By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 24, 2018) US Soccer Players - One of American soccer’s quietly enjoyable traditions is Washington Post reporter Steve Goff’s annual sit down interview with Bruce Arena. An on-record meeting of two of the sport’s savviest and most grizzled old heads, it invariably features witty and instructive interchanges that reflect a decades-long relationship spanning some of the most significant chapters in the game’s modern history here.
Two years ago Goff asked Arena – at that point entering what would prove his final season with the LA Galaxy – whether he’d continue working in a front-office capacity after his coaching days.
“You are, after all, both the Galaxy’s head coach and general manager. You do have multiple titles already,” noted the journalist.
“Yes, I am also the a**hole and the s***head around here,” wisecracked the coach.
As fleeting as it may have sounded, Arena’s one-liner actually did underline the wide scope of his duties at the helm of MLS’ flagship club. It was a level of power and autonomy that reflected both reputation and results.
During his eight years at StubHub Center, Arena's Galaxy made four MLS Cup final appearances, winning three of them, as well as two Supporters' Shields. He did that with stars like Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane as well as the general wealth, ambition, and desirability of the Galaxy and their ownership. The one with the vision, the rug that brought the whole room together, was Arena, who first rode in to rescue LA in 2008 from the dysfunction vividly documented by Grant Wahl in the bestselling book “The Beckham Experiment.”
MLS being something of a copycat league, for a while it seemed like the Arena model of centralized technical leadership was practically the only way forward for ambitious franchises. This paradigm-shaping power was surely a factor in his being the only replacement seriously considered by the US Soccer Federation when Sunil Gulati and Dan Flynn decided to call time on Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT tenure in the hopes of stabilizing the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in late 2017. It wasn’t just MLS. Dual coach/GM-type roles were all the rage in the NFL, NBA, and other pro sports as well.
Cut back to the present, and in general terms, only a scant few Arena-style cases have survived.
“Years ago you had more coaching situations where you wore multiple hats,” current Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid recently told USSoccerPlayers.com. “The league was a little smaller then. You didn’t have the reserve teams, you didn’t have the academy teams underneath. And so there were coaches who were GMs and coaches. Over the year that’s lessened. I think the only two guys left that are doing that are Gregg Berhalter and Peter Vermes.”
Berhalter and Vermes are the unquestioned chieftains at Columbus Crew SC and Sporting KC, respectively. Both are architects in “small-market” environments. Those teams handed them not only the keys to their teams but their organizations’ entire technical landscapes. Both proved themselves with coherent, consistently competitive, and (in general) aesthetically pleasing plans and results.
They are the outliers in a league and sport where rising complexity, spending, and ambition have led to staffs mushrooming in size and specialization.
“It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of attention to detail. I don’t know how they do it, because it’s really, really a lot,” said one MLS technical director who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “I look at our model here and I see our coaches working full-time, cutting video, planning sessions, doing all that, and I don’t see how they could add stuff on top of it.
“You have to look at Kansas City as your main example. Peter is doing a great job, so you can’t question that. The guy is phenomenal. What are you going to say? ‘Hey, you need somebody else.’ He’s doing such a great job, how are you going to question that? But it would be hard to work here.”
MLS’ growing cadre of investor/operators have opened up their pursestrings dramatically in recent years. That allwos their technical staffs to spend more on nearly every facet of the game, from academies to advanced analytics to overseas signings to physical infrastructure. That’s raised the pressure to succeed as well as the to-do list on the way there.
Perhaps, that's dropped the front office’s willingness to put most or all of their eggs in one basket.
“It’s just too time-consuming – dealing with agents, talking to players, scouting, bringing in new players, trying to figure out who’s coming up from your academy teams,” said Schmid. “You just can’t physically cover it all.
“In both Gregg and Peter’s case, the president of the organization gave them the freedom, basically, ‘you run it, you fill out your staff in a way that makes it work for you.’ They’ve both been able to fill out their staff to where they don’t get caught in the minutiae, and they can just oversee it. But I think the other 21 teams all have a separation of power.”
A fixture on the MLS scene since 1999 with stops in LA (twice), Columbus and Seattle, Schmid handled both executive and sideline duties in several of his jobs. Some might contend that he still is today. The Galaxy gave him control of “all player personnel decisions” at the end of their woeful 2017 campaign, with GM removed from Pete Vagenas’ bailiwick. Yet he calls KC and Crew SC “unique situations.”
“My direct connection every day is to [SKC co-owners] Mike and Cliff Illig. So that’s probably not the norm,” Vermes said earlier this month during a media conference call after the announcement of a contract extension that runs until 2023. “A lot of times when you have a separate technical director and a coach, there are times where you can get into some disagreements that cause problems within that relationship. At least right now, I haven’t had any problems with myself. So I’m going to keep that going.”
At reigning MLS Cup champions Toronto FC, Greg Vanney is nominally both head coach and technical director. But he’s still subordinate to the “management team” of president Bill Manning and Tim Bezbatchenko – the famed MLS rulebook whisperer whose full title is a mouthful: Senior Vice President, Soccer Operations & General Manager.
Back-to-back championship finalists Seattle Sounders have a fairly huge staff that includes "General Manager and President of Soccer" Garth Lagerwey and "VP of Soccer and Sporting Director" Chris Henderson as well as head coach Brian Schmetzer and many others.
The New York Red Bulls and their cousins in Austria, Germany, and Brazil have benefitted from a progressive and well-crafted worldwide framework of affiliate clubs overseen by “global sporting director” Ralf Rangnick, the visionary behind their high-pressing, high-tempo philosophy and value-driven personnel acquisitions. Jesse Marsch and Denis Hamlett are the US-based avatars of those wider plans. It’s not so different on the blue side of the Big Apple, where Patrick Vieira’s NYCFC can call on the planetary reach of the City Football Group.
FC Dallas takes a committee approach to roster-building that can span half-a-dozen or more people between the owner’s suite and the locker room, with transfer-window and contract extension spending ideally game-planned two to three years in advance. It's similar with ambitious Atlanta United, led by president Darren Eales, technical director Carlos Bocanegra, VP of soccer ops Paul McDonough, and head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino. Even DC United, one of the league’s more modest spenders over the past decade or so, rely on the duo of head coach Ben Olsen and GM Dave Kasper to make nearly all soccer decisions.
The rise of league-wide spending mechanisms like DPs (Designated Players) and TAM (Targeted Allocation Money) has allowed even the league’s cheapskates to comb the world for talent.
“We’re able to get to a lot of other markets now. Before, we didn’t have even the financial conditions to get to some markets or some players, and that makes things more complicated,” said one MLS executive. “And now you have rules – TAM, DTAM, young DPs, whatever. You have to know how to manage all that. That’s quite a change from before when you didn’t even have a DP.”
So is the era of big bosses gone for good? Will the organizational diagrams diffuse power and authority even more intricately? Perhaps that’s a good thing, given the complexity of the modern game. Then again, the head coach and his or her immediate assistants tend to remain the most likely scapegoats when results turn sour.
For now at least, it’s still much easier to fire one or two people than a whole roster or team staff. That too is probably a good thing.
More from Charles Boehm:
- US Soccer coaching education and the strange case of the “war on rondos”
- A USMNT alum prospers on the prairie
- Another painful Champions League for MLS
- Jimmy Maurer on the uncertainty of life in the lower divisions
Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com