All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen was unveiled as Major League Soccer's newest coach in Toronto this morning and his expected retirement from all football is a hammer blow to New Zealand's World Cup campaign.
The 35-year-old Queens Park Rangers defender fronted a press conference at 4.30am (NZT) as Toronto FC's new head coach to replace sacked former England international striker Paul Mariner.
Nelsen left London on Monday (NZT) for Toronto where his appointment will be confirmed by general manager Kevin Payne, who has been tracking the Cantabrian's career since he captained DC United, Payne's former club in Washington.
The Canadian Press said it had "confirmed" Nelsen's move, and he would replace Mariner as coach at Toronto after a franchise-worst season.
Nelsen could not be contacted last night but Fairfax understands he will most likely end his 18-year senior football career to focus totally on his new coaching challenge.
Hamish Miller, Nelsen's New Zealand manager and close friend, said he was confident Nelsen would make the adjustment from eight years as an English Premier League player, to head coach, seamlessly.
"A top head coach has to have phenomenal leadership ability, he's got to have management and communication skills and he's got to have the respect of the players. Ryan has all those," Miller said.
Nelsen will take over a Toronto squad which includes former German international Torsten Frings, who at 36, is older than his new manager.
While Nelsen has no head coaching experience, he has always been a student of the game, has captained Blackburn Rovers and QPR, the All Whites and DC United, who he led to the 2004 MLS Cup title.
It is widely acknowledged within New Zealand football circles that Nelsen took the leading role in directing the All Whites at the 2010 World Cup finals in Spain and his mentorship of the New Zealand Olympic squads as an over-age player and captain at Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 was hailed by coaching staff.
He also impressed current Blackburn Rovers acting manager Gary Bowyer with his organisation of coaching sessions for the reserves team while Nelsen was club captain at Blackburn.
Nelsen has been in some of the best form of his career for QPR despite the London club's woeful plight at the bottom of the premiership, but a return to the MLS was always on the cards at the end of his career.
His wife Monica is from the United States where Nelsen lived between 1997 and 2005 before joining Blackburn.
He has become a fan favourite at Loftus Road and helped lead QPR to a 1-0 win over European champions Chelsea, marking Spain's World Cup-winning striker Fernando Torres out of the game.
Payne approached Nelsen late last year about a possible coaching job at Toronto and the New Zealander travelled to Ontario to check out the club and the city.
The news that Nelsen plans to hang up his boots will be a big blow to New Zealand Football.
High performance director, Fred de Jong, admitted Nelsen's retirement would leave a leadership void that would be impossible to fill.
But he hopes to convince the inspirational defender to at least play on until New Zealand's next two World Cup qualifying games in March.
De Jong yesterday said he had not talked to Nelsen about his All Whites plans but would do so after today's announcement.
"We're hopeful that he carries on, that he at least makes the March games and leads the team against New Caledonia especially," de Jong said.
"If not then I think we've got a bit of cover in that area with Winston Reid and Tommy Smith. But obviously it'll be a loss. Everyone knows he's a really good leader and a good captain and can drive the team forward. But we're hopeful he's still going to be there."
The All Whites play World Cup qualifiers against New Caledonia on March 22 and the Solomon Islands on March 26.
They are unbeaten at the top of the Oceania standings and, assuming they stay that way, will then play a team from Concacaf, home and away in November, for a shot at next year's World Cup in Brazil.
De Jong said he wasn't sure if it would be possible for Nelsen to play those games while also coaching Toronto.
The MLS season runs from March to December.
"If he's up for that, then obviously we'd look at it," de Jong said.
"But until we actually know what his role is, is it a pure coaching role, is it a player-coaching role, we're not sure. Is he still going to be playing, is he going to be available for us or is he going to be retiring from all football? We don't know yet. As soon as we do know then we'll start to work out what he can do for us."
Ipswich Town defender Smith has already been identified as the successor to Nelsen, having captained the All Whites with mixed results last year.
If Nelsen does hang up the boots, All Whites coach Ricki Herbert may re-think his plans to play a back three, which worked so effectively at the 2010 World Cup.
Phoenix centre back Ben Sigmund is one option to play alongside Smith and Reid, who is enjoying a fine season in the Premier League with West Ham United.
Phoenix captain Andrew Durante, an Australian who qualifies to play for New Zealand in March, is another option, while Herbert could switch to a back four.
The emergence of Leo Bertos as a capable right back with the Phoenix gives Herbert some tactical flexibility, with new club-mates Tony Lochhead and Ian Hogg competing on the left.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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