By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 7, 2021) US Soccer Players – Perhaps no season in MLS history provided a ruder introduction to the league for new coaches than 2020. A typical preseason led directly into two games before a two-month layoff with no games and effectively no training. The return to play, first in Orlando at MLS Is Back, then in a truncated regular season that featured few fans and extra travel burdens, didn’t give coaches a chance to learn their teams or work through new plans.
Then the playoffs arrived with its own quirks. Was it fair to judge a first-year head coach on whether they made the playoffs in the pandemic season? Did that change once they got there considering the various complications the virus created?
Fair or not, keeping a coaching job depends on performance and the type of soccer their teams play, even in ridiculous circumstances. Inter Miami swapped coaches after making the playoffs in its expansion season. With Phil Neville now in charge, year two is a quick restart for the club. 2021 might not be as rough a season as 2020 to take the helm of an MLS team, but it won’t be normal, either.
The delayed start to training camp and the season leave players behind the curve for fitness and form. The lingering problem of COVID-19 means canceled preseason matches and scuttled training sessions. The economic impact of 2020, combined with the labor uncertainty and multiplied by international travel restrictions, made doing transfer business tricky. For the freshman class of MLS coaches, all of this raises the level of difficulty.
Neville’s task in Miami is one of the more intriguing in the bunch. There’s no book on Neville in the club game, with his sole head coaching experience coming as the boss of the England women’s national team. The former Manchester United and Everton defender did well with the Lionesses, reaching a World Cup semifinal in 2019. It’s unclear what ideas he’ll bring with him to Major League Soccer.
Miami’s roster overhaul following what was internally determined to be a less-than-acceptable inaugural campaign has wrinkled some brows around the league. Beckham dug into his phonebook and pulled out a pair of notable names from his native England to augment a group that already includes veterans Blaise Matuidi and Gonzalo Higuain.
Bringing in Ryan Shawcross to play in the center of the defense and Kieran Gibbs to man one of the fullback positions certainly adds experience to Miami. How the pair will handle the rigors of MLS is the question. This is a physical league that plays plenty of games during the summer.
All told, Inter swapped out 11 positions on its roster. That much change tempts a slow start, even without a new head coach. As an added bit of drama Inter doesn’t need, the club now must classify Matuidi as a Designated Player after signing him as a TAM acquisition in 2020. That means Miami has four DPs on the roster with Matiudi, Gonzalo Higuain, Rodolfo Pizarro, and midfielder Matias Pellegrini. They’re only allowed three and must get there before next week’s roster compliance deadline.
Inter Miami may have issues, but there’s not as much weighty expectation. That falls squarely on Gabriel Heinze in Atlanta. Though United’s history is short by most standards, Atlanta does have an MLS Cup title to its name and a demanding, sizable fanbase. Heinze arrives looking to reestablish the gritty, swashbuckling identity that existed while Gerardo “Tata” Martino was in charge during the club’s first two years.
New additions in the midfield will help Atlanta adjust to Heinze’s demanding high press style of play. The early returns are encouraging. Heinze’s first competitive match in charge of United came on Tuesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League with a 1-0 win in Costa Rica over Alajuelense.
Atlanta’s entry into the Champions League this season is a quirk of the pandemic. Because US Soccer canceled the Open Cup in 2020, the Federation handed Atlanta the Champions League berth for 2021 that goes to the previous season’s Open Cup winner.
Heinze’s new look Atlanta team did it the hard way in Costa Rica. Brad Guzan committed a foul on a goal-scoring opportunity and saw red before halftime. Playing with 10-men and relying on an unproven 18-year-old goalkeeper named Rocco Rios Novo, Atlanta left Alajuela with a 1-0 victory thanks to a penalty awarded for a handball that struck the defender’s face, not his hand.
It would be foolish to judge Heinze and Atlanta on such a small sample size. Regardless, a win along with the return of Josef Martinez as a second-half substitute are positive steps. The performances of Anton Walkes and Miles Robinson, in particular, stood out as reasons to be excited about this season.
Three more coaches are debuting in MLS this season: Hernan Losada with DC United, Josh Wolff in Austin, and Wilfried Nancy for CF Montreal.
Losada, like Heinze, intends to play an energetic pressing style. On Tuesday, Losada told reporters that his team isn’t fit enough to play a full match at his preferred pace. United is dealing with a rash of injury problems, including long-term absences for both Steve Birnbaum and Bill Hamid. That suggests a tough start to the season.
Wolff and Nancy are both first-time head coaches in the professional ranks. Wolff should get the benefit of the doubt for most of the season as Austin builds its identity on the field.
Austin spent just enough money on a set of intriguing signings for expectations to be hopeful, but not unrealistic. Enthusiasm for the team and the new stadium should sprinkle Austin’s first season with enough pixie dust to keep everyone happy.
Nancy’s challenge is to follow a playing legend into the hot seat at a club with a history of coaching changes. Nancy worked his way up through the Montreal system and earned his chance to manage its senior team. The nature of his arrival after Thierry Henry’s sudden resignation doesn’t make his job easy. Adding to that are Canada’s quarantine regulations that have Montreal starting the season 1,600 miles away in Fort Lauderdale.
2021 isn’t 2020, but it’s also not a return to normal for any club in this league. That only adds to the pressure for new coaches trying to show that their clubs made the right choice.
More From Jason Davis:
- NYCFC will ask a lot of its midfield
- MLS in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League
- Preview: Northern Ireland vs USMNT
- The underdogs in the Western Conference
Photo courtesy of Atlanta United