Are we living in the breakthrough epoch for American soccer coaching? After all, the four teams in action in Major League Soccer’s conference finals this weekend are all coached by Americans, and across the league, clubs are overwhelmingly choosing domestic coaches over imports.
It is an approach which stands in stark contrast to the English Premier League’s increasing preference for foreign coaches. The top four clubs in the EPL at the moment are coached by a Portuguese, a Chilean and two Dutchmen, and elsewhere in Europe, clubs with extraordinarily rich histories in countries with no shortage of coaching talent are managed by foreigners: Bayern Munich is coached by a Spaniard, Real Madrid by an Italian and AS Roma by a Frenchman.
But by the end of this season in Major League Soccer, there are just three coaches who are not from the United States or Canada – Colombian Oscar Pareja at FC Dallas and his compatriot Wilmer Cabrera at the now defunct Chivas USA, along with Welshman Carl Robinson at Vancouver.
So given that 14 of 19 coaching jobs in MLS are occupied by Americans, a number of whom had no previous pro coaching experience, it’s curious that there’s still such a reticence floating around Major League Soccer toward British coaches.
“Long story short, British managers or those schooled in the English football ways simply do not work now in American soccer’s highest professional level,” Steve Davis recently wrote for this site.
Taken literally that is pretty true: They don’t work in MLS because they aren’t given jobs. Despite concern about teams being tempted by the lure of a British accent there is not one English coach in MLS, nor a single Scot.
“As MLS teams began establishing on-field identities, as the league grew in every way and as bright minds began infiltrating the game and generating new ideas – think Jason Kreis, Peter Vermes or Jay Heaps – tactical concerns and modern methodologies of player development became paramount.”
And this apparent American avant-garde stands in contrast to the “get stuck in”, “long ball up to the big lad” tactical Neanderthals from the British Isles.
Though coaches such as West Ham’s Sam Allardyce and last year’s Football Manager’s Association manager of the year Tony Pulis may in some minds embody this archetype, the more modern reality is different. It is hard to think of an English manager under the age of 55 who would conform to the dated stereotype of the ‘get stuck in’ route-one soccer. English clubs, prompted by their managers, spend vast resources on data analysis, sports science, and psychologists. For the past decade (at least), it has been career suicide to be associated with long-ball tactics. Both Allardyce and Pulis have evolved their tactical approach in recent years, and every managerial hopeful in any of the four professional divisions will tell club chairmen they want to play ‘pass and move,’ entertaining football.
Ironically, if you are looking for teams that have played old-school English football then you need look no further than Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley’s U.S. national teams and a large number of MLS teams coached by Americans.
Tellingly, it is not only British coaches, once popular choices for NASL clubs and youth soccer camps, that are noticeably absent from MLS. Spanish and German coaches are highly respected and successful internationally, but there isn’t one in MLS. Even the nearby talent pool across the border in Mexico isn’t represented in a league with a significant Spanish-speaking player base. There is no Central American and next year, the long-time U.S. resident Pareja will be the only South American.
And it is no longer the case, if it ever was, that foreign coaches are wary of working in MLS. You can be sure that every time a vacancy comes up in MLS, foreign coaches are sending in their CV’s for consideration.
Englishman Gary Smith, who won MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids in 2010, took his team to the playoffs the following season but lost his job and, surprisingly for a manager with such a record, has not been able to get work in the league despite a strong desire to come back. Smith believes MLS club owners and technical directors simply prefer to work with their compatriots.
“There aren’t many foreign coaches because the people in the power positions making the decisions are American, they will employ guys they know well and possibly grew up with, which, to be fair, is something we all do from time to time,” says Smith.
“Also there is an overall philosophy, it would seem, to bring through the better players, people who have invested their careers in the league from the start in many cases. They are saying ‘can we offer those guys the opportunity to continue to impart their knowledge of the league as coaches?’
“I think they are trying to give those guys the best possible chance to make it work, because they think those guys will stay and ongoing will keep the league in a much stronger place.”
Smith admires that approach in some respects but believes that MLS will improve from having a more diverse range of coaches bringing different styles and approaches.
“A big part of me says that’s a loyal route to go and good luck to them; however, I don’t see that working long-term. That ability for American coaches to pit their wits against a different mentality, a different culture, from a different background, really would really stretch them, make them think, shed their skin and improve and develop.
“Otherwise you keep seeing the same guys you grew up against, played against, coaching together and it becomes a little bit stale I believe, certainly in terms of what the product will end up being.”
Indeed there is a ‘sameness’ about the way many MLS coaches approach the game tactically, and that was highlighted this season by the refreshing South American style that Colombian Pareja brought with Dallas and the rather more pedestrian approach teams like D.C. United under Ben Olsen.
It is hard to see how MLS would not benefit from bringing in ‘best practice’ from around the world, particularly from Europe and South America, but one of the most common arguments against foreign coaches is that they struggle to understand MLS’s roster and salary cap rules, as well as some of the other differences between the league’s structure and that of the European game.
High profile Euro-flops, particularly Ruud Gullit at LA Galaxy and Aaron Winter at Toronto, are often raised as warnings against looking beyond Americans to coach MLS teams and when new coaches are appointed you can almost guarantee an owner or general manager will highlight the fact that his latest American coach “knows the league.”
Smith, who had to learn the unique elements of the MLS framework, estimates it would take most coaches no more than six months to get fully up to speed. And, of course, there is always the option of having an American assistant who is familiar with the league’s rules and regulations.
Philadelphia Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz says understanding the different nature of the league and sharing the same culture and language as the majority of the league’s players, is a real factor behind the dominance of American coaches. But while he has preferred American coaches for Philadelphia, he also believes a foreign coach with the right attitude to MLS could succeed.
“A foreign coach who has the ability to adapt to it could be successful in our league. It requires the effort and the objectivity to do it. Some people have all the answers without understanding the questions. They come and say let me tell you all how the game should be played and that is pretty naïve,” he says.
There have undoubtedly been some talented young coaches emerge in MLS in the past few years. Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake built a team that delivered results while playing an attractive passing style with a distinctly Latin-flavor, and it will be fascinating to see how he performs with the expansion New York City FC next season. The New England Revolution under Jay Heaps have played entertaining and progressive soccer, and Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City enjoyed success with some, dare I say, very British qualities.
But as MLS grows and its resources expand, owners will perhaps start to re-examine whether they aren’t missing out on bringing in global expertise. Coaching appointments in most countries tend to flow in cycles and a spell of success for a foreign coach in MLS could change thinking. And as the Premier League has shown, diversity at the ownership level often results in opportunities for foreign coaches.
Next year, MLS will again have an English coach with Adrian Heath’s Orlando City entering the league. Heath is no arrogant outsider; he has enjoyed plenty of success in USL and has had time to study the American system. He has a wealthy Brazilian owner behind him and the talent of Kaká to build his team around and every chance to make a strong impression.
Perhaps Pareja at Dallas will enjoy further success next season and Welshman Carl Robinson may be able to take Vancouver deeper into next year’s playoffs. And maybe, slowly, we will start to see a greater diversity in the coaching appointments made in MLS with the best young American coaches forced to outthink and outsmart, talented international coaches.
That certainly sounds like a recipe for a league that would be more fun to watch.