By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 26, 2012) US Soccer Players — For the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC, the competitive portion of the 2012 MLS season is over. All that’s left to play for is pride, the intrinsic joy of the game, and a job in 2013.
It’s the last of those three that takes precedence now, with playoffs hope dashed and a season of pain behind them. Nothing is guaranteed. A change at the top midstream means adjusting to a new personality, a new approach, and a new set of requirements. In some cases, the new guy will give fresh starts to players who chafed under the old guy. Former favorites are left unsure of their status. Almost everyone has to reboot themselves, or they might not be around when the season ends and full-scale preparations for 2013 begin.
Perhaps the saving grace is that the guy in charge now is the guy that will be in charge for (at least the start of) 2013. Both John Hackworth and Paul Mariner, after guiding their teams as interim bosses through the balance of this season, have been handed permanent roles for when Philadelphia and Toronto kick off new attempts at successful campaigns in March.
That means some measure of continuity after a season of turmoil in Toronto, who set the standard for coaching turnover in MLS, gave up on the Aron Winter experiment that went horribly, horribly wrong. Philadelphia said goodbye to the only head coach they had ever known when Peter Nowak was handed his walking papers in June. The two situations are very different in their specifics, but parallel each other in the need to rebuild and the shift in approach and style.
On the one hand, the two clubs are being prudent by retaining coaches who know their teams, have the lay of the MLS landscape, and can head into a new season with a cogent plan in place and a half-season worth of experience in their pockets. On the other hand, because both were on their club staff before being installed as temporary head coaches, and because neither had MLS head coaching experience before taking over, they seem like uninspired choices.
At the very least, Hackworth and Mariner represent the path of least resistance (and least cost) for ownerships clearly made wary by recent experience. The lack of significant improvement since they took over doesn’t help the perception that neither is an upgrade over the man they replaced.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, Portland interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson plucks half-heartedly at the silver lining on the Timbers’ disappointing season. Left to the job when Merritt Paulson finally tired of John Spencer’s inability to win, Wilkinson dropped down from the front office to take the reins. The former USL Timbers head coach won’t be making the move permanently, however, with University of Akron and former United States Uner-23 head coach Caleb Porter already lined up to take charge before next season.
Hiring Porter speaks not only to the aspirations of owner Paulson (Porter ranking among the most sought-after coaching candidates in the US, with his penchant for possession-based attacking soccer), but to the club’s more speculative approach to the future. For Portland’s players, however, it makes for more questions than answers, simply because they cannot know how Porter will proceed in remaking the team when he arrives in December. The end of 2012 for the Timbers has an “impending doom” feel about it, and not just because the team can’t seem to find a groove on the field.
Union and TFC players get an extended tryout playing under the man that will lead the club next year. Timbers players are afforded no such luxury. There won’t be any continuity with the staff or the system. Porter might makes personnel decisions based on perceived fit in the system, or on game tape, or second-hand scouting reports, or on nothing more than pure gut instinct.
Philadelphia made the playoffs in their second season only to fall flat when Nowak revamped the roster. Toronto FC’s historic failure to make the postseason will be going on its seventh year in 2013. After the change attempted with the hiring of Winter, the club seems unwilling to take a flyer on an unknown quantity.
Whether Hackworth and Mariner can turn their teams around in the first part of 2013 will have a lot to do with their long-term security. TFC and Union ownership may be loath to start over after a trying 2012, but neither can afford to hang on to their chosen coaches too long if the results do not improve. Toronto’s fan base is evaporating, Philly’s is growing restless.
With eyes on next year, it’s Portland that looks like the dynamic, forward-thinking MLS franchise while both Philadelphia and Toronto look like organizations scared to move in any particular direction. Ultimately, it might be the cost-effective prudency of the Union and/or Reds that wins out over the high risk/high reward choice of Paulson and the Timbers, though the perception of resignation on the part of the two Eastern teams is hard to shake.
Working to Philadelphia and Toronto’s advantage is the “practice run" both Hackworth and Mariner are getting down the stretch of 2012. Playoffs pushes never materialized, but there’s reason for optimism in both camps. Both Mariner and Hackworth have good reputations. Both have prompted their teams to play well at times. Neither is a sexy hire with a tiki-taka-esque outlook on the game, but they’ve got the chops to be success in MLS, a League that tends to beat down teams that attempt to play outside of the usual tactics.
For the remainder of the 2012 regular season, two teams will have players with every belief that they can impress the new boss and keep their jobs for 2012 because he’s present and looking ahead to next year. One team will struggle through the reality of a lame duck coach and the prospect of lame duck charges, making it difficult to know what’s next.
Steady continuity, and the chance for calm, or big idea, big promise, big potential? Proactive hiring of the next big thing, or status quo promotion of the man cleaning up the mess?
More From Jason Davis: