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A tale of two failures
by Ridge Mahoney, November 6th, 2007 7AM

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TAGS:  mls

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There's been nothing but stony silence from MLS headquarters regarding the recent carnival acts in New Jersey and Los Angeles, and for this Commissioner Don Garber and his fellow executives should be commended.

After all, what can be said about dysfunctional organizations in the league's two biggest -- and by many standards, most important -- markets? In the space of 24 hours, they've jettisoned the only two coaches with national-team experience who've won two league titles in their first three seasons. Bruce Arena lasted 16 months, Frank Yallop survived slightly longer, 17 months.

Yes, Red Bull New York is progressing, if slowly, toward the unveiling of a training facility and eventually, Red Bull Park.

It's true that the Galaxy led the league in attendance, shook the sporting and entertainment universes, and moved jillions of jerseys.

But as soccer organizations, they stunk up the joint. That stuff with coaches and players and games seems to get in the way. If the sport itself -- if promoting MLS and improving the product -- is too much bother, then why do they bother?

Less than three weeks ago, they played a match at Home Depot Center. Neither won, and now neither has a head coach.

GOIN' NORTH. Once an expansion franchise was awarded to San Jose, Yallop moved to the top of the list of prospective head coaches.

He started his coaching career with the Earthquakes as a head coach in January, 2001, and nine months later won an MLS Cup. He won another in 2003 before answering the call of his country to coach the Canadian national team.

In San Jose, caretaker general manager Alexi Lalas marked time until operator-investor Anschutz Entertainment Group decided where to dump its inherited franchise. He moved to the then-MetroStars and from thence to the Galaxy when Red Bull, Inc., bought the Metros from AEG.

Lalas hired Yallop to replace Steve Sampson at the Galaxy. But Yallop couldn't rehabilitate the floundering Galaxy sufficiently to qualify for the 2006 playoffs and was consumed by the media and celebrity firestorm this year that swept through Southern California when David Beckham arrived.

By all accounts, Beckham the player is amiable, honest, hard-working. A true professional. But Beckham the icon is a circus without a tent, a madding crowd of advisers and handlers and representatives doling out his magical-ness dollop by dollop. And celebrity goes a long way in L.A. and at AEG.

Three days before the Galaxy played New York at Home Depot Center Oct. 18, AEG president Tim Lieweke met with executives of the Los Angeles Times.

According to a Times source, at that meeting, Lieweke told the newspaper's execs that David Beckham would be playing against New York. (He hadn't played since injuring his knee in late August, a week after turning out for the Galaxy one day after playing for England against Germany.)

Two days later, Coach Yallop first dropped hints that Beckham "might" be available. Indeed he was. He played the last 23 minutes of a 1-1 tie (coincidentally aired on ESPN2) that left the Galaxy needing a win in Chicago to qualify for the playoffs in the final game of the season, a win it didn't get.

Sources within the Galaxy organization refute rumors that Leiweke and Lalas were dictating trades and other personnel decisions to Yallop, aside from pressure to play Beckham. And remember, when Yallop took over the Galaxy shortly before the 2006 World Cup, he whipped through more than a dozen player changes before the end of the season.

In a few cases Yallop's decisions for 2007 can be questioned, such as his proclamation in preseason that Alan Gordon would produce playing center forward in the 4-3-3 formation Yallop envisioned.

Injuries forced Gordon to miss most of the first half of the season. By the time he got healthy, a sputtering attack had prompted Yallop to sign Honduran Carlos Pavon and the much-traveled Edson Buddle.

Each of them scored some goals but seldom frightened opponents. Yallop already sent rookie striker Robbie Findley and second-year defender/midfielder Nathan Sturgis to Real Salt Lake for veteran Chris Klein, who assumed the right-back slot and leadership role in place of the injured Chris Albright.

An earlier trade, that of defender Ugo Ihemelu and forward Herculez Gomez to Colorado in exchange for keeper Joe Cannon, also raised a few eyebrows but after a few shaky showings early in the season, Cannon's solid play in the SuperLiga and MLS contributed greatly to what success the Galaxy did accomplish.

Yallop certainly didn't get everything right in L.A. But he did get out.

ARENA BULL. This is what Bruce Arena said in July, 2006, after taking the Red Bull job:

"If I told you we were going to compete for the MLS Cup right away, who would believe that?"

One can only surmise that managing director Mark de Grandpre believed it, for it was the failure to reach MLS Cup in Arena's first full season in charge that de Grandpre cited as the primary reason the decision was made they part ways after meeting Monday morning.

By the time the Red Bulls played the Galaxy at HDC, their playoff berth had been assured. Granted, they actually clinched through the ineptitude of other teams, but getting in is the important thing.

Standing outside the Red Bulls locker room, a very drained Arena answered questions.

"Obviously, we're a much improved team from 14 months ago or whatever it is," he said. "Developing a team in this league takes some time. We've changed our roster considerably. The best teams in the league are the ones that have been put together over a longer period of time. Patience is important."

In his first MLS stint, Arena guided D.C. United to the league's first two crowns, in 1996 and 1997, and after finishing runner-up in 1998 took charge of the U.S. national team through the 2006 World Cup.

For the last month or so of the 2007 regular season with the Red Bulls, Arena didn't look like a man being tendered a lot of patience, or time. He juggled inconsistent defending; a sputtering attack heavily dependent on rookie Dane Richards, left back Dave van den Bergh, and striker Juan Pablo Angel; the recurring injury problems of Claudio Reyna; and, according to at least two sources, friction within his coaching staff.

Maybe the heavy-handed bluster of De Grandpre, whose knowledge of the game hovers just above zero, finally tipped him over the edge.

During a conference call announcing Arena's departure, de Grandpre admitted that building a successful team in MLS takes time but his standards are high.

"As I said earlier, our vision is to be competing for an MLS Cup Championship year in and year out and to become a significant preeminent sports franchise in the North American market," he said. "It's going to take some time, but we expect to win quickly."

Wasn't it Arena who not so long ago ridiculed the superclub ambitions espoused by a certain MLS rival?

 



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