These are trouble times for MLS team Toronto FC. Sitting second bottom of the Eastern Conference just above DC United, it’s not been the best start to this new season and it’s just got a whole lot worse. Yesterday Toronto’s owners MLSE decided that change was needed and started to make some radical adjustments starting at the top with the dismissal of General Manager Kevin Payne. It’s been a short and turbulent ride for Payne who arrived last November from DC United promising to bring the good times back to Toronto and its bewildered fans. His first move was to dismiss head coach Paul Mariner and replace him with New Zealand legend, Ryan Nelsen in a move that was seen as bold but necessary. However from the off, things weren’t as rosy as hoped and even the signing of Nelsen was farcical in the nicest possible way. Nelson at the time was still playing for QPR in the English Premiership when Payne came calling in January 2013 with his dream offer to take over as manager of Toronto but the GM clearly hadn’t thought about one small detail, Nelsen’s existing playing contract that ran until 1st July 2013. With QPR fighting against relegation, they were of course reluctant to release one of their strongest defenders but after weeks of back and forth and an intervention by Nelsen himself who pleaded with QPR manager Harry Redknapp to let the move happen, Toronto finally got their man on the 1st February, only one month before the new campaign was to kick off. Not the greatest of starts.
With Nelsen onboard, focus turned to player acquisition but again Payne would fail to deliver. Handed a war chest of $25million for signings and wages, Payne focused more on glamour signings for the designated player spots instead of what was really needed, an overhaul of the existing squad. Payne spent the better part of the next 4 months flying to and from South American in an attempt to persuade Uruguay legend Diego Forlan to join his revolution, much to the frustration of Nelsen. Forlan was keen and with his wages no longer an issue, it looked as though the former Manchester United, Atlético Madrid and Inter striker would be coming onboard but Forlan’s demands for a two and a half year contract, which would end half way through the 2016 campaign would turn out to be the stumbling block. Toronto fans will be shocked by the news today that they missed out on a great player as Payne couldn’t find a resolution to this term issue and many will wonder why Toronto did just accept Forlan’s ask especially considering his age. At 34 years young, Forlan’s better days are behind him but he still has the ability and skill needed to be a huge success in the MLS. A two year and a half year contract would see Forlan through till he was nearly 37 at which time Toronto would probably have jettisoned him for a younger alternative. Nelsen’s team has lacked a biting edge this year with only Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw looking capable of scoring on a consistent basis. Forlan would have grabbed much needed goals for the club which could have stopped the rot that has seen Toronto draw ten of the twenty six games played so far this season. Goals win games and with Nelsen working hard on the teams backline, improving it recently with established signings like former Scotland defender Stephen Caldwell, Toronto could have turned a corner and Payne may well have still been in a job.
But failure ultimately leads to disappointment and the clock ran out for Payne when Nelsen, frustrated by the lack of arrivals and general support spoke out to senior staff at the MLSE. There was only going to be one winner in the eyes of CEO Tim Leiweke, who wielded the axe on the bumbling GM, much like he had done at one of the company’s other franchises, NBA team Toronto Raptors. Payne will remain at the club for the time being to make sure that a smooth transition is implemented with his successor, but will suffer in the time being from a lack of any specific title to hang his hat on. Leiweke, the former President and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group who took control of the MLSE in April 2013, will start the search for a new GM as soon as possible with Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey already installed as the front runner by one source. Whoever Leiweke turns to will face the difficult task of breathing life back into the failing franchise and putting Toronto back on the right path towards success in the MLS. Nelsen should play a pivotal role in that hiring as the two need to work more closely together than Payne and Nelsen ever did, identifying targets, building a playing strategy and chasing realistic options to strengthen the squad. That is unless MLSE has plans to make Nelsen its next lamb to the slaughter in its much needed shake up of Toronto FC.