By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 27, 2019) US Soccer Players - After an offseason of rampant change, the 2019 Major League Soccer season arrives with more unanswered questions than perhaps any in league history. With the league now at 24 teams, that should mean more movement of players and coaches than ever before.
The coaches will be a particular focus in 2019. Six teams made changes at the top following the 2018 season. FC Cincinnati enters the league led by a man with no MLS experience. That’s a lot of unknowns in the coaching ranks Each new boss has a different set of circumstances and expectations. Let’s take a look at each new coach and what they face on the eve of the new season.
Frank de Boer - Atlanta United
No point in burying the lede. The defending MLS Cup champions made the highest profile coaching hire of the offseason when they tabbed former Ajax, Inter Milan, and Crystal Palace boss Frank de Boer to be the man who followed in Tata Martino’s prodigious footsteps. All de Boer has to do is live up to the standard of a man who took United to the playoffs in their first season with an exciting, goal-happy brand of soccer. Then Martino lifted the MLS Cup trophy in front of 70,000 fans in his second season.
Making the job more difficult for de Boer is Atlanta’s sale of Miguel Almiron to Newcastle United. The Paraguayan star wasn’t just an attacking juggernaut for Atlanta, he covered significant ground and had a knack for recoveries. The man ostensibly replacing Almiron, Argentine star Pity Martinez, won’t give the team the same sort of two-way work.
De Boer must adapt to MLS quickly, maintain Atlanta’s identity as a high-flying attack-minded team, and, most importantly, win. That’s the expectation in Atlanta, full stop. If United is going to buck MLS history and maintain a spot among the elite, de Boer can’t take the learning curve at a leisurely pace.
Caleb Porter - Columbus Crew
The one man among the bunch with MLS experience, Porter is a former MLS Cup-winning coach who takes over the Crew as the club emerges from the darkness of 2018. Results on the field were good enough under Gregg Berhalter last year. Columbus finished 5th in the East and beat DC United on the road in a knockout round game. However, the distraction of the team’s possible relocation to Austin, Texas did the on-field product no favors.
Porter won’t get a free pass on a bad season. Still, the new lease on life in Columbus for the Crew will drape the campaign in good feelings no matter the ultimate outcome. The roster is mostly unchanged. Only Milton Valenzuela’s season-ending injury disrupts the squad that finished 2018.
Porter isn’t Berhalter. The system will likely change. That could mean bad things for the likes of Gyasi Zardes, the striker who put in a career-best season thanks to the previous head coach’s approach.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto - LA Galaxy
The Galaxy just barely missed the playoffs in 2018. That failure was enough to prompt big changes at both the general manager and head coach position. With Dennis te Kloese taking over as the GM, the Galaxy looked to South America for a coach who could help put the club back on track to rejoin the league’s elite.
Schelotto has the pedigree and the MLS experience as a player to make it work. Still, the Galaxy is a complicated club. Schelotto has to juggle big egos and high expectations. The latest drama hit mere days before the start of the season, with striker Ola Kamara considering a move abroad. That’s on top of questions about LA’s Designated Player situation. The club has four DPs under contract in violation of the league’s three DP rule.
All LA needs is to defend just a bit better than in 2018. If Ibrahimovic can replicate his prodigious goal output, the Galaxy is a good bet to make the expanded playoff field in the West. That's almost a given no matter how Schelotto adapts to coaching in MLS.
Matias Almeyda - San Jose Earthquakes
Fortune favors the bold, or so they say. The Quakes went bold with their coaching hire. Matias Almeyda was an in-demand coach fresh off a continental championship with CD Guadalajara. That kind of ambition is rare for the club. Almeyda made the move to MLS despite offers elsewhere to take on the challenge of the league’s worst team in 2018.
The problem for Almeyda is that his new team isn’t spending on the roster. He heads into the 2019 season with the same team that earned the Wooden Spoon in 2018. As is typically the case, the new coach is talking about playing an attractive brand of soccer and winning games with scoring. The daunting question is whether Almeyda has the talent in the team necessary to do it.
The good thing for Almeyda is that there's no expectation that he'll turn the Quakes into a champion overnight. 2019 is a rebuilding year in San Jose. By the end, we’ll know how much of that rebuild worked.
Marc Dos Santos - Vancouver Whitecaps
Vancouver’s reboot is the latest chance for a coach who made his name in the lower divisions of North American soccer to prove himself in MLS. Whitecaps fans would certainly like to see Dos Santos replicate the results Giovanni Savarese got in his first year in Portland.
Winning the Western Conference and making an MLS Cup final is a high bar. The Vancouver faithful will probably be happy with a playoff berth and a season of clear progress. A wholesale overhaul of the roster means that there’s a new feeling at BC Place, a step in the right direction after a dysfunctional end to 2018.
Vancouver’s roster is still a work in progress, even with all the changes. Most of Dos Santos’s work lies in getting so many new pieces to fit together. Given the turnover, he doesn't enter the season with a clear idea of what approach will bring results. His experience as an assistant in MLS will serve him well, but no one expects miracles.
Luchi Gonzalez - FC Dallas
A team known for a strong academy and having the most homegrown players in MLS turned to a homegrown coach in the wake of Oscar Pareja’s departure. Gonzalez has never coached at the senior level, having most recently served as FC Dallas’s academy director. Taking the reins of FC Dallas will be a baptism by fire for the 38-year old.
Dallas slipped a bit last year, losing at home to the Timbers in the knockout round of the playoffs. Still, FC Dallas has a strong recent tradition of winning. Pareja secured his legacy by on-field success and a reputation for playing young players. At a time when no one else in MLS seemed willing to commit to player development, Pareja's Dallas showed that it was possible to bring along talent and win.
Gonzalez’s task is to maintain that winning standard while doubling down on youth. Academy products are all over FC Dallas’s roster. Limited offseason maneuvering means they’ll need to make big contributions this season. Everyone, from the players up to the head coach, will learn on the job.
More From Jason Davis:
- MLS, Liga MX, and North American club soccer
- Minnesota United builds more than a stadium
- The New England Revolution in transition
- Toronto and Cincinnati in the new era of MLS squad building
Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Whitecaps