WTFC: Selling the sizzle

29 Jul

A rare win; the same old talking points.  Saturday proved to be a historical day as Toronto FC came from behind to beat Columbus Crew 2-1 for their first home win in over a year.  The same day, TFC President Kevin Payne continued to speak of new additions, without providing any concrete information.

Twit

In the revolving door that is Toronto FC, continuity has been the only thing the team has yet to try.  To be a unit at the playing level would require continuity among the leadership – something the team has not contemplated having had more managers than years in existence.  One of the few consistents with TFC is to blame the old management for players “that are not good enough”.

The blame game is a red herring.  With over 100 players that o

f worn a Reds jersey over the past 7 years, the MLS is littered with examples of former TFC’s who “were not good enough” only to find success with better teams.  This is the MLS after all where all teams are playing with the same rules and limited by the same salary cap of $2.8 million (plus designated players, DP juniors, allocation money, and whatever else the loopholes exist).  A playing budget that is severely capped means that all MLS team’s will be hard pressed to pay for quality players at all positions – especially when you are competing with top soccer leagues (that MLS head Don Gardner alleges to want to compete with) who do not operate with a salary cap.  There will always be roomed to improve in the team – but other MLS team’s have figured out how to work within the limits to field competitive teams.

There is method to the TFC madness.  When you live by the old adage “When things go wrong, blame your predecessor”, you need a communication strategy to match. For TFC that means that constant suggestion of new players are on the way.  The obvious inference is that it is not management, not the coaches and not even the team itself that is lousy – but they are just missing that certain je-ne-c’est-quoi that new blood will bring.

Good teams are built around a collective of players. It is extremely rare when one player comes in and suddenly everything clicks.   Team’s need chemistry and synchronicity.  Players need to know how each other think, what each other’s strengths, and where they are positioned.  It is not by accident that Barca and Ajax rely on their academy to build a team and only bringing in new blood to shore up weaknesses.  Constantly shipping out the “last guys” players and bringing in new faces does not allow that chemistry to gel.

The problem with TFC’s communication strategy in the Payne/Nelsen era is that you need to eventually have results – both on the field and off.  It is interesting that TFC’s winner – only the third victory of this season – was scored by Andrew Wiedeman, a little used forward left over from the Mariner era.  Just like the starting XI has been a rotating cast of players since opening day, rumours of who may be joining TFC has been a merry-go-round.  Throughout March and April Argentinian Maximiliano Urruti was widely linked as TFC’s new DP.  More recently names like Lucas Melanos and Diego Forlan have been tossed around.

TFC

Perhaps, it is just media speculation but these rumours must pass muster somewhere and TFC officials do nothing to quell rumours.  Rather, they seem to want to perpetuate the rumours by v

ague references to new players, including DPs and DP juniors, on their way.  This is purely a distraction from the deficiencies in the team.  When you lose as much as TFC the focus will eventually turn to why the team is losing or the team will be ignored all together.  Let’s face it, just as much as it sucks to read about another loss, it must equally suck to have to find new and interesting ways to describe another loss.  Professional soccer is part of the entertainment business, and when the product sucks, attendance drops, beer sales drop, media interest drops – all this culminating in a hole in the owners pocketbook.

By perpetuating rumours of potential star signings, Payne, Nelsen et al are selling a vision of a better tomorrow.  In a season where TFC again failed to live up to low expectations, this is all they can sell.

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Norwich City Drops Jackson for van Wolfswinkel

26 Mar

In the cards since for the past many moons, Simeon Jackson has finally been loaned out by Norwich City.  Jackson will return to the Championship League with Brighton & Hove Albion and assist Gus Poyet’s men to fight their way into the promotion play-offs.

With the weekend’s announcement that Sporting Lisbon is selling Dutch target man Ricky van Wolfswinkel to Norwich for €10 million, it was clear that Jackson was not in Chris Hughton’s future plans.  Hughton had been clear in January that Norwich needs new strikers up front.  Norwich move to bring in Kei Kamara on loan from Sporting KC at the end of the January transfer window, effectively pushing Jackson off the game day list all together.

While Jackson is excellent in the box, Hughton indicated he viewed Jackson’s talents as limited.  This view was perhaps a reflection of Jackson’s decrease output since Hughton’s arrival last summer.  This season Jackson made 17 appearances in all competitions, scoring 3 goals.  Strikers live and die by their output, and if you are not scoring it is difficult to justify your roster spot.

Jackson, like the vast majority of strikers, is streaky.  There are very few Rooney’s and Van Persie’s who can consistently find the back of the net – but that is also what makes them so special.  In his first season with Norwich, Jackson spent many games coming off the bench in unsuccessful attempts to find the net.  Jackson hit his stride at the end of March, 2011 after returning from the international break with Canada when he scored hat tricks against Scunthorpe and, more notable, Derby – thus leading Norwich back to the Premier League.

