By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jul 6, 2018) US Soccer Players - It’s not often that a new era begins for soccer clubs in the middle of a season, though it happens more often in MLS than in most leagues around the world. The schedule played in the United States and Canada means that summer can bring big changes, even with teams already good, bad, or in-between.
Usually, MLS-style big changes, the kind that can herald a new era, involve the signing of a famous player. DC United is undergoing just that sort of transformation with the arrival of Wayne Rooney. United spent the last decade on the sidelines when it came to spending significant sums on Designated Player. The choice to invest so much in the English star represents a shift in philosophy that will remake the club on the fly.
In Harrison, New Jersey, there’s a new era dawning in the middle of the season, for a very different reason. The Red Bulls aren’t in the market for a marquee Designated Player. Any summer signings are likely to be of a much less flashy variety than Rooney.
What’s changed in Harrison is the man in charge of the team on the field. Jesse Marsch is gone, off to Germany. The American coach is chasing an opportunity afforded him by the connections between the MLS Red Bulls and Bundesliga side RB Leipzig. Marsch will serve as an assistant under Ralf Rangnick for the 2018-19 season before current Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann takes over next summer.
There’s plenty to unpack in Marsch’s decision to leave MLS at the halfway point of a season that has championship potential for the Red Bulls. Though Marsch’s ambitions were no secret, it’s jarring to see him leave New York for Leipzig with the club in position to challenge for a top playoff seed and a shot at the MLS Cup. The Red Bulls’ championship-less history adds an extra layer of sting to the departure.
Even as MLS grows in esteem, moments like this serve as a sobering reminder of its place in the wide soccer world. Patrick Vieira parlayed a stint at NYCFC into a job with Ligue 1 side Nice, but that had as much to do with Vieira’s reputation as a player and standing in the French soccer community as it did with his success in America.
Marsch leaving at any point before the season’s climax would hurt for Red Bull fans, but move coming mere days ahead of the Hudson River Derby ramps up the pain even that much more. Even with a short history, the intensity of the local rivalry is enough to make it matter more than most games. Marsch left on the eve of one of the biggest games on the schedule.
The Red Bulls lost that game under the man tasked with ushering in an unexpected new era. Chris Armas moved from assistant under Marsch to the hot seat as head coach, a promotion that makes sense as a matter of ensuring continuity. Armas is his own man, but it’s expected that he’ll most keep things business-as-usual in Harrison. There’s no good reason to mess with the personnel or lineup with the Red Bulls near the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference.
Vieira left NYCFC with his team in a similar position, moving NYCFC into their own new era. Now both New York teams are navigating coaching transitions while hoping to avoid a significant drop in quality of play. That’s no easy task during the hottest part of the MLS calendar when even elite teams melt in the heat of July and August. Injuries and travel don’t make it easy on top of the weather.
Who’s best equipped to slide cleanly from one era to another while maintaining full stride? It’s possible both could manage the trick, though only one can achieve the ultimate goal of lifting the MLS Cup trophy.
Armas has familiarity with the league and his team working in his favor. The only learning curve the former Chicago Fire and USMNT player faces is one of final authority. The conventional wisdom is that while assistant coaches get to be friends with players, head coaches much maintain an aura of power that precludes those same sorts of relationships. Armas moves from a position that allowed him to put an arm around the shoulder of a player dropped due to lack of form to the one making that decision.
Marsch made his name in New York on the back of ruthless decisions. His desire to trade beloved midfielder Dax McCarty sparked a power struggle that ended with then-general manager Ali Curtis leaving the team. Marsch followed up in 2018 by trading away Sacha Kljestan, one of the league’s best creators. While Armas is unlikely to have the same sort of pull as Marsch, at least initially, he will have to take the reins for the on-field product with confidence.
In the Bronx, the early returns for new NYCFC head coach Domenec Torrent are encouraging. Torrent must adjust to life in MLS, and quickly, for NYCFC to hold their spot in the top third of the conference standings. Torrent’s history as top assistant to Pep Guardiola speaks to his knowledge of the game. He’ll need to be a quick study on the strengths and weaknesses of the NYCFC roster, the effect of playing on the limited field at home in Yankee Stadium, and the impact of external factors like weather, travel, and so on have on an MLS campaign.
Torrent prevailed over Armas in the first meeting between the two newly installed coaches, though it’s probably unfair to judge Armas considering how abrupt the departure of Marsch was. A weekend home date against Sporting Kansas City will be a significant test, and a better judge, for the Red Bulls' new boss.
Torrent’s MLS record stands at two wins and a loss through three games. He’s working without injured strikers David Villa and Jo Inge Berget. NYCFC will next host red-hot Montreal in a Wednesday night match at Yankee Stadium.
Continuity was the name of the game for both New York clubs when unforeseen changes came in their most important coaching position. Despite that commonality, slightly different paths with replacements mean a difference in strengths and weaknesses between the two.
Two new eras underway in midseason and not of their own choosing will make for a fascinating next few months in New York and New Jersey. Can two strong teams with championship potential stay that way?
More From Jason Davis:
- Miami changes the MLS expansion model
- The simple math for the Sounders and Toronto
- Will things change for Seattle or Orlando?
- Atlanta United's All-Star Game
Photo by Robin Alam - ISIPhotos.com