By J Hutcherson (Mar 14, 2019) US Soccer Players - Three MLS clubs decided to “part ways” with their coaches over the last few weeks, a euphemism for firing them. In most cases, that ends up with two resets for the club involved. From the coach that started the season, to the interim, and then to whoever takes over. Considering the situations that normally lead to that “parting of the ways” it’s tough to get those transitions right. It’s worth asking if that’s really a problem in MLS.
So far this season, we’ve seen enough examples of teams going from good to bad and back again week-to-week to suggest a trend. Whether or not it’s an alarming one depends on your take on the MLS version of parity. The league normally prides itself in the idea that any team can win, but at some point that suggests a league without a real understanding of quality. We may already be at that point in 2019.
Two of those teams “parting ways” with their head coach happened at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. FC Cincinnati might be impatient to show that they can be the latest MLS expansion team to compete in year one. New England is different, representing a long term issue for the league and a question on repeat concerning what happens in the older struggling markets. There are plenty of reasons for New England’s situation and a mid-May change in personnel may or may not make any difference.
It’s the MLS parity problem, with New England perhaps fully equipped for a not exactly surprising turnaround regardless of who happens to be in charge. That’s how MLS seems to work on the field these days. Any team in the league can be good enough over 90 minutes, just don’t expect any continuity from those performances. The idea that any team can win in this league was already a cliche sliding away from being a positive, now it’s an indication of a league in transition.
Major League Soccer’s commitment to rapid expansion has created an environment where there’s no clear concept of what the league should be right now. The league of choice is a league in flux. New teams require expanding the player pool, bringing in new coaches, and destabilizing what might have worked at other clubs. That’s what adding more creates, turning stability into a luxury item.
We already know that there’s no end in sight and no framework or guidelines for the expansion era. MLS doesn’t have to meet FIFA’s requirements for league size, national boundaries, or promotion and relegation. It’s up to a for profit single-entity business to decide when to settle on a stopping point. That’s not helping competitiveness or quality right now.
Instead, MLS pushes forward. Quality, attendance, TV ratings, an so on are all issues but the league chooses to carry them forward in a model that insists more clubs is better. They may be right, but we won’t know until they get there. Meanwhile, they have a league that is moving between an unconvincing parity and a push towards clubs needing to spend and adjust to compete. The message that model is sending is decidedly mixed.
MLS teams that spend are some of the ones in trouble. Others are competing at or near the top of the table, even if they’re also occasionally dropping points against overmatched opponents. As would undoubtedly be the case when adding two playoff spots, there are teams that seem ok that probably aren’t. Then there are the struggling squads without a major identifiable flaw wondering when their 4-0 win will happen. How are any of these teams supposed to reasonably manage expectations? The old sports idiom of winning answering everything still holds, but it barely applies to the good teams in MLS this season.
A look at MLS coaches in postgame media sessions tells that story. The coaches of teams with good records talk about leaving points on the field the same way struggling clubs do. Teams lose by multiple goals only for their coaches to defend their play. Here's the thing. All of them have a point. This isn't sporting delusion showing up in the aftermath of a deserved loss. It's wondering what really qualifies a team as good in this league right now.
What the expansion era has created is just that. it's becoming difficult in this league to say what good really means. The league compounds that every season with the introduction of yet another team. One way or the other, an answer to this issue will eventually merge. It's better for all involved if MLS was in control of it.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Manchester City, Liverpool, and the Premier League title
- Pep Guardiola and the problem with managing a super club
- The Champions League knockout
- 2019 is another test of MLS parity
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