The arrival of van Wolfswinkel is the clearest sign that Jackson’s future lay elsewhere.  The Dutch striker comes from that uncharacteristically Dutch line of strikers which includes Ruud van Nistelrooy and Bas Dost: Dutchmen known for their individual goal scoring abilities as opposed to their team play.  Van Wolfswinkel has proven himself first with Utrecht in Eredivisie and now with Sporting CP in the Primeira Liga.  While his goal output justifies the large sum paid by a relatively small club, van Wolfwinkel can also cut back when needed to provide link up play.  That Sporting CP is selling him now has everything to do with Sporting CP’s dire financial status and need for money now, than to his performances (although despite the club’s expensive roster, they have been mired in mediocrity this season – leading to four managers so far).

It is always a little sad to see one less Canadian playing in one of the top leagues, but hopefully this will get Jackson what he needs most – playing time.  Norwich’s problem’s in front of net this season was highlighted by Hughton’s public acknowledgement during the January trasnsfer window.  Jackson – like most of the club’s players – has not been part of the solution.  While he has been threatening on many occasions, he was truly only brilliant when he partnered with Elliott Bennett in an FA Cup match at the start of 2013.  Unfortunately, Jackson was not able to build on that performance – nor was he partnered with Bennett again – and by February he was off the game day roster.

With the excitement that has surrounded Brighton and Hove in the Gus Poyet era, and with the team in a real race for promotion, Jackson has the opportunity to showcase his skills and help push the team to the promised land.  This perhaps represents Jackson’s best opportunity of returning to the Premier League.

UPDATE:  Despite the media reports and the wikipedia update, the loan agreement never went through.  Jackson saw out his days at Norwich and, as expected, was shown the door at the end of the season.  Despite rumours of interest from various Championship clubs, Jackson jumped the North Sea to the Bundesliga joining newly promoted Eintracht Braunschweig.  While it is a shame that it appears there will be a sore lack of Canadian content in the Premier league this season, it is great to see Canadians will continue to flourish in top leagues.  I am looking forward December 14 when Eintract head to FC Augsburg and Jackson can match wits against Canadian defender Marcel de Jong.

 

Dutch in Europe

15 Mar

Following Amsterdam Ajax’s surprising exit from Europa in the Round of 32, it would appear that Dutch football does not have much to gloat about.  Dutch teams have flamed out of continental competitions this year, however a number of Dutch players are still contributing to teams in the Champions League.  Three Dutch players – Wesley Sneijder with Galatasaray, Gregory van der Wiel with Paris Saint-Germain and Arjen Robben with Bayern Munich – are all playing in this year’s quarter finals.  It has been nearly ten years since a Dutchman was not in the UEFA Champions League final – even though no Dutch team has made it to the final since Ajax lost in a shootout to Juvetus in 1996.  Not since the 2004 final between Porto and AC Monaco has a Champions League final not had a Dutch influence.

This is all the more interesting in light of, what many consider as, the early exit of English teams from the Champions League.  The only English player involved is David Beckham, a mid-season pick-up by PSG.

There are many possible reasons for this phenomenon.  The Netherlands, as a seafaring nation, has a history of exporting their best talent (and some of their not so best).  The reputation of Dutch players may not have reached the calibre of Brazilian players, where for much of the past 15 years players appeared to be signed as much for their Brazilian passport as for their actual skill, but Dutch players are still respected addition to almost any team (Juventus aside…) .  Take the 2010 World Cup squad where only a third (9 of 23 players) plied their trade in the Eredivisie.  Of those 23 only 5 are currently playing in the Eredivisie with only the eternal Sander Boschker still playing for the same team with FC Twente.  The other four – Mark van Bommel (PSV), Ryan Babel (Ajax), Joris Mathijsen (Feyenoord) and Edson Braafheid (Twente) – were all playing outside of the Netherlands during the 2010 World Cup but have since returned.   In other words, the Netherlands may be a small nation but its citizens get around.

Part of the reason that Dutch footballers can travel is that their skills are recognized and coveted.  The Eredivisie has a reputation of being a technical league – it may not have the pace of La Liga or the hard tackling of the Premiership – but it is tough to beat in terms of possession, passing and precision.  This is no doubt influenced by a number of the excellent academies, including that of Ajax’s and Feyenoord’s.

To contrast this with English football, English players (and managers) simply do not travel away from their home country as much as Dutch players.  Part of this could be owed to English players innate belief in the superiority of English football.  While there is some commentary that England’s exit from this year’s Champions League is somehow a reflection of decline of the English game, the Premier League remains one of the top leagues, both in terms of financial resources, fan base and performance.  After all Chelsea just won the Champions league last year, and they are in contention, along with Newcastle and Tottenham, to win the Europa this year.

Perhaps the most compelling reason why Dutch footballers travel is not the demand for their skill or the offers to play against top competition, but the financial benefits.  Dutch teams simply cannot compete against the high-paying teams of England, Germany, Spain, Italy and now Turkey.  As the top grossing team in the Eredivisie, Ajax pulled in a record €104m for 2011-12. That would place them in the top 30 on the Deloitte Football Money league, somewhere behind Newcastle and Tottenham, but hundreds of millions of Euros behind the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United.  Since the introduction of the Bosman rule, the Eredivisie has become somewhat of a selling league where Dutch teams develop young talent and sell them on for profit.  The average age of the Ajax team competing in Europe this year was around 22 – by far one of the lowest averages, if not the lowest of all teams competing in the group stage.

