSE to roll back 2013 season-ticket prices to that of the club's inaugural year in 2007.

After another season of failure, Leiweke says season-ticket holders won't have to commit to their tickets until January -- instead of later this month -- so they can make up their mind on the team's moves.

"By then we will either have done what we have to do and they will hold us accountable and say 'I like what you did, I'm in.' Or if we fail here, we're going to have a mass exodus," Leiweke said. "And we get it. We're OK with that, all of us.

"We will put our feet to the fire here ... We better do a good job because I don't think a marketing campaign is going to cut it this time."

He said he didn't know what decision had been made on whether ticket prices will be raised for next season.

The search for a new GM has begun with Leiweke saying his preference was for someone who knows the league, its teams, CBA and salary cap intricacies -- ironically all strengths of Payne.

"Yes they've got to inherit our decision on Ryan but we also cleaned out some other situations here so that they can have a clean slate and put their own staff together," said Leiweke. "And we will expect them to do that.

"And I don't want to be the GM. We don't have time for that. We will be involved on the DP."

An MLSE spokesman said after the conference call that the organization is looking for a GM for the soccer club rather than a president/GM like Payne.

The search for a DP will include Italy, he said when asked about Toronto's sizable Italian population.

Toronto currently has two designated players: Argentine midfielder Matias Laba and Dutch forward Danny Koevermans, whose contract expires at the end of the season.

Leiweke says the club is figuring out how to fill the holes in its roster, with funds and cap space available to go after two "marquee" designated players in January.

"We do believe that we could be looking at a team next year that like Montreal, like Vancouver and like Portland, can be competitive," he said, citing the last three expansion teams to join the league.

"We're not waiting for January," he added. "We will be over in Europe soon and we already have had conversations with teams and agents so we understand what's out there, who we want and how they fit into the rest of Ryan's team."

It is possible the team may make a deal with a player during the January window to join Toronto after the summer World Cup.

"This is about finding the right players, for our team and our coach."

Leiweke shot down any suggestion that he and Nelsen were on a different page in terms of the timing of signing a star player. Nelsen had said he wanted to have the right supporting cast in place before pulling the DP trigger, a view Leiweke did not share.

"There is zero disagreement on now's the time," Leiweke said when asked about it.

Leiweke had also said he wanted to wait until the end of the season to evaluate his soccer team. Toronto has eight games remaining, starting Saturday in Portland.

He attributed making the decision ahead of time to the fact that "critical decisions" on the future of the club had to be made sooner rather than later. He also said he wanted Payne's replacement to have as much time as possible ahead of the January window.

Whether Payne was aware the writing was on the wall is unknown. But Leiweke said he knew "in the last few weeks" that change was needed.

Leiweke apparently used that time to pick Nelsen's brain and plan ahead.

Payne was appointed in late November, with the longtime D.C. United executive seen as the soccer man long needed to right the ship.

Toronto has won just four league games since, with 25 new players coming through the door and 25 exiting since the end of last season.

Leiweke has now axed two presidents at MLSE, having parted ways with Raptors boss Bryan Colangelo earlier this summer

"This one was the hardest one so far, simply because not only was Kevin fairly new here but Kevin and I go back a long way," Leiweke.

Kevin Payne (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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