Not so long ago, Major League Soccer appeared to be a “closed shop” when it came to head coaching hires.
In the early years of this decade, playing experience in the league looked to be not merely one criteria for coaching hires but the dominant one, as the likes of Jason Kreis, Ben Olsen, Jay Heaps, Carl Robinson, Mike Petke and Pablo Mastroeni were fast-tracked from influential players to head coaches, even with scant resumes in their new line of work.
Even for clubs who put a heavier weight on coaching experience, the list of viable candidates appeared quite short, with old hands like Sigi Schmid, Dom Kinnear, Curt Onalfo and Frank Yallop given multiple opportunities.
MLS’s unique quirks and intricacies made it so distinct from other leagues, according to the conventional wisdom at that time, that outsiders needed years just to adapt, much less thrive – as was seemingly proven by the low numbers of, and short leashes for, foreign coaching hands.
The picture has changed dramatically as 2020 looms and the league prepares to celebrate a quarter-century of existence.
As Graham Ruthven wrote for The Guardian this week on the occasion of the Montreal Impact’s buzzy hiring of Thierry Henry as their new coach, “This is a league that’s starting to earn itself a reputation as a proving ground for young managers. Not so long ago, MLS struggled to attract high-caliber coaches.”
As much as increased spending on salaries and transfer fees has prompted a marked rise in the quality and reputation of star players in MLS, a new crop of big-name managers may be just as influential on the league’s progress.
Some arrive looking for new challenges; others seek to refurbish reputations dinged by setbacks elsewhere. Most bring dramatically deeper and more diverse outlooks and skillsets, and all serve to elevate the level of North American coaching to one extent or another.
Tata Martino arrived in Atlanta with Argentina and FC Barcelona on his resume. Patrick Vieira carried a world-class playing background and cultured philosophy of play to New York City FC, and set a once-woeful expansion side on the upward trajectory that they still maintain today. His replacement, Domenec Torrent, left behind a longstanding role as Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man to try his hand in the United States, and mostly thrived.
Matias Almeyda hit San Jose as Concacaf’s reigning Coach of the Year and CCL champion, and oversaw one of the most dramatic year-over-year improvements in league history. Guillermo Barros Schelotto left Boca Juniors to return to the league he graced as an MLS Cup champ in Columbus, and steered a proud LA Galaxy franchise back to the postseason they once regarded as their birthright.
And the list goes on: Frank de Boer, Adrian Heath, Henry’s Impact predecessor Remi Garde. Even those regarded as failures, like Owen Coyle, Mikael Stahre and Anthony Hudson, underline the increasingly global purview of the league’s approach to coaches, and correspondingly, the global game’s evolving regard in response. The names being batted around in connection to expansion newcomers Inter Miami are even more head-turning.
A key factor in all this: Just as the perception and appeal of MLS to top players is shifting from something to the effect of “a good place to end your career” to “a fast track and shop window to the world’s elite leagues,” a similar path has materialized for coaches.
Thus Martino parlayed his MLS Cup-winning work in ATL into the Mexican national team’s No. 1 spot, quite possibly the biggest job in the hemisphere. Vieira leaped from the blue half of New York to a promising gig in Ligue 1. Oscar Pareja built FC Dallas into a Homegrown-powered force to be reckoned with and got a shot in Liga MX with Club Tijuana. Jesse Marsch earned the trust of the Red Bull global empire with his work at RBNY and is now leading RB Salzburg, including on perhaps the world’s biggest stage, UEFA Champions League.
The upshot: Prosper in MLS, and the soccer world will take notice. And that’s surely a tempting lure for coaches and players alike.