I would be remise not to point out that there are a few Dutchmen who may yet grace the pitch at the Amsterdam ArenA for the Europa final.  Ola John (Benefica), Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahce), or Tim Krul and Anita Vernon (Newcastle) may yet make it through the Europa quarter and semi-finals.  Obviously this is a small consolation as having a Dutchman playing in the final is not as good as having a Dutch team playing.

Dutch out of Europe

21 Feb

Amsterdam AjaxAlways the shootout. The Achilles Heel of the Dutch.  After Oranje’s disastrous history with the shoot out, you would think Dutch players would practice taking spot kicks religiously. No wonder Arjen Robben, that most uncharacteristic of Dutch players – an out-and-out winger – shied away from taking the spot kick in the shoot out against Chelsea in last year’s Champions league final.

Now all Dutch teams are out of Europe. The shootout has befallen Ajax. Hope truly rested with Ajax as the Europa final will be played at the Amsterdam ArenA. Alas there is no Dutch team competing in any European competition – and it is not even March.

This year’s performance will only hurt the Dutch coefficient – possibly leading to KNVB losing a place in Europe. The last two seasons were exemplified by strong performances overall by Dutch teams. Two years ago both Twente and Ajax qualified for the Champions League group stage, and PSV and Twente went on to the Europa quarter finals. Last year saw 4 Dutch team advancing to the group of the 32, 3 teams to the round of 16, and AZ making it as far as the quarter-finals. But for the luck of the draw, Ajax may not have faced Manchester United in the round of 32. Still they provided a memorable upset at Old Trafford.

This year it was a combination of bad luck and not showing up. After a late season melt down, Twente FC snuck into Europa through the fair play door. Starting their season early in July only seemed to help them as they have put forward the most points towards the overall Dutch co-efficient. One of the most exciting Eredivisie teams from last season, AZ, drew up and coming Russia powerhouse Anzhi in the qualifiers. Vitesse are a young team gaining European experience and nothing much was expected. PSV walked into the Europa Group stage and walked out again. Feyenoord were last year’s surprise runner-up to Ajax. Their youth and inexperience, after years of financial turmoil, showed through. All this left Ajax with the exceptional victory and draw against Manchester City to survive the Champions League Group of Death.

By the end of last year’s Europe campaign the talk was of more Europe competitions – possibly with an extra Champions League spot. Despite being a comparatively small soccer association, the Dutch hit above their weight. This is to a large degree why Europe is so important to Dutch soccer. Europe means more money pouring into Dutch teams. More money for one team often means that it gets distributed through the league as the bigger teams buy the best players if the smaller teams. It also means a bigger testing ground for the big teams. Whereas Premier league teams can expect to play in front a minimum 20,000 plus crowd each week, a team like Ajax may go from playing before 50,000 at the ArenA to 5000 at VVV Venlo. In other words, while there is always the opportunity of an upset, week in week out the big team Dutch teams have limited competition. Testing yourself against Europe’s best ensures the team stays at its pinnacle.

Now with the Europa dream over Frank de Boer and his staff will have to sit back and sketch out the next steps. The double is still in play, however is this enough to motivate the players to continue past this season?  Following the philosophy set out by Ajax visionary Johan Cruyff, and implemented by de Boer, the plan is to build a team that can compete with Europe’s elite relying on young homegrown players.  When improvement is not obvious, as is the case with another round of 32 crash-out, will the most talented players decide to stay for a few extra years.  If players like Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld or Siem de Jong decide to explore greener pastures, Ajax are back to where they were three years ago at the start of de Boer’s reign.  The dream of European glory has been foundation to push the team forward.

Unfortunately, with the Europa final being held at the ArenA, a dream is exactly all that Ajax has to clink onto.

 

Match-fixing: Soccer’s biggest problem

5 Feb

The fix is in

What was seemingly a long time coming, Europol announced they have uncovered a massive match-fixing ring.  The announcement raises more questions, than answers.  In particular, why now?  The announcement was short on details because another of cases are before courts.  This has encouraged speculation over which matches, officials and players were involved.

Another question related to the numbers.  Apparently 380 matches were fixed, with 425 officials, players and other individuals identified.  As reported in the Guardian:

They said that criminals put €16m on rigged matches and made €8m in profits. Payments of €2m are thought to have been paid to those involved, while investigators said that the biggest payment to an individual was €140,000.

If only €2million were paid out to 425 individuals, that means that every individual, if divide equally, would receive €4705 per match. Now, Europol indicated that 425 “officials, players and criminals” were involved.  If you are being bribed to throw a game, whether as a player or official, I have trouble seeing how you are not a criminal as well. However, for the sake of understanding these numbers, one can presume that the €2million is going to the officials and players, and not the criminals who are orchestrating the scheme.  Considering that the highest payment was €140,000, and that there were 380 matches involved, it is clear that many individuals were willing to accept small amounts of money to decide what is supposed to be a team sport.

