By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor, Soccer America
With four teams being led by first-time head coaches and a whole new expansion scenario north of the border, where Mo Johnston will be assisted by a man 22 years his senior who brought him to Kansas City, one of the eternal verities of MLS crops up yet again:
Given the league's restrictions on salaries and player acquisitions, is it easier to start from scratch with an expansion team, or remake an existing squad? To this somber question has been added the corollary: And how will the Designated Player rule affect this dynamic.
Steve Morrow(FC Dallas), Curt Onalfo (Kansas City), Tom Soehn (D.C. United) and Preki (Chivas USA) have no head coaching experience yet all have seen both sides of team transformation.
In addition to the four debutants Frank Yallop took over the Galaxy in mid-season and has already changed more than half the 18-man regular roster. In Toronto, Johnston has a special set of rules to accommodate the league's first Canadian entry, and he started out with the same three allocations granted to Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA when they entered league two years ago.
Soehn played for the 1998 expansion Chicago Fire that won the double; Preki assisted Bob Bradley's remarkable remake of Chivas USA last season and also played for the short-lived Miami Fusion; Morrow assisted Colin Clarke, who was hired to replace Mike Jeffries and push Dallas into the MLS championship game, which he failed to do; and Onalfo watched Bruce Arena, his college coach, build D.C. United into the league's flagship franchise when the league launched in 1996.
"I think in a lot of ways it's easier with an expansion team," says United president and GM Kevin Payne. "We had to tear apart and rebuild our squad a few times because of the salary cap and other financial concerns.
"With the Designated Player rule you might see teams go back to the way a lot of teams did it in the league's early years: Have two or three highly paid players and fill out the rest of the roster as best you can, given the salary cap.
"Now, we didn't have any maximum-salary players last year and we won't again this year. That's how we've chosen to manage our resources. But other teams may choose to do it differently."
The Galaxy has at least two highly paid players in Landon Donovan ($900,000 in 2006) and David Beckham ($10 million). Central midfielder Pete Vagenas, who earned $125,000, spouted off recently as to Beckham's obscenely big paycheck. Resentment could indeed build, as Vagenas implied, but he also might simply be concerned as to holding his own spot.
Coach Frank Yallop has said he plans to use Beckham in the middle rather than on the right side of midfield, likes the idea of playing U.S. U-20 Nathan Sturgis in the holding role, and also drafted Josh Tudela of Indiana. "In my mind you can't have too many of those kinds of players," said Yallop. "We need players who can hold the ball."
Bradley's transformation of Chivas USA was ably assisted by a pair of big-money stars: Francisco Palencia ($1.36 million) and Juan Pablo Garcia ($624,260). Before he left, Bradley traded the Designated Player slot to Red Bull New York for Amado Guevara, and both Palencia and Garcia have moved to teams in Mexico. Yet Preki inherits a solid core of players and needs to stay the course, not try to match strides with its ultra-glamorous co-tenant.
"What we're excited about Beckham joining the Galaxy is taking the [Superclasico] trophy now with him on the field," says general manager Whit Haskel. "With him and Landon on the field, it will be very exciting."
Payne hired Soehn, who was Peter Nowak's assistant the past three seasons prior to Nowak joining Bradley's national team staff, to continue in the tradition first installed by Arena. D.C. leads the pack with four league titles; it last won the prize when Nowak turned an underachieving team into league champs in 2004.
"He values many of the qualities that our club values: dedication, hard work, doing things the right way, not taking shortcuts, competing every day, relentlessly striving to get better," said Payne. "That's what he's all about. He was a big part of our success when he was Peter's assistant and I think he's ready to be a head coach."
Morrow takes over a Dallas team already taking on a different look than the 2005 and 2006 versions that lost to lower-seeded Colorado in the playoffs. Defender Greg Vanney was traded to the Rapids, midfielders Ronnie O'Brien and Simo Valakari have moved on.
"I feel like I'd want to add a little bit to our midfield," says Morrow, who wants Ramon Nunez in the center of the field handling the ball, assuming his mindset is right.
"I don't think the blend, the mixture of our midfield players was great last year, and with the talent that I already have, I've got a lot to work with," said Morrow. "But I certainly want to add something in the middle of the field."
Dallas has been in discussions with former Dutch international Edgar Davids, who would certainly add a lot of many things: strength, experience, ferocity, and skill. He could also shield a relatively unproven central defense that could be comprised of any combination of Adrian Serioux, Alex Yi, Drew Moor and Clarence Goodson. Morrow, a central defender during his career in England that included a decade on the books at Arsenal, might also be shopping for an upgrade in that area and hinted he's looking for help on the outside.
Johnston never had a chance to remake the former MetroStars, with his dismissal merely a formality once the team was bought by Red Bull. He'll have ample resources at Toronto FC and the abysmal first seasons of Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA (nine wins combined) in 2005 as cautionary examples. He has several Canadian internationals and many proven MLS veterans but no standout star. And he has Bob Gansler, his coach on the 2000 championship Kansas City team.
"They're very, very well-heeled," says Johnston of the team's operator-investor, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, owner of the NHL Maple Leafs and the NBA Raptors. "They're a franchise that's very, very strong. The management behind our management is very, very strong. They're not single-minded, they look at every angle. They make decisions and they do it wisely."
Johnston has stated he doesn't plan to use the Designated Player option. At least not yet. By wise decisions are successful seasons made, regardless of the formula used.