Old is new again in MLS management
Youth has been the buzzword in football recently, perhaps in all team sports. Energy, athleticism, work rate and input formed up behind it to compose a new ethos for professional competitions. Knowledge, experience and efficiency suddenly counted for much less. “Yes, but,” begins every reply when you mention them.
In Europe, the obsession with youth took hold in the coaching ranks, as well. Refreshing new ideas, mavericks, contemporary, and bold were the terms attaching themselves to up and coming names.
If Pep Guardiola began the revolution, followed by Andre Villas-Boas, Diego Simeone, Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Mauricio Pochettino, Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe, Zinedine Zidane blew the establishment doors wide open for the next generation. Zidane was 43 when he took over Real Madrid with the bare minimum experience. More conservative and loyal than bold or contemporary, his immense success advertised to ambitious chairmen that tried and true might be an overused, flawed philosophy. Young, eager minds could be the ticket to success.
While Zizou conquered Europe, Ralph Hassenhuttl and Julian Naglesmann assaulted the Bundesliga. Marco Rose ambushed the Europa League with RB Salzburg. Graham Potter made a name for himself in Scandinavia. Marco Silva went from big club to bigger in the Premier League.
Hassenhuttl's a late bloomer at 51. He’s looking for work after abruptly leaving RB Leipzig. Potter's finding his feet with Swansea in the Championship. The rest are thriving.
Major League Soccer dallied with young coaches in recent seasons, too. Toronto FC brought in Greg Vanney to manage their most recent rebuild. Curt Onalfo succeeded Bruce Arena with LA Galaxy. Jeff Cassar became the man at Real Salt Lake when Jason Kries left for New York City FC. Patrick Vieira also cut his coaching teeth with NYCFC. New York’s other franchise, the Red Bulls, moved on from Hans Backe to give Mike Petke his debut while Montreal Impact and DC United surprised the league with Jesse Marsch and Ben Olsen respectively.
In some cases, the experiment proved successful, albeit not in others.
Kreis came first, taking over Real Salt Lake deep into the 2007 campaign. He was 34. In 2008, his first full season, he led them to third in the Western Conference, then the MLS Cup semifinal. In 2009, he won the MLS Cup. In 2010, RSL lost to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final. While keeping the Caret and Cobalt in the playoffs until he left for New York in 2013, he never replicated his success with either NYCFC or Orlando City. The Lions languish second-from-bottom in the Eastern Conference, this year, despite fielding one of MLS’ most talented attacking foursomes. Kries couldn't get it done with Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Will Johnson. Orlando sacked him in June then sold Meram back to Columbus Crew for $750,000 and draft considerations in August.
Cassar took over for Kreis at RSL. After losing the MLS Cup final in his first campaign, he couldn’t replace the ageing talent left behind by Kreis. The Utah side gave him another three years to try.
In Montreal, Marsch guided the Impact to a mid-table finish in the Eastern Conference in their MLS debut. It was his lone season with the club, departing for an assistant’s job with the Princeton University Tigers.
In 2010, Ben Olsen signed on as DC United coach mid-season, having retired a club legend in midfield the year before. He made 18 appearances on loan to Nottingham Forest during the 2000-01 season, scoring twice. In 37 appearances for the USMNT, he potted another half-dozen. It took him time to rebuild DCU after the franchise languished near the league bottom for five years. In 2012, he guided them to third overall and an Eastern Conference final. An injury epidemic murdered the 2013 season. No forward stayed in the squad long enough to score more than three goals. Olsen resurrected their playoff status for the next three seasons. Last year proved a trial, however. United finished the 2017 season with the league’s worst record. Although this year began much the same, Wayne Rooney’s arrival has the Red and Black knocking on the playoff door. Olsen’s most critical asset has been the club’s patience.
Another former player took over the reigns for New York Red Bulls in 2013. Mike Petke coached the team for three seasons, winning two Supporters Shields for best overall regular-season record in 2013 and 2015. His success eclipsed what veteran managers Hans Backe and Juan Carlos Osorio managed for the underachieving franchise. Petke couldn’t get the team past the Eastern Conference final, however, and Red Bull executives had yet to learn patience.
Jesse Marsch assumed command in 2016. In his three-and-a-half seasons, the Red Bulls were more consistent winners but still failed in the playoffs. The board showed patience this time. Upon completing his UEFA coaching badges, he made the in-company transfer from New York to Leipzig, midseason, to be Ralf Rangnick’s assistant with the Bundesliga upstarts.