When paying attention to the big spending leagues in Europe, it is easy to forget that the majority of soccer players get paid very little.  It is all fine and dandy to worry about whether Chelsea or Manchester City are spending so much that they will not meet their UEFA Financial Fair Play obligations, but the reality is many people involved in soccer do not drive fancy cars, live in huge houses and whose biggest problems off the pitch is not being caught cheating on your spouse.  Where there is pressure and opportunity to make money, some individuals will have a tough time saying no.  Moreover, Italy with all of its recent well publicized match-fixing issues is a perfect example where a large wealthy league can have match-fixing issues on an institutional level.

Match-fixing has long been a scourge on sports, and soccer in particular, for numerous years.  Soccer is particularly susceptible to match-fixing because of its popularity and global reach.   There are games played in almost every region at practically in time during the time.  Unlike the stock market, bookies have a never-ending period to place their bets.

The fact that 680 matches over a three-year period that included World Cup qualifiers, Euro Cup games, Champion Leagues matches, and one match that reportedly took place in England – all apparently spearheaded from Singapore – hits home that this is a global issue and that no one is immune.  The tendency is to view this as an Eastern European or Italian issue, a problem arising where unsavoury behaviour is allowed to fester in regions of much poverty (and often balanced by the few with great wealth) – in other words, where there is temptation and availability of money.  The reality is that where there is gamblers there will be potential for someone to make money off the game.

As a fan, it difficult to see match-fixing in action.  Part of the beautiful game is the low score, which lead to random results where David can challenge Goliath.  Last year’s games between Barcelona and Chelsea in the Champions League Semi-finals were a perfect example.  Despite Barcelona maintaining approximately 80% possession and having the superior number of opportunities, Chelsea was able to score on the counter-strikes.  Barcelona was widely considered the better team, on that day and every other day, but it was Chelsea that went on to win the Champions League.

Back on December 8, 2011, speculation was rife that match-fixing had decided the outcome of a Champions League group.  On the final day of Group games, as they prepared to face off in the ArenA Madrid and Ajax were in the pole positions to advance to the Round of 16.  Ajax were 3 points up and third place Lyon with a 7 point goal difference. Ajax went on to lose at home 0-3 with two perfectly good goals disallowed.  The goal difference should have seen them through but for Lyon smacking down Dinamo Zagreb 1-7 away.  In fairness to Zagreb, they did score their first goal of the Champions League that day.  However that goal was in the 40th minute, meaning that as all four teams went into half-time, Ajax still had a 7 point goal difference to rely.  In the second half, Lyon scored an almost unheard of 7 goals in 30 minutes, while Madrid scored twice against Ajax to send them to the Europa League.  The elements are there for allegations of match-fixing (including suggestions that a Dinamo players was seen leaving a bookie’s office), but proving it is something else.  One of the means to identify match-fixing is to look at irregularities in betting behaviour.  In this Zagreb example, there were no irregularities – everyone expected Zagreb to lose and they did lose.

Anyone who has read Declan Hill’s blog, or his excellent tome, The Fix, knows that match-fixing has been on ongoing problem for years. In Canada, a CBC investigation and found that two players in the Canadian Soccer league were bribed to throw a match.  The fact that international match-fixing allegations could encompass the CSL speaks to the sheer breadth of the operations.  The vast-majority of Canadians have never heard of this Ontario-centric league with a national name, yet there are people placed at CSL games to report back the play by play so that European gamblers have something to bet on in the wee hours.

Canada has recently made single-game betting legal.  Previously, individuals had to bet on two or more games.  This restriction made match-fixing slightly less interesting when individuals are unable to bet on the outcome of a single game.  The rise of internet gambling has meant that single-game betting has been available in Canada for a number of years, if not sanctioned and operated by government agencies (In fact, Bodog, one of the largest internet sport betting sites was created by a Canadian).  To address this discrepancy, Parliament decided to pass Bill C-290 without the benefit of hearing witnesses at committee.  Bill C-290 removes single game/race betting from the Criminal Code.  By adopting this approach, Parliament has decided to facilitate gambling (and indirectly raising the potential for match-fixing), so that governments can benefit from a certain type of gambling that was previously illegal. This approach does do anything to  actually address the problems related to gambling.

While the Europol’s announcement brings much needed attention to this issue, the lack of information available does a disservice in addressing this issue.  Match-fixing will continue to be soccer’s greatest challenge for some time to come.

WTFC: The MLS Super Draft 2013

17 Jan

TFCDon Garber stood before the collected mass of athletes, club officials, parents and journalist and announced “With the 3rd pick, Toronto FC selects from Boston College Midfielder Kyle Bekker.  Toronto FC is on the clock”.  While Bekker walked to the stage to sign a TFC ball, draped in a TFC scarf, the officials at the TFC table put their heads down and gesticulated wildly – which looked very impressive.  Then the announcement “Toronto FC is taking a five-minute time out.”  Fair enough, a team only has one time out and using it between back to back picks seems reasonable.

