By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 4, 2016) US Soccer Players - Whether it’s by a quirk of the calendar or because someone in the scheduling department at MLS headquarters has as sense for theater, Sunday’s season openers includes one very intriguing showdown between two debutant coaches. Two foreign, first-time bosses will pace mere yards from each other as they coach their first games both in MLS and as senior level coaches.
An initial 90 minutes in Bridgeview, Illinois won’t define the seasons of either coach or their teams. It will be the first chance to glimpse what could be the beginning of a new trend in the MLS coaching ranks. Or, should the pair of imports fall flat in their attempts to solve American soccer and MLS, it could be the beginning of a short burst of intrigue within the league’s coaching ranks.
Simply put, MLS head coaches tend of to be of a certain type. American, obviously. White, another issue worth discussing at length. Products of the college game, whether they are of an older generation or fit into a younger, ex-player demographic. There’s an established group of names who fit under a banner that reads “typical MLS coach”, a group of names that sometimes find themselves recycling through the League when one or another club is on the hunt for a new coach. Employers like experience, especially experience within the MLS system.
Veljko Paunovic and Patrick Vieira don’t fit any of the usual MLS types. They’re both foreign, to name just one difference, and neither has any MLS coaching experience. Beyond that interesting note, neither has a single minute of senior level professional head coach experience in any league. Paunovic made his name taking the Serbian U-20s to a World Cup title last summer. Vieira has spent the intervening years after his 2013 retirement working within the Manchester City system at various levels.
This is MLS as a proving ground for foreign coaches, something it has been just a few times before. A handful of non-American names have filtered through the league in a bid to build their credentials. Never have two names of Paunovic’s and Vieira’s respective pedigrees arrived in here to take on MLS as their first challenge at the same time. Generally, foreign coaches who begin their careers here have direct ties to the American game forged over a number of years. With all due respect to Paunovic's 17 games for the 2011 Philadelphia Union, neither he nor Vieira have anything close.
Both men are under 40, putting them in the company of a number of MLS coaches. In a way, the hiring of Paunovic in Chicago, and to a lesser extent Vieira with Manchester City's subsidiary in New York, are part of trend over the last few years. MLS teams hire recently retired players as head coaches. Starting with Jason Kreis at RSL back in 2007, clubs have progressively turned to enthusiastic ex-players who bring energy and tactical sophistication to their first head coaching jobs. Since 2010, ten MLS clubs have installed head coaches under the age of 40, and that doesn’t include Gregg Berhalter or Jeff Cassar, both of whom were 40 at the time of their hirings.
Like most leagues, MLS is not immune from the copycat phenomenon. Some clubs might have seen their young coaching hires as men of vision and talent who could lift them to great heights. That doesn’t also preclude them from wanting to copy what RSL did with Kreis or try to replicate the success New England found with Jay Heaps. Signing up a Robinson, a Berhalter, or even a Mastroeni can be about many things, the surprise hit of a new generation of coaches among them.
As MLS matures, players young enough to have spent entire long careers in the League are retiring and moving into coaching. That glut of options means foreign coaches will find it more difficult to break through, but as Paunovic and Vieira have shown, with the right set of conditions it is possible to land a gig in the excited world of American soccer.
If Paunovic and Vieira both succeed, we might see a new trend of copycat hirings. This time in the area of young foreign coaches looking for their first opportunity to run a first division professional team. At the very least, some measure of achievement from one or both will help break down the conventional wisdom. That’s the story that foreign coaches without significant playing or assistant coaching backgrounds in MLS won’t succeed in this league.
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