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Toronto FC manager, import players relish privacy in North American soccer world

10/03/2013 04:23 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen took his son to the park to kick a ball about recently.

Routine for most dads. A treat for Nelsen.

"I could never have done that in England," said the former English Premier League defender. "There'd always be people around."

People who would recognize him. And probably want to engage him.

Former club captain Torsten Frings revelled in his anonymity in Toronto.

"I love Toronto," the former German international, now retired, said in April 2012. "It's such a different life for me. Nobody knows me. I can walk around. I can enjoy everything.

"That's one of the reasons why I'm here. In Germany, it's totally different. I can do nothing. Here I'm a free man. I like it. I love it."

Frings had the run of the city from his downtown condo adjacent to the Air Canada Centre. A little bit of home — in the form of a Mercedes — occupied his parking stall.

Arne Friedrich, a fellow former German international who retired in June from the Chicago Fire, also enjoyed his privacy on this side of the Atlantic.

"It's perfect," he said in an interview last year early in his MLS career.

He said he was rarely recognized in the U.S., other than when he ran into Germans.

"The rest, they don't care about me and this is very nice."

Former Toronto FC defender Darren O'Dea welcomed his privacy in the Ontario capital after being in the spotlight as a Glasgow Celtic player.

"Glasgow, until you've played there, you don't know how intense it can be," O'Dea, an Irish international who now plies his trade for a team in Ukraine, said during pre-season. "You go out for a meal at night with your wife, you could be getting shouted at going into a restaurant.

"Everyone knows you in Glasgow and everyone's looking at you. But you don't know whether the person looking at you loves you because you're Celtic or hates you because they're Rangers. It's an intense city."

Nelsen, 35, says he only gets recognized by "football people" here.

"I love the fact that nobody really does (recognize me)," said the former New Zealand captain. "It's not a big deal. Whereas in England, you always had to watch yourself if you went out for a beer. You always had to look over your shoulder just in case."

Toronto FC forward Robert Earnshaw, who has played for clubs in England, Wales and Israel, says people who do come up to him in Toronto are respectful.

"They come to you in a nice way, they do it politely," said the Welsh striker. "They don't get in your space.

"In the U.K. you find they can kind of feel like they own you."

In exchange for the privacy away from the field, MLS players have to give up a little more to the media.

Toronto FC has regulars who cover the beat, even if it's a world away from the horde that monitors the Maple Leafs' every move.

Thursday's TFC practice, for example, drew three reporters.

Nelsen says English clubs "protect" their players from the media, "because generally the media (there) are after stories and they'll go for you."

He recalls leaving the stadium one day after a Premier League game against Bolton in which the referee, who was from Bolton himself, awarded a penalty against Nelsen's team.

As he left, a man asked him if he saw the irony in the Bolton connection between the referee and penalty call.

"I went 'yeah' and laughed and walked off," Nelsen recalled.

That somehow turned into a quote in a newspaper story. Nelsen was subsequently called before the Football Association and fined 10,000 pounds (C$16,690).

These days, Nelsen says he has no problem with media demands, saying the MLS — unlike the powerful English league — has to sell itself.

"We have to get it (the message) out and the more access the better. I understand that and I think it's great.

"But what happens is you have to take the good with the bad. I feel for the players because unlike me — whatever's going to be written or said about me, it's already been done so it doesn't matter or I don't care.

"Whereas the younger guys, it's hard for them. They've got to go through that. Generally they'll get critiqued by people who are not in a position to critique. But that's the life they're in. They're in the public eye and they've got to deal with it."

It's not the first subtle slap at the media by Nelsen, who can bury you with a smile.

For players like Earnshaw and English midfielder Darel Russell, having reporters walk into the locker-room is a shock to the system. In England, the dressing room is sacrosanct.

"Even now after the games, it always surprises me," Earnshaw admitted.

Earnshaw, however, sees the fifth estate as a valuable link to the fans — in addition to his use of social media.

A gregarious type who celebrates goals with a somersault and a variety of finishing moves (his bullfighter flourish is a favourite), Earnshaw lives life with a smile on his face.

"Most problems in the world would disappear if we talked to each other instead of talking about each other," he tweeted Thursday to his 71,000-plus followers.

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Follow Neil Davidson on Twitter at @NeilMDavidson

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