Of course you could quibble about why TFC was not ready.  After trading down with the New England Revolution, from 1st to 4th,it was not as if TFC did not know what to expect. The draft had gone as everyone predicted:  NE Revolution selected Andrew Farrell at No. 1, and Chivas U.S.A. maintained the latino vision selecting Carlos Alvarez, before TFC selected Oakville, Ontario native Bekker.

Then the trade: Don Garber stood up to announce that TFC traded the 4th pick to the Vancouver Whitecaps for the 10th pick and allocation money.  Vancouver already had the fifth pick, meaning TFC and the Whitecaps wanted the same player, but the Whitecaps wanted 18 year-old Ghana forward Kekuta Manneh more.

When TFC’s now 10th pick came around, again the TFC table had heads bowed and arms wildly gesturing.  Only this time the announcement, came that Seattle was using their 5 minute time out.   Sound how TFC managed two time-outs, where one was permitted.  Even when the team is last, it is never boring.

Eventually the team ended up with more allocation money and selected Mississauga, Ontario native Emery Welshman – a product out of Oregon State.

The wild gesticulations say much about TFC’s Super Draft plan.  First, money was more important than draft picks. TFC was open to any trade at the right price.  Because they received allocation for their three trades, we will never know what the right price was.  Second, when forced to pick, TFC’s top priority was to avoid filling an international-players slot.

TFC’s desire for allocation money and Canadian picks highlights that, as in recent year, they had little interest in the talent up for grabs at the MLS Super Draft.  At best, this means that TFC continues to rely on players developed through their own Academy.  This is great for TFC Academy prospects, and hopefully the team, as players will be developed for the system TFC wishes to play.  At worst, it demonstrates TFC’s continued lack of vision.  The Super Draft is an opportunity to scoop up some of the best talent up for grabs in North America – or in other words, an opportunity to build for the future.  TFC’s new assistant, Frank O’Leary, just left a career in the U.S. college system, and he likely would have been familiar with many of the players and a good judge of what they bring.   TFC’s unwillingness to play the Draft game, suggests that they are not yet sure of where they are headed.

By all accounts, both Bekker and Welshman are good prospects.  Bekker was the stand out of the MLS Combine leading up to the draft.  A stand out performance over a week of intensive drills is good, but perhaps not as telling as being a stand out game in, game out of a season.  Therefore, it was not just the fact that Bekker impressed during the MLS Combine, which moved him up the predicted draft selection – he was also helped by the fact that he was a Canuck.  One can wager that TFC would have taken any Canadian who had a stand out performance at the Combine.  The promising sign is that TFC continues to lead the way in developing Canadian talent.  We are not far from a time when every spot on the Canadian Men’s National Soccer roster is filled with current and former TFC players (of course, with TFC’s revolving door, it will not be long before every MLS player is a current or former TFC player).

TFC’s eagerness for allocation money suggests TFC has something bigger in store in terms of player signings.  However, with 3 designated players on the books for 2013 – each taking a cap hit of $350,000 out of a $2.7 million budget, plus a few other players making between $200,000 and $300,000 – the team has little room big signings.  The allocation money could be enough to bring a few good squad players at $80,000 a pop.

As expected there was no sign of new TFC coach Ryan Nelsen.  One hopes that he was taking a break from training with QPR to be on Skype with TFC officials at the Super Draft.

Nelsen: Player or Coach / TFC: Muppet of a Team?

8 Jan

Updating the previous post, it is now official.  Reading the live tweets of the press conference, a few things stood out.  Nelsen has no coaching certificates, UEFA B or otherwise.  He is still under contract with QPR and will remain with the club for the time being.  He pay still yet represent New Zealand at the international level.  Clearly he is just in Toronto over night as he played for QPR in the FA Cup last weekend.  The new assistant, Fran O’Leary, will call the shots at the coming drafts, and in other club matters, until Nelsen is around.

Basically, with training camp starting in a few weeks, TFC has jumped at a player with no coaching record and up until now has given no indication that he wants to be a coach.  Not only that he is supported by an assistant who is making a big jump up from the university system.  All this suggests that not only is 2013 going to be another rebuilding year, but that rebuild may not even start until the coach’s season arrives.

Sweet TFC continues to keep things interesting.  They do an incredible job of distracting fans from the poor on field performances.  TFC taking nonsensical decisions at odd times is a continuation tradition.

The big question here is why hire Nelsen now?  No coaching record, no training as a coach, still on contract as a player and clearly interested in staying on as a player.  Was TFC that desperate to give Paul Mariner the boot, and there was no suitable replacement?  This is professional sports – coaches and managers routinely have short stays at clubs.  If Nelsen is not available now, chances are there are other coaches who are.  If they could not turn TFC around, than Nelsen would be waiting in the wings.

Afterall, John van t’ Schip was predictably let go from Chivas Guadalajara.  While I do not expect TFC to always follow my advice, I did set out the case for his hiring.

