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Toronto FC opening MLS season in the middle of a rebuild

New Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen (left) listens as club president Kevin Payne speaks to the media in Toronto on Tuesday January 8, 2013.


Toronto FC is a plane that is already airborne, despite missing several key parts. And the Major League Soccer season is already in sight.

At least that's the way club president Kevin Payne sees it.

"We've been building this airplane while it's in flight," Payne said.

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Payne and rookie head coach Ryan Nelsen were late to get on board, and now — ready or not — the league's worst team last season opens its seventh campaign Saturday in Vancouver versus the rival Whitecaps.

"I'm on the job 80 days, Ryan's on the job 30 days, (chief scout) Pat Onstad's on the job 30 days, and we're playing catchup with the roster. So there's a lot of stuff that has to happen in a short period of time," Payne said.

"The cavalry is coming. It just won't arrive as quickly as we might have hoped."

Another season, another rebuild for a franchise that has been a revolving door for coaches and players since it made its MLS debut six seasons ago.

A team in turmoil finished a franchise-worst 5-21-8 last season and found itself out of the playoffs for a sixth straight year. Toronto opened the 2012 campaign with a league-record 0-9-0 start and finished with a club-record 14-game winless skid.

En route, the club gave up a franchise-high 62 goals.

And it's been almost eight months since Toronto's last MLS win, a 2-1 decision over Colorado on July 18. No wonder the franchise cleaned house — 12 players have left in the wake of last season.

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The horrendous year saw the departure of managers Aron Winter and Paul Mariner.

Payne was hired in late November, toting a lengthy MLS resume that included four MLS Cups with D.C. United's front office.

Nelsen, 35, was hired in January to more than a few raised eyebrows. He was still under contract as a defender with Queens Park Rangers of the English Premier League. He capped his playing career on Jan. 29 — a 0-0 tie versus Manchester City — to begin his first-ever coaching job.

But despite the speed at which the season is approaching, Payne and Nelsen are pleading patience with their rebuilding plan. They'd rather do it right than do it quickly.

"We can't tie down players who are potentially going to handicap the club, it has to be done for the benefit of the club," Nelsen said. "We don't want to make a decision based on one game or two games or three games. It has to benefit the team down the road, and if we have to take a bit of time to do due diligence to get the right sort of player we want in, then so be it.

"Is the team going to be the same March 2 than it is May 2? I think it might change a bit."

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The former New Zealand international was drafted by D.C. United during Payne's tenure there and the two have kept in close contact since. Assistant coach Fran O'Leary is also a Nelsen confidante.

Nelsen is the eighth Toronto FC head coach in the team's short history.

Players were arriving — and leaving — this week, just days before the curtain was scheduled to come up on the season.

Captain Torsten Frings, one of the team's three designated players, announced his retirement Tuesday at the age of 36 in the wake of hip surgery. That came on the heels of Toronto shipping DP Eric Hassli to Dallas.

Toronto's third DP Danny Koevermans is still months away from returning after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last season.

The departures have left plenty of wiggle room under the MLS salary cap, but also some holes to fill in the lineup.

Incoming players include winger Hogan Ephraim, who signed on loan from Queens Park Rangers on Wednesday. Tottenham midfielder John Bostock and Cardiff forward Robert Earnshaw are also believed to be close to signing loan deals.

Payne said the club was looking at two players in Honduras and a potential DP in Argentina.

Goals will be sorely needed in the absence of Koevermans and Hassli, although the defence should be stiffened by the addition of veteran centre back Danny Califf and defensive midfielder Julio Cesar, who will take over Frings' role.

Look to sophomore attacking midfielder Luis Silva to have an influential year. He looked very poised at training camp after a stint training in Germany at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Payne began his rebuild at the MLS SuperDraft last month, making a slew of moves to acquire Canadians Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman while loading up on allocation money to help pad its salary cap.

Nelsen must choose a new captain following the departure of Frings. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei and centre back Darren O'Dea wore the captain's armband in the pre-season.

"Lucky thing about my decision is I've got five or six or seven good leaders out there," Nelsen said.

"For me, when I was captain, it was always felt just like an extra bit of cloth you had to carry around. I think you guys take it a lot more serious than the players," he added, laughing.

As for Nelsen, the players have embraced the rookie coach. And they say pre-season training was significantly better than it was during Winter's reign, when fingers were pointed at the players' lack of fitness.

"We had a lot of problems last year, the pre-season was not the best, players were not fit," Frings said at his retirement announcement Tuesday. "We never had good fitness last season, that's the big reason for me that we played so bad last season."

Nelsen clearly has a vision. Every session in preseason was planned, down to the length of water breaks.

Nelsen said despite the hectic start to this season, and mammoth task that he's been handed, he's having fun in his new job.

"Of course, it's absolutely brilliant, it's one of the best jobs in the world. It's absolutely fun," Nelsen said.

"I didn't have fun when I was playing. That's a job, there's stress, there's people watching, there's people expecting things. So even as a player you're under immense amount of stress. There's people who could never ever get close to doing your job critiquing you every day. That's life. As a coach, it's just a different type of stress. It's great, that's why you do it."

Nelsen laughed when asked — again — whether he'd consider perhaps playing a little bit longer.

"No chance, not even thought about playing. I was going to finish playing a year ago but I kept just getting talked into it," he said. "My knee even just standing on here is sore at the moment. I've been lucky, I'm 35-and-a-half, I'm lucky to have my career.

"I've got to admit there has been a couple of nudges and winks, about potentially strapping the boots back on, but no chance."

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