By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (June 19, 2012) US Soccer Players — Let’s pretend we’re suddenly placed in charge of a struggling Major League Soccer club. We can figure out later what role each of us has, but let’s assume we’re both in the primary positions of influence within the organization. Though the team can point to a few positives, their own-field performance and long-term position in their local market are questionable. To put that another way, the team is in trouble. They need for things to change and to change quickly. Where do you start?
If this wasn’t MLS, the answer is simple. You look at those responsible for the playing squad, the playing squad itself, and the money you have available. Unfortunately, in the land of single-entity that first step is more complicated. Though most teams would still look at the coach first, the coach isn’t operating with the controls he would expect to have in a non single-entity league.
The absence of free agency looms, alongside the unwillingness of most MLS teams to spend on transfer fees. Salary caps whether hard, soft, or implied through luxury taxes are nothing new to North American leagues, so we’ll set that aside as a part of doing sports business here. The entry draft is in the same category, peculiarities when it comes to soccer but not when it comes to pro sports under the US model.
So we’re already in an MLS-specific situation. Do we keep the coach?
In an interview with Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald, Hall of Famer Tony Meola said something that should be bulletin board material for every front office in the League. “First and foremost, you can throw the coaches out the window,” he told Tannenwald. They don’t win you games, nor do they lose you games. You’ve got to have the right players.”
Though this isn’t necessarily an absolute, Meola is more right than wrong. We’ve seen coaches in MLS that were over their heads, making decisions that without question put their teams in less of a position to win games.
We’re going to assume our coach is up for the job. There’s no tactical naiveté on display, the locker room frustrations are shared rather than directed at the person in charge. He’s not getting out-coached. The results that aren’t falling for our hypothetical club can’t be explained by looking at coaching decisions and seeing an obvious weakness. That presents us with our first difficult question: should the coach keep his job?
Most MLS executives would look at this pragmatically. How much of the coach’s remaining salary will they be on the hook for and who else can take his place quickly? Is an interim coach a better option? Does the message need to be sent that change will happen and there’s no safety on a losing team?
I’m going to argue that more often than not in MLS the answer is to let the coach see out his contract. In that regard, Meola is right. In this League, the coach isn’t going to have the impact we see elsewhere simply because the coach lacks the same direct control. What happens when a manager takes over an English Premier League club? The talk quickly turns to transfer money and available players. The manager expects to have a budget that isn’t nothing and the support to buy the players he wants. There’s no doubting who is in charge of the playing squad, and in most situations the manager is making the choices that will produce success or failure.
Not likely in Major League Soccer. Unless the League revises the financial rules, the coach is always going to be playing within a set of restrictive and artificial limits that are unique to Major League Soccer. He can’t spend all the money he might have available across the squad. In most cases, he can’t even make the squad really his. The designated player rules are nice, but practically limited. The transfer window is another issue, along with the willingness of other clubs to complete trades. Short of a Dwayne De Rosario scenario, the help isn’t necessarily going to be there regardless of how much and how willing a club is to spend. It’s also worth remembering that De Rosario put in an MVP season for a club that still missed the playoffs.
MLS is a league of multiple models in that regard. At enough clubs, the coach is in a conversation with the technical director, the general manager, the president, and whoever else considers themselves a stakeholder in putting together the roster. Those clubs are adapting the Major League Baseball model where the front office puts together a squad that the manager manages. Like with baseball, fundamental change requires replacing multiple club employees.
Since we have our nice new titles at the top of the hierarchy, that’s already happened at our club. It helps that our organization is imaginary, since a real life MLS club making that kind of decision is a rarity. With that in mind, our coach and his staff keep their jobs. With all of our caveats firmly in place, there’s just not enough of a reason to think sacking the coach in season will change things for the better. MLS by design doesn’t work that way.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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