WTFC: Nelsen, Nelsen he’s our man (eventually)

8 Jan

nelsonFor a team that consistently plies its trade in the bowels of the MLS, Toronto FC likes to keep things interesting.  A day after parting ways with Bob de Klerk by “mutual consent”, TFC coach Paul Mariner has been replaced by former Queens Park Rangers defender Ryan Nelsen.

In the last few months, the MLS bottom dwellers have been partaking in the annual rites of spring: dismantling an underperforming team and replacing it with an underperforming team.  A new coach, TFC’s first president, and undoubtedly a remade roster – That is right TFC fans, this will be another rebuilding year.

Nelsen, as a player, brings a decent resume.  Starting with Christchurch United in his native New Zealand (“better than old Zealand”), he moved to the MLS where he spent 4 years with D.C. United and current TFC Present Dan Payne.  From there he made the jump across (another) pond to join Blackburn Rovers before heading south to London, first for a brief visit to White Hart Lane with Tottenham, and then over to Loftus Road with QPR.   At 35, either Nelsen did not desire being part of back to back relegation campaigns, or perhaps him an ol’Harry Redknapp were not on the same page leading to his short stays at Spurs and QPR.  Regardless, Nelsen has decided to call time on his playing career for a shot to be the 8th manager in 7 years to build/rebuild TFC.

soccer or rugby player?

soccer or rugby player?

Nelsen, as a coach, brings no resume with him.  This is where the eyes start to roll and one starts praying that the powers that be at TFC know more than the average onlooker.  TFC has a history of bringing in coaches with little experience: (1) Mo Johnson spent parts of two seasons managing the New York Red Bulls;(2) John Carver had been assistant coach with Newcastle United and Leeds; (3) Chris Cummins had been youth coach with Watford and Luton Town, before acting as an assistant at TFC; (4)Preki spent three years at Chivas USA; (5) Nick Dasovic was an assistant with Canada and TFC; (6) Aron Winter, despite an excellent pedigree as a player, had only previously managed Jong Ajax, and; (7) Paul Mariner was an assistant with New England Revolution before spending a unfulfilling year at Plymouth Argyle.  From their age, to playing career, to coaching style and vision for the team – these seven coaches all brought very different elements to the team.  The string linking them together is their relative lack of experience in managing an MLS team.  Nelsen fits into this into this pattern.  With no coaching pedigree, it is unclear how he envisions TFC will play, or what players and fans can expect from a Nelsen lead team.

What can be said in Nelsen’s favour is that he did not have a traditional rise in soccer.  He came out of a soccer minnow, to attend a top U.S. University, before focusing on soccer first with the MLS and then with the Premier League.  Such a rise suggests Nelsen would have to be more than just a talented footballer, that he would have spent time learning the game.  Also, I appreciate that he is a defender and would have spent his days at the back reading the game (as opposed to playing up front and looking for opportunities).

Nelsen’s hiring should not come as a complete surprise, especially because the rumour has been running with this, with the assistance of ol’Arry.  Since TFC appointed their first President in November, there was much speculation on how Payne would put his stamp on his team.  Last season’s incessant insistence by the players that Mariner was their man pointed to the need to bolster the coach in face of diminished confidence.  Nelsen’s hiring is clearly Payne placing his stamp on the team.

The change in coaching also provides reason to yesterday’s announcement about Bob de Klerk’s sudden departure.  de Klerk had been the invisible man since he was laterally promoted from Assistant Coach to Technical Manager.  At the time, TFC were in an 8 game losing skid and the change was clearly a sign of intent that things had to change.  It also signalled Aron Winter’s termination a few weeks later.  The fact that he was kept on likely had more to do with contract obligations.  As Dave Rowaan over at Waking the Red pointed out, de Klerk’s coaching record was weak – although he did have experience being an assistant in the lower ranks of some notable Dutch clubs – notably with Jong Ajax.  His lateral move made little sense from an organizational perspective as it was unclear what de Klerk’s new duties were.  Yesterday’s parting of ways is part of Payne’s effort to clean out the remnants of the old regime. Today’s announcement  is all about the new regime.

Toronto FC: The Case for van ‘t Schip

6 Dec

Wanted: A professional soccer coach with demonstrated experience in building a team from the bottom up that can qualify for play-offs.   Must be able to facilitate an exciting and entertaining product on the field.  Ability to instruct technical skills, including one-touch passing, ball control and ball possession, attacking with and without the ball, fluidity of positions and understands the role of a sweeper-keeper. Ability to work with youth and bring academy players into the first team.  Knowledge of Total Football and Dutch name an asset.  Experience with Amsterdam Ajax and / or Barcelona a benefit, but not a requirement.

Go back two years and the above may have the job notice the classified section that caught Aron Winter’s eye.  While Toronto FC cut ties with Winter last June due to poor results, perhaps the team was a little to hasty in dismantling everything he attempted to build.  Michael Gardiner’s recent post, Ajax & Total Football: Toronto FC’s Past AND our Future?, over at Waking the Red got me thinking.  While TFC certainly felt rudderless after Winter was dismissed, maybe all hope is not lost that Toronto FC may find respectability by playing exciting, attacking, possession-based soccer.   Maybe with the hiring of Kevin Payne, TFC does not have to be the doormats of the MLS while playing a throw-back style of soccer.

