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Considering Ryan Nelsen and new MLS managers: What kind of experience counts?

Jan 8, 2013, 10:44 AM EST

Nelsen 2

(Update: The Nelsen hire is official, but there is some weirdness afoot with the new manager’s starting date. Read about it here.)

If reports out of Toronto are to be believed – and there’s no reason to think them wrong at this point – Ryan Nelsen will be named Toronto FC manager today.

For the worriers and fearful out there, you probably have some reason to fret here.

Start with the lack of success around Toronto FC, where seven managers have come and gone, none having ever guided the Reds to a playoff spot. Chris Cummins, percentage points above .500 with a 12-11-8 mark, was technically the most “successful.”

So, at some point, you have to wonder if the rot is at the top; I am certainly not the first to question the true commitment to winning of a professional sports team operated by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. So, check that box for properly aimed anguish.

Then there’s Payne as the selector; his choices have a mixed record, as I mentioned yesterday toward the bottom of this post.

Then there’s Nelsen’s lack of experience. On this matter, I say “No worries, man!” I just wouldn’t be too concerned, for history says this can be done.

Nelsen is clearly untested as a manager; he’s 35 years old and counted himself as a fully professional (and highly respected) player just a week ago. But in terms of professional managerial experience, he has every bit as much as you or I.

But here is where I point out that “MLS experience,” even if it’s just as a player, outstrips “managerial experience” as an essential element that provides the best chance for success.

Nelsen may not know much about MLS 2.0; he hasn’t been part of the league since 2005. MLS had just grown to 12 teams that year, with just four dedicated soccer stadiums in use and still carrying a lot of questions about long-term potential.  The growth since then (19 teams, with 16 playing in grounds built, rebuilt or refurbished expressly for MLS clubs) has been nothing short of staggering.

So, it’s a different MLS day. Still, Nelsen understands the essential elements. He knows the history. He gets it. All of which is to say, he won’t be paralyzed by challenges unique to MLS. He won’t stubbornly resist when an owner of GM explains why things are why they are here. He won’t be in denial about which types of players work and don’t work here.

I am not saying he’s a going to be a great manager; no one can know this. I’m just saying, his history in MLS gives provides a good shot.

As for Nelsen’s age? That’s a non-factor. Here’s why:

Jason Kreis was 34 when he became manager at RSL, and was 36 when the men of Rio Tinto won an MLS Cup. (Kreis remains the youngest to win one of those.)

Ben Olsen was 33 when he took over at D.C. United, and that’s turning out pretty well.

Jay Heaps was 35 when he took over New England. His first year was inconclusive, although we have to consider the difficulty in Heaps’s situation. This is a tough place to win; the man is doing what he can at an organization that has been lapped by pretty much every club this side of Chivas USA.

Bottom line: I worry a lot less about Nelsen and his lack of time with the coaching whistle, and a lot more about MLS newbies like Paulo Sousa, who may soon be named at New York, or Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, the new man in charge at Chivas USA, or the Montreal Impact’s new manager Marco Schallibaum.

Young coaches can work in this league. Previous grounding in MLS counts for a lot more than previous work with the coaching whistle.

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