Tuesday, March 8, 2011

MLS managers - who's on or off the hot seat

With the 2011 MLS season around the corner, Michael Lewis writes about the lifespan of the Major League Soccer coaches this year.

In less than two weeks, a new Major League Soccer season will be upon us. Which coaches will march successfully to the finish line in 2011 and who will be the ones will get their marching orders?

Once upon a time teams had to go out of their way not to make the playoffs, when eight of 10 teams qualified for the post-season. That shifted considerably through expansion. While the League made it a bit easier for teams to reach the playoffs this season (10 of 18 teams as opposed to eight of 16 teams last year), general managers, technical directors, sporting directors and owners are taking life in the League a lot more seriously these days.

Last year three MLS coaches lost their jobs during or after the season: Curt Onalfo (DC United), Preki (Toronto FC), and Martin Vasquez (Chivas USA).

With the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers ready to make their debut, there are more opportunities for coaches to wind up on the firing line. After all, no established MLS coach wants t be on the wrong side of a comparison with an expansion team.

MLS coaching insecurity doesn’t reach the level of the English Premier League, but it certainly has its dangers. For every winner, there is a loser. And sometimes just making the playoffs year-in and year-out won't satisfy a general manager or owner if a team drops off every post season. While it may seem that even the most distinguished and successful coaches look safe as we enter the season, just remember every coach is a four- or five-game losing streak away from having to find answers to uncomfortable questions.

That’s certainly the case for Carlos de los Cobos in Chicago. After the Fire went from a perennial playoff team to post-season outsiders last season (9-12-9), de los Cobos is the obvious choice for a coach in need of a strong early showing. Anything less, and the questions start up again.

On the other side of the scale are the coaches that got more out of their clubs than expected last season. That list is headed by Gary Smith in Colorado. Smith directed the eighth-seeded playoff team to its first MLS Cup title. And he became the first foreign-born coach with no previous MLS experience to guide a team to a League championship. How's that for some clout?

Smith’s opposite number in last season’s Cup final, FC Dallas’s Schellas Hyndman, has shown that his rebuilding efforts will pay off. After a marvelous regular season, Dallas came within an own goal of winning the championship. Enough said.

Jason Kreis in Salt Lake has put together a fun team to watch that actually wins. Besides, RSL reached the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, no mean feat for any team, let alone an American side.

Somewhere closer to the Smith, Hyndman, Kreis side are coaches like Hans Backe in New York. Though they disappointed in the playoffs, we’re talking about a coach and a team that turned a disastrous ‘09 season into the Eastern Conference champions. It’s also worth remembering in a League with a tendency toward foreign coaches as miracle workers, only Backe and Smith have joined the league and led their teams to an above .500 record.

The LA Galaxy’s Bruce Arena is also in this category. Granted, he’s got a lot to work with. Yet others had already failed in putting together a squad to highlight Landon Donovan, David Beckham and a new generation of US players. Winning the Supporters’ Shield highlighted what Arena has done in LA.

Sigi Schmid has set the new standard for an expansion team with back-to-back playoff appearances in Seattle. Add to that their back-to-back Open Cups.

Closer to the center, we find Frank Yallop. He deserves credit for turning around a frankly awful revamp of the Earthquakes, even before Chris Wondolowski surprised the League with his goal streak. Those goals helped San Jose to the playoffs and that first round upset over New York. It’s also worth remembering that Yallop won those two MLS Cups with the original Quakes, the team that moved to Houston without Yallop and continued to win using the framework he constructed.

In Philadelphia, Peter Nowak has a substantial cushion in his second season with Philadelphia. Though he might have pushed his taskmaster reputation in 2010, he remains a coach that can put together a group of players over a short run. That was the story of his DC United MLS Cup winners, and the expectations remain high in Chester.

Moving to the other side of the scale, Robert Warzycha needs to show that his potential dynasty in Columbus hasn’t faded in the years following Sigi Schmid’s unexpected exit. You have to wonder if things are starting to slip away from Warzycha, running a team that won the Supporters Shield in his first season in 2009, a year after the Crew captured the MLS Cup under Schmid. The Crew, however, slipped to second place in the Eastern Conference in 2010 and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the past two years. Was Columbus' performance in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Real Salt Lake a preview of things to come?

Steve Nicol in New England and Dominic Kinnear in Houston are in a similar situation. Once strong teams competing for the MLS Cup now fading after disappointing seasons. Nicol is the longest tenured coach in MLS, and he’s facing a season where fans and pundits alike are wondering what comes next. Houston is also in a ‘what have you done lately’ scenario, with a new stadium in the works and a team that’s slipped to the wrong half of the Western Conference.

That new stadium issue is also on the minds of fans in Kansas City. The revamped Sporting Kansas City have Peter Vermes as technical director and head coach after taking the coaching job on an interim basis last season. Kansas City start 2010 on a lengthy road swing while their stadium is completed and without two of their franchise players with Josh Wolff and Jimmy Conrad moving on in the off season.

Chivas USA, DC United, and Toronto have new coaches in place for 2011. Robin Fraser with Chivas USA and Ben Olsen dropping the interim title in DC are former players that have served as assistants. Both have the kind of on-field credibility that should translate into improvement over what happened with those clubs in 2010.

It’s a different situation in Toronto, where FC ownership Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment brought an end to the Mo Johnston era by replacing the manager and head coach positions. Enter Aron Winter, a former Dutch international tasked with simply doing better. Simply making the playoffs counts in Toronto.

As for the two expansion teams, Teitur Thordarson in Vancouver and John Spencer in Portland certainly feel the pressure of what Seattle did in their expansion season. At the same time, there’s some solace in remembering that only two coaches have ever been dismissed in an expansion season (Carlos Cordoba with Miami in ‘98 and Thomas Rongen with Chivas USA in ‘05).

Every coach in the League is well aware that few of their colleagues exit on their own terms. Though some current coaches who ran into trouble at earlier stops might disagree, for the most part MLS hasn’t shown itself to be irrational in coaching turnover. The same trend should hold in 2011.

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