John van't Ship - Looks good sporting a victory salute in a red tie

John van’t Ship – Looks good sporting a victory salute in a red tie

Maybe TFC was not on the wrong course two years ago – they just were not on the right one.  Just maybe Jurgen Klinsmann and Aron Winter were not the right men to transform TFC.  I am not saying the decision to hire either man was fundamentally wrong, but that maybe there were better consultants and coaches available.   Moreover, TFC may not have been ready for the changes that were, and are still required.  It is clear from the hiring of Payne that MLSE is only now trying to bring direction to the club.  For the past two-years there appears to have been a lack of clarity in the roles of MLSE V-P Tom Anselmi, Director of Team and Player Operations (formerly) Earl Cochrane, current Manager and former Director of Player Development, and former Coach (with general managerial responsibilities) Aron Winter – to the point where no one individual may have been able to work effectively.

Maybe TFC should have hired Johan Cruijff as the consultant.  The legendary Cruyff (for all you anglo spellers) of Ajax and Barcelona fame – famed both as player and coach.  He also has North American experience playing with the L.A. Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats of the old NASL (a period where he crossed the pond for the money after a bad investment left him bankrupt).  While Cruyff has not coached in years, he has been a vocal character in the Dutch media and, more recently, he has been instrumental in the revival of Ajax by insisting that the team returns to his principles.  These are principles that were developed in association with legendary Dutch manager Rinus Michel and transported from Ajax to Barcelona.  These are the very principles that Pep Guardiola based his Barcelona side around.  In a nutshell, this includes having soccer men in all positions of the club, developing the first team from the academy, focusing on individual training methods, and playing high-energy possession based voetbal.

Cruyff, never one to shy away from conflict, recently parted company with Chivas Guadalajara when the team exited the play-offs too soon.  This was an improvement on the previous season, and this comes only a few weeks after Cruyff was appointed consultant of Chivas sister club Chivas USA of Los Angeles – when that team fired the entire backroom following the MLS season.  It is only a matter of time before the Cruyff recommended John van’t Schip is also shipped out of Guadalajara.

Where better for him to land then TFC?  The coarse outlines of his resume suggest he is a less well-known Aron Winter.  Like Winter, van ’t Schip is a former Dutch international who played for Amsterdam Ajax – making 273 appearances over 11 years.  When Winter moved from Ajax to Lazio in 1992, van ’t Schip went Ajax to Genoa.  During their time together at Ajax and in Oranje, both experienced success on the field – winning the 1987 Cup Winners Cup, the 1992 UEFA Cup, and several Eredivsie titles with Ajax, and the 1988 Euro Cup with Nederlands.  16 years after they left Ajax for Italy, both men were reunited as part of the coaching staff of Ajax.

As leading soccer writer and thinker Simon Kuper likes to point out, top players rarely make top coaches.  Obviously, van ’t Schip had a distinguished playing career, but he was not the stand out Winter was.  He was a solid performer, but he will not be remembered as one of the top wingers to play for Ajax or Oranje. Van ‘t Schip cannot rest on his laurels as a player the same way Winter can.  His playing career earns him the respect of his players, but he has to work hard as a coach to earn their confidence.

Van ‘t Schip has patched together a steady coaching career, learning from his mistakes as he goes.  He started as a coach with Jong Ajax, and moved to become manager of provincial club FC Twente for the 2001-02 season.  Twente were coming off of a season where they had placed 11th in the Eredivisie but won the KNVB Cup.  Under Van ‘t Schip, the Tukkers (as they are generally called) finished one spot lower in the league and crashed out of the KNVB Cup losing to Ajax’s youth side (unlike many cup competitions, reserve sides were permitted in the KNVB Cup).  Understanding that he needed more time to develop his craft, Van ’t Schip took a step back and became an assistant to Marco Van Basten as part of the Dutch national side.  In 2008, he followed Van Basten to Ajax, and even succeeded him on an interim basis when Van Basten stepped down as manager.

So far there is not much that distinguishes him from Winter: Jong Ajax to Ajax to Italy; Dutch international; coach of Jong Ajax with limited managerial experience.  But from 2009 onwards is where van ‘t Schip’s career really gets interesting for TFC fans.  After Ajax, he moved to Australia and joined the expansion Melbourne Hearts in the A-League.  He developed an expansion team in a young league into play-offs contenders in two seasons.  Sound familiar TFC?  TFC – an expansion franchise in a relatively young league that has not made the play-offs in six-seasons.

Van ‘t Schip currently plies his trade with C.D. Guadalajara in Mexico’s Liga MX.  Under notoriously impetuous owner Jorge Vergara, his time is limited.  In 10 years under Vergara’s rule Chivas has had fifteen different managers.  Working in conditions like that, TFC will seem like a bastion of backroom consistency. Considering TFC’s record (or any MLS club for that matter) against Mexican team’s the CONCACAF Champions League, experience working in the Liga MX can only be considered a benefit.

