Former Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen to help with Olympic soccer draw

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As a player, Ryan Nelsen watched the 2008 and 2012 Olympic soccer draws to see what awaited his New Zealand side at the Games.

On Wednesday, the former Toronto FC head coach will be helping set the stage for 28 teams at the Tokyo Games as he assists at the Olympic football tournament draw at FIFA headquarters.

"I tell you what, I'm far more nervous right now doing the draw than I was watching it," a chuckling Nelsen said Tuesday from Zurich. "I'm definitely sweating I'm going to drop one of the balls or do something like that."

Jaime Yarza, FIFA's director of tournaments, and Sarai Bareman, FIFA's chief women's football officer, will conduct the draw with help from Nelsen and Lindsay Tarpley, who won gold with the U.S. women at the 2004 and 2008 Games.

The draw was originally slated to be held in Japan but was shifted to FIFA headquarters due to the pandemic. Canadian coach Bev Priestman, now based out of Vancouver, will be staying up late to see her team's Olympic road map — the draw will start at 1 a.m. her time.

In Japan, the draw starts at a more comfortable 5 p.m. local time.

With FIFA trying to avoid pairing teams from the same confederation in the opening group stage, it looks like eighth-ranked Canada will end up in a pool with host Japan (No. 11), one of Sweden (No. 5) or Britain (FIFA ranks England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately), and one of New Zealand (No. 22) Chile (No. 37) or Zambia (No. 104).

FIFA has not confirmed that interpretation of its draw procedure, however.

Unlike Canada, both the New Zealand's men and women have qualified. With Australia having left to join the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, New Zealand is now the soccer powerhouse in Oceania.

Nelsen and New Zealand went 0-2-1 at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, tying host China 1-1 (with a goal from Jeremy Brockie, who went on to play for TFC) before losing 5-0 to Brazil — with Ronaldinho scoring twice — and 1-0 to Belgium. Brazil and Belgium eventually met in the bronze-medal match with the South Americans winning 3-0.

Four years later in London, New Zealand went 0-2-1 again, losing 1-0 to Belarus, tying Egypt 1-1 (current Liverpool star Mo Salah scored for Egypt) and losing 3-0 to a Brazilian side that featured Neymar.

"Pretty awesome experiences," Nelsen said of his two Olympics.

Nelsen, one of New Zealand's overage players and team captain at the under-23 Olympic tournament, recalled that many of his teammates were amateurs.

"For those guys, back then, it was a pretty surreal experience playing against these really amazing players," he said.

"Some guys were postmen or working on a construction site and next thing they were taking on Neymar or Ronaldinho or whatever," he added.

Nelsen, who recalls seeing tennis star Roger Federer at the 2008 Games, says he "absolutely loved" his Olympic experience.

"It takes away all the kind of commercial-type factors and all that kind of stuff that is involved in professional football" he said. "It brings it right back to the roots and the innocence and why you really play the game and the love for the game and love for sport, really.

"Because then you meet all these other athletes who are in the same boat as you but just in a different sport where they've been doing it for so long and this is the pinnacle of their careers, getting to an Olympics. The joy and the pressure and just everything that kind of goes with fulfilling one of these lifetime goals is pretty special to experience that with your fellow athletes."

Nelsen, who also captained the All Whites at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, won 49 caps for New Zealand.

A defender drafted fourth overall out of Stanford University in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft, Nelsen spent four seasons for D.C. United before leaving for England to play for Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers.

Leaving QPR, he went straight into coaching, taking over Toronto FC in January 2013, He inherited a team that had finished 10th and last in the Eastern Conference with a 5-21-8 record under first Aron Winter (fired after a 1-9-0 start to the season) and then Paul Mariner.

Nelsen, then 35, became Toronto's eighth and youngest head coach.

The hiring reunited Nelsen with Kevin Payne, then Toronto’s president and GM. Nelsen played for Payne at D.C. United for four seasons, captaining the team to the title in 2004.

TFC finished ninth in the Eastern Conference at 6-17-11 in 2013 — with Payne leaving in September of that year — and was 9-6-6 when Nelsen was fired in August 2014, with Greg Vanney as his replacement (Vanney finished out the season with a 2-6-2 mark).

Remnants of Nelsen's reign remain. The Kiwi gave Jonathan Osorio his TFC start back in 2013 and today the 28-year-old Canadian midfielder is the franchise all-time leader with 263 appearances in al competitions.

"When I was brought in, I don't think it was going to be a long-term fix. But the goal was to just leave it in a better pace than what it was," Nelsen said.

"They've gone on to do some really cool stuff, so that's great," he added.

Now 43, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.

He is co-founder and chairman of a company that works with World Rugby and FIBA, basketball's world governing body. His company, Roar, owns the commercialization rights for the top-level domain names of dot.basketball and dot.rugby.

He works with World Rugby and FIBA globally, smoothing Internet paths around the globe. For example, South Africa's Springboks team is now springboks.rugby and Australia's Wallabies are wallabies.rugby.

"Now we're giving every kind of key stakeholder in basketball and rugby the opportunity to change over to their actual sport's specific name. So it's the name of who they are and it's what they do," he explained.

The streamlined domain naming allows for search engine optimization, among other benefits.

His company owns the top-level domains for dot.basketball and dot.rugby — "and then everything to the left of that, we own" — and keeping them for stake-holders.

"It's an industry which is rife with venture capitalism, trying to make money off anything and not really doing what's right for, in our case, the sporting community," he said.

Nelsen started the company seven or eight years ago, with years needed to win the rights for the domains in question.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press