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Getting Stuck In: Why is MLS foreign to foreign coaches?

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into how foreign coaches have struggled in Major League Soccer and why that might be the case.

As I sat freezing my butt off in the Nordecke section of Crew Stadium (I still refuse to call it MAPFRE Stadium) for the Eastern Conference final game against the Red Bulls, I wondered why over the years so many foreign coaches have bombed in MLS. And the first person I thought of was Ruud Gullit, the Dutch great who scored goals for the likes of PSV, AC Milan and Chelsea. If you remember, Gullit signed to manage the Galaxy in 2007 and proceeded to lay an egg. Gullit was paid a ridiculous ransom (the highest paid coach in MLS at the time) for kidnapping the Galaxy’s winning ways. He only coached for parts of two seasons and LA missed the playoffs both years, which is hard to do in the playoff-friendly MLS format. Not only did he ruin the beginning of Beckham’s MLS career, but he looked clueless when it came to tactics (didn’t practice set pieces much in training) and even dumber when it came to signing players and understanding the salary cap and draft rules.

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But the highest profile foreign coach bust has to be Carlos Alberto Parreira. The MetroStars (now the Red Bulls) hired the Brazilian World Cup winning coach to guide them in 1997… to the dumpster. His 13-19 playoff-less record didn’t get him fired (he left on his own terms) but he must’ve felt out of his depth when it came to MLS. He didn’t understand that you really need to make smart personnel decisions in MLS, not just throw any players together and call them a ‘team’.

So when I looked down the sidelines during the Eastern Conference final through my frosted over glasses, I saw two American coaches who looked right at home in MLS in Gregg Berhalter and Jesse Marsch.

Berhalter, the Crew SC head coach and technical director was the first American coach to manage in Europe when he took over at Hammarby in Sweden. (There’s a separate column for another time as to why U.S. coaches aren’t getting much of a shot in Europe; I mean c’mon, you don’t think Bob Bradley could’ve done a good job at Villa?).

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Berhalter, having played in the league, understands his limitations, and with Columbus being such a small market team and having limited off-the-field revenue streams he has to be smart (the Galaxy are in the midst of a ten-year, $44 million sponsorship deal with Herbalife, while the Crew have a much smaller five-year deal with shaving cream company Barbasol).

A foreign coach might just go for DPs left and right (see Galaxy under Gullit), but Berhalter has to be shrewd and know the American soccer landscape. His formula is to sign underappreciated foreign talent (Federico Higuain, Harrison Afful, Cedrick Mabwati and Gaston Sauro for example), blend in some established MLS players (Kei Kamara, Michael Parkhurst), sign players through the draft (Ethan Finlay) and grow players through their academy (Will Trapp). It’s a roster filled with good signings alongside good draft picks and a smart use of the Designated Player rule, using only one of their three available slots (Higuain is a modest DP and somehow Kamara isn’t one).

Currently there are only five foreign coaches in MLS with two more on the way as Patrick Vieira (NYCFC) and Veljko Paunovic (Chicago Fire) are set to enter the league in 2016. That could mean trouble, especially for NYCFC. They canned Jason Kreis, an MLS-winning American coach that knows the league like no other having scored over 100 goals in over 300 appearances with FC Dallas and RSL. His success at RSL, like Berhalter’s, was based on extreme knowledge of the league. The only reason Kreis got fired was because foreign owners didn’t understand the MLS concept fully. You need a balance of players, not three DPs, a high priced US International and a bunch of low-level talents. Kreis had no chance. So they go with Vierra, an unproven big name (only coaching experience is with the Manchester City reserves). Good luck Patrick. History is not on your side.

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One case that could go against the grain is that of Oscar Pareja’s. Pareja has done an outstanding job with FC Dallas but he played in MLS for eight years, coached the U.S. U17 team and had a stint with Colorado as their main man. Yes, he was born in Colombia, but he was very much raised in American soccer.

So could a Jose Mourinho come over here and have the same success he’s had in Europe (forget about this year’s current slump)? Well, most would think yes. But I have my doubts based on what I have discussed. I know he wouldn’t do much in his first year that’s for sure. Could you imagine him having to deal with a salary cap? The unheard of amount of travel (Seattle to Orlando is pretty far)? Or knowing how to draft college players? And what would he do when confronted with allocation rankings or the targeted allocation money rule on top of other crazy MLS nuances? He might just pack his bags and head back to London with a headache.

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Look, I think Owen Coyle at Houston will figure it out and so will Adrian Heath at Orlando because they are humble, good guys, willing to learn and embrace MLS. But neither made it to the playoffs this year. Only four foreign coaches have won the MLS Cup: Gary Smith, Thomas Rongen, Frank Yallop and Piotr Nowak. I don’t count Sigi Schmid since he moved to the U.S. from Germany when he was four years old, while Nowak and Rongen feel American since they are well-versed in American soccer with Novak having served as Bob Bradley’s assistant on the U.S. National team and Rongen spending over 35 years in the U.S. as a player and coach, most notably as the U20 U.S. coach.

So after thawing out and digesting the Crew’s 2-0 first-leg win over New York and Portland’s 3-1 win against Dallas on the same night, it looks likely that two U.S. coaches will make it to the 2015 MLS Cup Final (Berhalter vs. Porter). And if that happens, it sure won’t be very foreign to anyone, will it?

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3 Comments on Getting Stuck In: Why is MLS foreign to foreign coaches?

  1. Great stuff. That said, I’d hesitate to call Frank Yallop, a Canadian, a “foreign” coach in a league with both American and Canadian teams.

  2. Good read! Keep it up guys.

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