Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Embracing Foreign Coaches
I have been outspoken about understanding the American mentality as a prerequisite to be a manager of a Major League Soccer franchise, and in looking to hire more American-born managers in MLS. Recently Greg Lalas of SI.com refutes that point.
The media's doubt about a foreign coach's ability to succeed in MLS has had one disturbing unintended consequence. Namely, the players have a gift-wrapped excuse for struggling under certain coaches: "I'm not playing well because [insert foreign coach] doesn't understand the American player," they can say.
No more. It's time to kill off the coddled and excused American player and replace him with one who just happens to be American. Because as MLS grows and improves, and the U.S. national team continues to succeed on the international level, more and more American players are going to go overseas.
In Europe, obviously, Americans don't receive any special treatment. The Americans who accept that and have the ability to adapt to a foreign framework are the ones who will succeed -- Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Maurice Edu, et al. The rest, like Eddie Johnson, will bounce around and, unless they figure it out at some point, eventually disappear.
The nationality of a player shouldn't matter; talent and mentality should. Same goes for a coach. The question is not whether Backe or de los Cobos can coach the American player, but whether either can coach in MLS. Can he take advantage of the draft, work the salary cap, navigate the long summer slog, etc.? These are more important factors than his players' college education and upper-middle-class background.
Over the years, I've talked casually about this with many coaches, including New England's Steve Nicol and Philadelphia's Peter Nowak, two of MLS' most successful foreign coaches ever. They both say the same thing: In effect, players are players. Sure, American players often have different backgrounds than their European and South American counterparts, so a coach might have to nuance things differently, but American players have similar motivations and ambitions -- to play, to improve, to win, to earn a bigger contract.
Nicol's and Nowak's success as coaches, then, has come from their ability to operate within MLS' rules. They adapted to the U.S., just like Dempsey and Bocanegra adapted to Europe.
How will Backe and de los Cobos adapt? Will they accept the rules and learn to thrive within them like Nicol and Nowak have done? Or will they bristle, grow frustrated, and find themselves floundering like Parreira and Gullit did?
If early indications are anything, both are on the right path. De los Cobos' hiring has enthralled many in Chicago, and he has re-energized the Cuauhtémoc Blanco-loving Mexican fan base. Backe and the Red Bulls had the second-best draft in the league, picking up a few sure things and addressing several of their biggest holes. And Backe proved to be a good interview, to boot.
Still, time will tell if any of this means anything. But regardless of how it ends up playing out, the fact that they're foreign should mean nothing.