One more thing – the man was born in Canada. Fort St. John, B.C. to be exact.  He spent ten years in Canada before moving to the Netherlands.

For the time being, Paul Mariner is the man at TFC.  If he turns the team around in 2013, he will remain the coach.  However, if TFC produces more of the same, and if Kevin Payne wishes to emulate what DC United has been able to do on the field, then maybe van’ t Schip is their man.  And that is only if van ‘t Schip is available – which as of today he is not.  That a lot of ifs, but just maybe, just maybe, he is the right man to lead TFC to glory.

Inter 2: Sneijder 1

4 Dec

SneijderWesley Sneijder’s days at Inter Milan are numbered.  The two sides have hit a road block around Inter’s generous offer to cut Sneijder’s salary in half.

Two years ago, Wesley Sneijder was the Man.  After being rejected by Real Madrid during their era of revolving door of superstars, he arrived in Milan to play a huge part in a season where Inter was crowned champions of the Champions League.  From there, Sneijder spring-boarded into a starring role in Oranje’s silver medal performance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  He even scored a few rare headers.  2010 was Wesley’s year.

2010 was also the final chapter of Inter Milan’s disaster financial plan to spend everything in the hopes of victory.  Winning everything and still losing astronomical sums of money proved too much for Inter.  However, who could blame Sneijder when he accepted a huge salary increase to sign a new muti-year deal with Inter?  The salary has been reported to be $13 million a season before taxes.  While one can argue that professional athletes make ludicrous sums for what they are asked to do, it is difficult to argue that they turn down bags of cash when offered.   After all, it takes two to negotiate, and the one offering the cash is in a better position to figure out how much money can be offered.

Two years later and much has changed.  Sneijder is still a world-class player.  He was even appointed captain of Oranje by the very coach of the losing side in the 2010 Champions League final.  Two years on, he has a greater history of injuries and, apparently,  is no longer deemed indispensable to Inter.

The biggest change has nothing to do with Sneijder but with the man who signs his paycheques.  Massimo Moratti has longed bankrolled Inter.  Inter has clearly been a pursuit of love (or an extension of his ego – as is common with many sports owners), for Moratti has sunk hundreds of millions of euros into the team.  The combination of Italy, and Europe’s, shaky economy, mixed with the advent of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play, has led Moratti to change his tune.  Now no player is sacred, and everyone has a price.  Samuel Eto is the perfect example of the sudden shift in policy where he was shipped off to the highest bidder thereby clearing salary space.  Moratti may still insist on top results (as shown by the string of managers in recent years) but he is no longer willing to hand them a blank cheque.

Sneijder’s current predicament is a continuing example in this policy shift.  With two plus years left with a large salary hit, Inter wants Sneijder off the books.  So Inter has offered to halve his salary in return for a contract extension.  Sneijder has been the consummate professional soccer player, often talking up his love of Inter.  Inter now is testing that declaration of love.

As is often the case in employer-employee relationships, the power balance leans towards the man signing the cheques.   Sneijder went down with an injury in September, but he has apparently been ready to go for a while.  Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni has insisted it is his call on including Sneijder, and that decision has been made for tactical reasons.  In Sneijder’s absence there has been commentary that perhaps Inter plays better without him.  However that does not stand to reason that you leave your highest paid player, a player who has been a leader on the team, off the game day sheet all together.  In the course of suspensions and injuries, Sneijder merited a place on the bench if not in the starting XI.  Moratti may insist that he is not blackmailing Sneijder, and Stramaccioni may be drinking from the same cup, but the evidence suggests otherwise.  The Inter talking points suggests a concerted effort to avoid a Pandev-Lazio situation where Lazio had to release the player after they ostracized him.

Sneijder is now taking the only course open to him – insisting that he returns the pitch before agreeing to new terms.  If Inter is unwilling to play him now for “tactical” reasons, what guarantee does Sneijder have of playing when his salary is cut in have?  If anything, a smaller wage fee will make it easier for Inter to either transfer him or to leave him on the bench.  If Sneijder is so unimportant to the team that he cannot even be included on the bench, then why offer him an extended contract?

Unfortunately for the employee in this relationship there is little he can do but hope his contract is honoured.   In 2010, the two sides entered into negotiations on a new contract in good faith, and both sides came to an agreement.  Two years on, the employer wants to re-open and renegotiate that contract on terms that are more favourable to the club.  To force their star employee to the table they have had to strong arm him by effectively locking him out.

This is not an issue of whether Sneijder’s current form is equal to or better than where he was two years ago when he signed the contract.  This is not even an issue of whether Inter needs Sneijder in their line up.  This is a matter of seeing a contract fulfilled in accordance with the terms that were negotiated.  Two years ago the signs were there of the economic pressure to come.  Italy, like much of Europe, was still in the midst of an economic downturn.  Inter knew FFP was coming down the pipeline.  Yet they still went a head and offered Sneijder a generous contract.  Now they want to rip up their contract and turn the page on an era of poor financial decision-making.  The only one who will suffer here is the employee – not the employer.