Patrick Vieira replaced Jason Kreis at NYCFC in 2016. He crafted Yankchester City into contenders yet struggled in the playoffs, as well. This year, he parallelled Jesse Marsch’s Transatlantic jump, becoming manager at OGC Nice. Early impressions aren’t good. He arrived to find his best players seeking an exit and fights to keep the club above the drop zone out of the gate.
The question is whether Marsch and Vieira started a trend in which coaches move from MLS to Europe to further their careers much as players already do?
Curt Onalfo won’t be going to Europe. The Brazilian suffered by far the worst experience for a young, debutante coach in MLS. He inherited Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy to start the 2017 season. Two years removed from its last MLS Cup, LA maintained a roster filled with top talent. Everything crumbled in the Brazilian’s hands. The Galaxy finished bottom in the West at campaign’s end, although Onalfo was long gone by then. The club's still struggling even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring on a whim. To be fair to youth’s proponents, MLS’ winningest coach, Sigi Schmid couldn’t pick up the pieces. Nor is it looking very good under caretaker boss Dominic Kinnear, the league’s third-most-successful manager.
Greg Vanney's the best argument for young MLS coaches. The Toronto FC manager led the team to successive MLS Cup finals, falling to the Seattle Sounders at first before coming out on top in his second attempt. Like Olsen, the injury bug cramped his style in 2018 although the Reds retain sufficient talent to suggest they’ll be back in the playoff hunt in 2019.
Even so, the important thing to remember is Vanney didn’t peak in his first season. He needed time, a luxury in today’s win-now football environment. When coaches don’t win now, they’re winnowed right out the door. That can be much more damaging to a young career than an old one.
When the Red Bulls fired Mike Petke, other clubs didn’t blow the hinges off his front door to keep him in the game despite his stellar record. He eventually accepted an assignment with Real Salt Lake’s B team. He was on hand to succeed Jeff Cassar when RSL finally threw in the towel. Petke has the former champions back in the Western Conference playoff mix. Onalfo's been persona non grata since the Galaxy bundled him out of LA.
Veteran coaches can still rely on their experience to find a new project in short order. The Galaxy hired Sigi Schmid to replace Onalfo a year after Seattle let him go following his own brutal start to the previous season with defending champions Seattle. LA hauled Dom Kinnear out of retirement to replace Schmid earlier this month.
Bob Bradley steadily built a compelling CV coaching in MLS, with the US national team, in Scandinavia, Egypt and France before it all exploded in his face with one disastrous turn in the Premier League.
Gerardo Martino made similar gains as Paraguay manager, succeeding that tenure with a spell at Newell's Old Boys, then a decent season at Barcelona in difficult circumstances. He took over at the last minute due to Tito Vilanova’s illness, went undefeated in his first 16 matches but lost La Liga to Atletico Madrid on the campaign’s final weekend. From there, he became Argentina boss only to walk away due to the corruption within the AFA.
Building an entire football operation from scratch offered the perfect challenge after those failures. Tata had the con. In less than two seasons, he turned fledgeling Atlanta United into league juggernauts. They're well on their way to the Supporters Shield and are the consensus pick to win the MLS Cup. Venezuelan Josef Martinez shattered the league scoring record in August. He’s on 30 in as many games. His nearest competition is NYRB’s Bradley Wright-Phillips, on 19.
Bob Bradley's in year one of a similar project with LAFC. The Wings are soaring in the Western Conference, second in a heated four-way battle for the top spot. The division’s two newest clubs could very well meet in the MLS Cup Final. I’ll take a second to let Swansea fans go to the medicine cabinet.
The point here is simple if reaching it was something of a trek. Young coaches with innovative ideas can make an impact. The game needs them and the evolution they bring. There's also something to be said for the battle-hardened gaffer who's been through adversity more than once, taken the lessons to heart and offers a better understanding of how to blend those new concepts with traditional methods that continue to yield fruit.
Arsenal proved you can’t stand by an old, intractable manager forever. On the other hand, you shouldn’t throw the baby coach out with the bathwater when his brilliant theories unravel when confronted by blunter yet still effective practices. The idea there isn’t time to give is just panic and impatience. Next time you’re at the beach, pick up a handful of sand. Hold it firmly in your fist. You'll find you can carry it a good distance. Squeeze it in desperation and it seeps out the cracks. The latest trend of experienced managers guiding new MLS franchises proves the same applies to run a football club.