Signs of a rift between Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen and GM Tim Bezbatchenko emerged Saturday, further complicating the landscape for an MLS team that is already losing its champion with the planned departure of MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke.
In a moment of rare theatre at the post-game news conference, Nelsen tore a strip off Bezbatchenko in the wake of a lopsided 3-0 loss to the New England Revolution. The dressing down came when Nelsen was asked if Bezbatchenko's public challenge to his team on the eve of the game "to take it up a notch" had helped matters.
"Not at all," said Nelsen. "Absolutely not."
Nelsen then went on to accuse Bezbatchenko of effectively sabotaging his own team by unnecessarily raising the stakes before a match that was not crucial, given there were 10 more remaining after it.
"I've won this league, played in it for four years, been in the (English) Premier League for 10 years, played in a World Cup, Olympics. I've played in some pretty hot pressure games," said Nelsen, a former New Zealand international defender. "One thing that I do know is this was not one of them."
"It affected the guys," he said of Bezbatchenko's words. "What we do at Toronto FC is we keep it in-house — everything we do, we keep inside the four walls. And the players, coaching staff, everything, stays within the four walls."
Bezbatchenko, a 32-year-old rookie GM hired out of the league office by Leiweke last September, summoned local beat reporters Friday with a clear message.
The revamped MLS team has had time to gel, he said. Now it has to fire on all cylinders.
"I think everyone would agree — the coaches, the players — that over the last 12 or so games, it hasn't been good enough, at least for making a run in MLS," Bezbatchenko said.
He also said his message to the fans and the club was: "The time is now ... It's we mean business now."
Nelsen, who was unaware of Bezbatchenko's planned comments, said they had left his players "very very let's just say aggravated."
Toronto (9-9-6) gave up a goal within two minutes and was serenaded by boos from the crowd of 22,591 en route to the dressing room down 2-0 at halftime.
"I think we kind of felt a wee bit sorry for ourselves. Players mentally weren't right from the start," said Nelsen, in another apparent shot at his GM.
"And in a way I can't blame them," he added.
The 36-year-old Nelsen, in his second year at the Toronto FC helm, said pressure is a constant for all Toronto teams. So why add to it?
"Players are affected. That's why we want to keep everything in-house," he said in another broadside at Bezbatchenko.
Nelsen also pointed the finger at himself, saying his team has to be better than it was on the day and that any criticism should be levelled at him.
But he clearly saw Bezbatchenko's comments Friday as meddlesome and needlessly ratcheting up the pressure
"We're used to getting it from the outside," he added. "That's why it should never come from inside. Never."
Talking out of school
Ironically, in having a go at Bezbatchenko, Nelsen could also be accused of talking out of school. But by speaking out, he managed to take the focus off his team's poor performance.
Bezbatchenko's pre-game message did not spark much reaction from a largely empty and hushed Toronto dressing room. Midfielder Michael Bradley, serving a captain in Caldwell's absence, essentially said it was not up to players to get involved.
Next up is an away-and-home series with the Philadelphia Union, another Eastern Conference team chasing the playoffs.
Going into Saturday's game, Toronto was 3-4-4 since the start of July, meaning it has dropped 20 of a possible 33 points over that stretch. But the team was also 2-1-1 in August, standing third in the Eastern Conference and had been dealing with a rash of injuries — especially on the backline.
And a win Saturday would have matched Toronto's franchise high for season wins (10) with 10 games to go.
Nelsen said players and coaches are "more than confident in what we're going to do. We've got 10 more games ... It's in our hands.
"We'll stick with the players. We've always got their backs."
He made no mention of the front office.
Toronto was without star striker Jermain Defoe (groin), midfielder-defender Warren Creavalle (hamstring) and defenders Steven Caldwell (quad) and Justin Morrow (hamstring). Fullback Mark Bloom flew back to town Friday after attending the birth of his daughter.
New England Revolution punished that makeshift defence Saturday, snapping a five-game losing streak on the road with a lopsided 3-0 win.
Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe scored in the first half for New England, both profiting from sloppy Toronto turnovers. Teal Bunbury, son of former Canadian international Alex Bunbury, added to the home supporters' pain in the second.
Newly signed designated player Jermaine Jones came off the bench in the 65th minute for New England. The U.S. international slotted into central midfield, easing himself into MLS with his team comfortably ahead.
"Jermaine has been really good all week and for us it is all about fitness," said New England coach Jay Heaps. "Jermaine has been excellent with our group and we wanted to get him in there and fit him in like a training session."
The home side did all but mark a path with orange cones to 'keeper Joe Bendik on both first-half goals, giving the ball away and putting up minimal resistance. Injuries to key players did not help the Toronto cause but still it was one of TFC's worst showings of the season.
In contrast to Toronto, which was booed off the field after the final whistle, New England looked composed and well-organized.
The Revolution had not won away from home since a May 17 victory in Philadelphia. But Toronto has been good to them of late. They are unbeaten in their last five visits (2-0-3) to BMO Field.
Toronto, meanwhile, has not won at home since July 12 — an 0-2-2 stretch.
The result allowed New England (10-12-3) to pull into a tie with Toronto albeit with a better goal differential.
New England, which defeated Chivas USA 1-0 last time out, has gone 3-1-1 since snapping an eight-game losing streak.
The patchwork backline of Bloom, Bradley Orr, Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund was breached less than 90 seconds in as Nguyen pounced on a bad pass from Bloom that Michael Bradley was unable to corral in midfield. Nguyen drove unimpeded towards the Toronto goal before beating Bendik with a low shot to the corner from some five yards outside the penalty box.
It was the 10th goal of the season for the Revs midfielder, who tallied nine in total over the previous two seasons. New England's quickest goal of the 2014 campaign also came one year to the day that the Revs scored in the second minute of a 2013 visit to BMO Field.
"Lee has been excellent for us all year," said Heaps. "The harder he works and the more plays he breaks up, it gives him the freedom to attack. When he (Nguyen) is at his best he is receiving the ball off of turnovers in between their defence and midfield."
For a Toronto team that gave up a goal in stoppage time to the visiting Chicago Fire last time out (a 2-2 tie), the goal was the worst possible start. And things went from bad to worse.
Rowe made it 2-0 in the 21st minute after vacuuming up an errant pass by Orr and easily sidestepping an attempted Bradley tackle. The goal was virtually a replay of the first, albeit from further out, with Rowe hammering a shot into the corner past Bendik.
Bunbury upped the lead to 3-0 in the 58th minute as Revolution players queued up for a tap-in on the right side as the defence folded once again.