Did Toronto FC make a mistake firing Nelsen? / by Harrison Crow

Yesterday morning/afternoon, or some various time during the day, Toronto FC finally parted ways with Ryan Nelsen, making him the eight head coach to be fired in 8 seasons of MLS. It's more than enough turnover to suggest that the club may have a bigger issue.

It's also comes with speculation that Jermaine Defoe could accept a transfer back to the EPL with a reported "many teams" chasing him. Most notably QPR--with whom TFC has done quite a bit of business through the past year.

Getting back to Nelsen; his termination come on the heels of GM Tim Bezbatchenko coming out and saying it is time "to take it up a notch".  He obviously wasn't happy about the teams "current form". As MLSsoccer.com has pointed out, the club is 2-4-1 in their last 7 matches. 

It's been a dubious spell for sure, with defensive injuries and inconsistency in the normal 18. This left Nelsen juggling things in a manner that was apparently inadequate according to the new leadership at TFC. This brings us to the real issue at hand.

One of the most heavily emphasized issue was Nelsen was making excuses when he should have been owning up to mistakes. Which is... well, whatever. It's fine for all I care. However it does lead one to progress the thought and wonder if it was really his inept ability for the "X's and O'x" in tactical realm of MLS that is what caused the front office to make the move.

I tend to be on the liberal side of what tactical acumen should be expected from a manager in today’s era. I'll certainly admit that there is a need to have a good understanding of the principles of tactics. But I think players' skill and circumstance are often credited to the manager and his tactics rather than just saying, "wow, Team X sure got lucky there," as if that takes something away from the team, staff or their players.

Sometimes coaches do their homework and set things up the best they can and the chances just don't go their way. Sometimes there are players that know how to read the game and understand how to take advantage of it. In short, the media and many followers of MLS (and soccer in general) overemphasize outside factors, and underestimate the impact of luck on results.

At any rate; the real issue at hand is that Bezbatchenko obviously doesn't look at the statistics on our site (the nerve!). We currently have their club at a near 90% probability for making the MLS playoffs. This despite there being five teams (spots 3-7) within 3 points of each other. It's not that we're just crazy. A peek over the fences at Sports Club Stats has the reds at 71% odds to make the playoffs but with the #4 seed.

Bezbatchenko has stated from the start that Nelsen's job was simply to bring the first playoff match to Toronto. If that was the case, it would seem the Nelsen was well on the way to complete the task he was brought to do.

Some say there is an immediate (and short-term) improvement a team's performance after a manager is fired. I'd love to see if someone could prove that. With 10 games left in the season, a slight bump could cement Toronto as a #3 seed. If that doesn't work, it's a huge gamble that could go in the opposite direction, leading Toronto right out of the playoffs picture.

As Danny Page pointed out via twitter "manager firing usually happen near the lowpoint of luck based stats, so generally they regress towards mean". The question though becomes whether it's really a low point.

Over the last 7 matches the Reds are running a PDO (which measures luck) of 911 which would play to Mr. Page's point. A change could mean very little in the sense that the club was bound for positive regression.

In short, the data seem to suggest that Toronto FC made a mistake. Ryan Nelsen may not be a good long term manager but they picked a poor time to fire him. I'm not a TFC fan or engrossed in the Toronto soccer/football culture, but they've been a bad club for a lot of years and an estimated 256% increase to their salary inclines someone to think that missing the playoffs would be devastating.  And desperate people do... well, less than smart things sometimes. Like firing their coach with only 10 games left in the season.

It also doesn't help that historically they don't have a propensity for doing a lot of smart things anyway. In short, this move will define TFC's season. While it will certainly bring change, I'm unconvinced it will bring improvement in style or performance. In a couple months, we'll all know for sure.