TORONTO – Ryan Nelsen has impressed Kevin Payne for a long time. Right from the beginning, as a matter of fact.
Payne was running D.C. United at the time, and he first met Nelsen after the club took him fourth overall in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft. Safe to say, Nelsen made the most of his opportunity for a first impression.
“When I met him for the first time, he came across as incredibly mature and sure of himself but in a humble way, very confident but with a lot of humility,” Toronto FC’s president and general manager told reporters after Tuesday’s media conference at BMO Field to announce Nelsen as the club’s eighth head coach.
After their first meeting, Nelsen continued to impress Payne with his leadership qualities and his thirst for knowledge about the game. Nelsen impressed a little more by captaining D.C. to the 2004 MLS Cup title, and going on to a long and successful career in the English Premier League.
Payne said he first realized that Nelsen was different when he saw him walking around with an advanced book on soccer tactics.
“You just don’t see players reading stuff like that,” Payne said. “You rarely see coaches reading stuff like that, unfortunately.”
Nelsen’s leadership qualities and his willingness to keep learning about the game are what make Payne confident that he will make a successful at coaching even though he has never done it before.
“Ryan is a guy who has made a study of leadership,” Payne said. “He pays attention to what great leaders do, and that is very unusual, too. A lot of players who are great leaders are just instinctively great leaders. I think Ryan has actually thought about it and that, combined with his personal qualities, has made him a great leader.”
Payne said he kept in touch with the New Zealand international after Nelsen went to play in England, where he currently is winding down his career with Queens Park Rangers as he deals with ankle and knee problems.
“Because I’ve stayed in touch with Ryan, I knew he had physical struggles that he was overcoming on a weekly basis,” Payne said. “He’s 35 now, so obviously, he was just about at the end. When I reached out to him, I just said to him, ‘Well, when you’re ready.’
“It was interesting because he called me back a couple of days later … and he proceeded to run down the entire roster of Toronto FC, what everybody made. He knew all of the stats of how many games the team had played in the last two years, how many games they had won, how many goals they had surrendered. He had watched games on video and was telling me how many times one pass beat the back four. That’s the kind of guy he is. When he gets into something, he really, really gets into it.”
Nelsen impressed Payne enough that he is willing to wait for him to complete his playing obligations in England before he takes on coaching full time.
“I think in the long term, it is worth the wait,” Payne said.