By J Hutcherson (Jan 19, 2021) US Soccer Players – MLS teams occasionally hire coaches with no direct experience with the league. That creates an easy opportunity for the most obvious of caveats. How will they adjust? Squad building, travel, the weather, and whatever else ends up on a list of differences. All of them can derail a coach new to how topflight soccer works in North America.
DC United and Inter Milan both named coaches on Monday with no prior experience in Major League Soccer. DC’s new coach Hernan Losada played his club soccer in Argentina and Belgium before coaching Beerschot in Antwerp. Inter Miami’s new coach Phil Neville played for Manchester United and Everton and coached England women’s team. Both are now responsible for clubs not at all happy with how they did in the Eastern Conference last season.
United finished 13th, missing the playoffs. They had already parted ways with club hero Ben Olsen, moving on from over a decade of having him in charge. Olsen was an oddity in MLS, keeping his job even when the club struggled and given time to play the team back into shape more than once. Normally, that kind of patience doesn’t exist. Especially when the team in question considers itself one of the league’s elite.
Inter may already talk about its status, but they need more than a season to make that claim. Making their debut in 2020, they took the last playoff space due to a quick conference realignment necessitated by the coronavirus. That got them an extra game and a 3-0 loss to fellow expansion club Nashville SC. Losing in the play-in round counts for about as much as a team wants it to, even an expansion team like Inter Miami. They decided it didn’t count enough, triggering an offseason rebuild centered around part-owner David Beckham taking more technical control. Chris Henderson is now the sporting director.
Looming over both clubs aren’t just their choices. It’s the overall situation. MLS hasn’t announced a start date for the 2021 regular season or what it will look like. The assumption is following the lead of the NHL and regionalizing while coming up with an answer for the Canadian teams and the border issues. That on its own could shift the Eastern Conference. Toronto responded better than Montreal to relocating for phase two of the 2020 restart, but both should wonder what would’ve happened with actual home games.
Using 2020 results to predict 2021 is silly on its surface. It means accounting for disruptions that aren’t replicable or predictable. Losing players to positive tests became its own normal, along with the league pressing ahead with games in some instances and not in others. The November international break cost LAFC the heart of its squad. They exited at the first opportunity. The pandemic did the same with a couple of Crew starters days before MLS Cup. They won the title.
There’s an argument that no MLS coach should’ve lost his job based on 2020 results. It was too scattershot, too unpredictable, and ultimately not fully representative of where clubs are up and down the table. Instead, enough clubs went ahead with changes to create a trend. DC was one of four teams to make coaching changes during the season. Greg Vanney resigned from Toronto in December and Inter Miami made its move earlier this month. The result is that five Eastern Conference teams have new coaches for 2021. Toronto’s Gerhard Struber and Atlanta’s Gabriel Heinze also have no MLS experience.
How much weight that carries is once again something in transition. There’s no path to normal for the league right now. Some rumors have MLS considering a late start, the better to eventually get there. Right now, coaches have to prepare for disruption, perhaps the only guarantee for 2021. That’s not MLS as normal, and it probably shouldn’t carry the same issues for coaches unfamiliar to its particular grind.
Based on last season’s moves, “probably” replaces “won’t.” We already know that it’s likely that a club somewhere will decide things have to change regardless of the reasonable excuses for under-performing. Atlanta and New York both made moves last season due to not doing as well as they hoped during the group stage of a bubble tournament at Disney World. That sentence does its job underlining how strange 2020 was in the league.
Not knowing what it’s like to take a club on a transcontinental road trip, dealing with time zones and fitness, and realizing that the old “it’s not my squad until I get multiple transfer windows of big money moves” excuse won’t work is part of life in MLS. Playing in front of empty stadiums with a regionalized schedule isn’t.
To some extent, that could turn into an adjustment period for some of these coaches. It’s certainly worth asking what they’d be adjusting to since the eventual return to normal would mean facing those logistical and competitive issues. The region isn’t getting smaller, the weather more temperate in the middle of summer, or the squads noticeably deeper and more expensive.
What Tata Martino did with Atlanta United is going to stand as the standard for a foreign coach quickly making all of those adjustments. He did his job at a level that surprised the league. We’re also going to assume it surprised his bosses since they had issues replicating it once he left. There’s no Martino template because what he did was exceptional even with the stacked roster Atlanta put together. We know how exceptional in retrospect.
That leaves these coaches facing interesting scenarios. the teams that they’re taking over have issues or the jobs wouldn’t have come open. The easiest answer anywhere else is the kind of spending that remains a rarity here. There’s no schedule or setup, creating greater uncertainty as they try to put together a plan.
How much patience any MLS team has is also worth asking. What 2020 showed is that all of the games count. That’s the simplest way forward for any organization, but MLS is currently going out of its way to make that extremely difficult. That’s when anything else can add to problems. That includes coaches trying to learn the league in real time without a clear scope. At least some of them will likely discover just how different MLS can be over a 2021 season where it’s going to be different for everybody.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- England’s FA announces a plan
- Chelsea can move past crisis
- Concacaf presses on with the Champions League
- Toronto resets without Greg Vanney
Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com