By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 19, 2015) US Soccer Players - Much has happened three-quarters of the way into the 2015 MLS season. So much, in fact, that a description of notable moments, achievements, and star additions to the league’s player rolls would fill up this column without much trouble.
Like every MLS season, however, there is one thing that hasn’t happened. That phenomenon the British call the “sack race” is again absent from the ongoing story of this unfolding campaign in North America. There is no “race” to “sack” anyone in this particular league. MLS lacks the kind of pressure we see in other soccer leagues.
It’s not as if there aren’t a few obvious candidates for replacement midseason. A number of teams are failing to meet basic levels of mediocrity. Clubs with records with enough poor performances that even scraping into the playoffs in the final spot seems like a Herculean task in mid-August. The reality of MLS is that no matter how badly things have gone to this point, there’s always a smidgen of hope that a winning streak might materialize out of nowhere and save the season.
Which, of course, is part of the reason why the leash is so long for head coaches in the first place. There may not be anything intrinsically wrong with holding a playoff tournament to determine a champion, but it heavily impacts thinking in the midst of the season. There are very few situations that are lost causes because the standings never look all that bad. Even now, the gap between the last place team in the Eastern Conference, Chicago, and the sixth place team, Montreal, is only five points.
For ownership hesitant to take on the cost involved in switching coaches in the middle of the schedule, that’s all the excuse needed to stay with the status quo. More, MLS teams are naturally predisposed to the notion of long-term planning, “rebuilding”, and multiple season projects. The league is young enough - and owners conservative enough - that fiscal matters usually outweigh the performance of the coach.
There’s also something obviously cultural at work. It’s more than the playoffs providing a safety net that helps coaches keep their jobs. It’s also the relative lack of pressure felt by the people make decisions from the public. There are more soccer fans, and more MLS fans, every year. What there isn't is a critical mass of them to turn the civic sports conversation into one that includes the job performance of the local MLS head coach.
If a city’s MLB, NBA, or NHL team fails to meet expectations (the NFL is a different animal), calls for change across various media outlets pop up immediately. Newspapers, TV, radio... the wisdom of a change is not the point. Instead, those calls indicate the passion for those sports that runs through the identity of those cities. Owners and team management hear those calls, occasionally bending to the will of the “people”. At the very least, they can’t escape the conversation that calls into question not only the coach, but the decision-making of they themselves.
No MLS coach has lost his job in 2015. By the three-quarter mark of any given season in England, Italy, or Spain, at least of handful of managers have lost their jobs. We’ve laid out the reasons, a soup of cultural and financial elements that make job security for MLS head coaches among the best in the world.
The real question is whether the way MLS teams handle the head coaching position is better or worse than that of other leagues. It’s easy to see the low number of in-season changes as a lack of accountability for coaches. Knowing they’re unlikely to lose their job during the year might foster unhealthy levels of complacency, leading to a more stagnant, less aggressively experimental competition.
While stability is a worthwhile goal, owners can look worse for refusing to let a poorly performing coach goal. It projects as disinterest.
In a league that doesn't have the type of 24/7 news cycle that other soccer leagues and Americans sport enjoy, the lack of a sack race is a net negative to fan engagement.
Then again, some of those other leagues have cultures that have gone too far, making it impossible for even good coaches to put their stamp on a club. The more a coach must look over his shoulder, wondering every day if his job is on the line, the less confidence he’ll have to things that will eventually lead to a successful, winning team.
Change for the sake of change rarely works. Often, that’s enough to justify keeping a coach on the job during the season. If the replacement isn’t any better, why spend the money necessary to swap out a head coach mid-stream? Why unsettle the players? Why eliminate the possibility that something will click, that the coach already on the job will suddenly get it, and that the team will go on a run that ends with a playoff berth and real tangible progress?
Sometimes, it might not even be a coach’s fault. Injuries and international absences making managing in MLS incredibly difficult, even for the best of the group that ply their trade here.
In a few cases, all of that might explain why ownership hasn’t sacked a single coach. Or, it’s that other less flattering reason. The pressure is low and the owners are cheap. In budget-minded MLS, it's difficult to tell the difference.
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