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How playoff drama could rock MLS coaching ranks
by Ridge Mahoney, November 16th, 2009 7AM

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[MLS] If sources monitoring the Chicago situation are right, Denis Hamlett will soon join Preki in the unemployment line. Maybe if the Fire had reached the final, majority owner Andrew Hautpman would have been reluctant to cut him loose, but since the Fire fell agonizingly short, losing on penalty kicks, 5-4, after a 120-minute goalless slugfest with RSL Saturday night at Toyota Park, Hamlett doesn't have enough traction, it seems, to keep his job. Hauptman wants to do things his way.

Hamlett won't be the only one departing. Chris Rolfe, who went out with more of a whimper than a bang, is bound for Denmark, Brandon Prideaux is retiring, and the chance Cuauhtemoc Blanco returns is slim. Defender Wilman Conde might also be looking elsewhere, a lot of teams are monitoring Marco Pappa, and discussions regarding the future of Brian McBride aren't going so well.

In the last coaching search, Chicago and Houston assistant coach John Spencer seemed bound for a deal but couldn't agree on compensation, so the Fire instead hired longtime assistant Hamlett. He got the team to the conference final last year, and lost to Columbus; this year, with homefield advantage, it shut out RSL despite fielding a back line that lost Bakary Soumare in midseason following a locker-room argument with Hamlett and didn't have Gonzalo Segares and Conde for most of the playoffs.

There will be plenty going on this week in Seattle during the run-up to MLS Cup that will have nothing to do with the game. The Board of Governors will meet, and supposedly talks will be held between MLS and the players' union regarding a new collective bargaining agreement. And coaches will be interviewed.

No formal discussions have yet been held between Toronto FC and its candidates. Those talks will take place in Seattle. TFC has missed the playoffs three straight years and has no more wiggle room; Preki failed to get past the first round with Chivas USA but can argue, rightly, team management in Guadalajara nixed player moves and dictated he use players from Mexico. One source said a deal with former U.S. international Martin Vazquez may be already done and no other candidates have been linked to the position, while Preki's future could be in Toronto.

Toronto FC Manager and Director of Soccer Mo Johnston and Preki are both headstrong, yet both are driven to win. Their relationship might be somewhat stormy, but they not only played together at Kansas City, they go back a decade further to the days they played at Everton, and both have good contacts within MLS as well as in Europe.

Preki might also draw interest from other clubs, and the U.S. national team; Bob Bradley hired Preki as his assistant for Chivas USA, but Bradley might instead choose a former player, say Jesse Marsch or Chris Armas, if he decides to add to his staff for the World Cup runup.

RSL blew into Chi-town a few days early and once the whistle blew, played enough slick possession soccer to mute the crowd for much of the match. RSL outplayed the Fire, not by a lot, but enough, and also out-fouled the Fire, 23-8, to preserve its playoff run by the slimmest of margins. Fire keeper Jon Busch rescued his team with a few excellent saves but couldn't stop any in the shootout; counterpart Nick Rimando, whose sensational flying save denied Pappa's blast from outside the penalty area, fended off three Fire penalty-kick attempts before last-second sub Ned Grabavoy drilled the ball off Busch's glove into the net.

The wonders that can be worked with the right men in charge were in sharp evidence Friday night at Home Depot Center, where Houston nearly knocked off the Galaxy but tired badly in overtime and lost, 2-0, after losing a goal to a pushing foul in the penalty area and hitting the crossbar. Los Angeles scored on a goalmouth scramble following a David Beckham free kick and from the penalty spot (by Landon Donovan) after a foul on substitute Alan Gordon. Defender Gregg Berhalter, one of numerous changes to the team made by Bruce Arena, poked the ball into the net for the first goal.

Teams looking for coaches, beware: playoff games, and thus entire seasons, in MLS often swing one way or the other by luck, not performances of players and those who prepare them. In goalless regulation periods, the Fire and Dynamo both hit the crossbar, and eventually lost.

Since moving to Houston prior to the 2006 season, Coach Dominic Kinnear has signed two new deals. The Dynamo tied the Galaxy on points during the regular season and actually won more games, but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker and thus the homefield advantage when both teams advanced. In an even game, the Galaxy got the breaks and thus the win.

The transformation of the Galaxy from an eight-win team in 2008 into an MLS Cup finalist earned Arena honors as Coach of the Year, and reminded teams looking for coaches - D.C. United, Toronto FC, Chivas USA, New York, and presumably Chicago - the bar is being moved higher and higher each year, as more teams come into the league and the playoff field remains at eight.

In the D.C. coaching chase, latest word is that Richie Williams may have taken the lead against Curt Onalfo. New York is searching for a Sporting Director to replace Jeff Agoos, who will be offered a different post in the organization, and has been aggressively pursuing MLS executive Nelson Rodriguez, who formerly worked for the MetroStars but isn't being held responsible.

Getting back to Hamlett, Hauptman may hold him responsible - because of the Soumare incident or a shot off the crossbar or not signing Nick Rimando or any other reason - for another stumble short of MLS Cup, and act accordingly. In this respect, MLS - even with playoffs -- is like any other league; coaches take the fall.

 



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