[MLS] A revival of the Red Bulls propels Hans Backe squarely into the Coach of the Year picture, yet other candidates make this more than a one-horse race. Backe doesn’t have my vote for Coach of the Year. At least not yet.
1. Hans Backe (New York)
2. Bruce Arena (Los Angeles)
3. Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake)
4. Frank Yallop (San Jose)
5. Schellas Hyndman (FC Dallas)
It’s hard to insist that a team that won five games last year will disappoint if it doesn’t go deep in the playoffs, but having added Thierry Henry and (soon) Rafael Marquez to its roster after finishing the first half of its season at 8-5-2, expectations for New York are very high. Kudos to Backe for drafting rookie Tim Ream and bringing in midfielder Joel Lindpere and defender Roy Miller to good effect, but in a somewhat weak Eastern Conference, just making the playoffs isn’t really enough to anoint Backe as Coach of the Year.
That he’s done a very good job is without question. Yet with Juan Pablo Angel, Macoumba Kandji, Dane Richards, Carlos Mendes and other proven performers already in the house, Backe has also merely undone what had been badly done before.
Bruce Arena won the honor last year, and while revamping a poor team into a good one is no picnic, just as hard a task is retaining momentum and continuing the improvement. The Galaxy has run off atop the overall standings at 12-2-4 (40 points), and numerically at least, has already hit the threshold at which teams usually make the playoffs. Arena has incorporated three young Brazilians and rookie Michael Stephens into the lineup, and tightened an already imposing defense while offsetting the loss of Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle to World Cup duty.
Los Angeles has struggled at home in the past two games, rallying with a late goal to tie San Jose, 2-2, at Home Depot Center a week ago, and getting thrashed, 4-1, by second-division Puerto Rico Islanders in a Concacaf Champions’ League match Tuesday. Maybe this is just the MLS version of a market correction, but if the Galaxy comes anywhere close to 20 wins, which is certainly possible, The Bruce might be The Choice.
Another coach coming off a good season shouldn’t be dismissed. Real Salt Lake rode a strong playoff run to the 2009 title after it squeezed into the playoffs at 11-12-7; if RSL stays on the heels of the Galaxy, or somehow passes it to win the Western Conference, Jason Kreis can’t be overlooked.
Columbus coach Robert Warzycha took a lot of criticism last year for benching Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno for their first playoff game against RSL, and eventually losing the series, 4-2 on aggregate. If the Crew tops the conference and reaches MLS Cup, will Warzycha get much of the credit?
Three other coaches – Gary Smith, Frank Yallop and Schellas Hyndman -- have upgraded and/or revamped their teams efficiently.
Yallop’s second season in San Jose ended with just seven wins and near-zero momentum. As has been the case in the past, injuries to foreign players have impaired progress this year -- Eduardo and Andre Luiz are sidelined -- yet the Quakes are already within one of last year’s win total. Sparked by Bobby Convey and Chris Wondolowski and captain Ramiro Corrales, San Jose is a hard team to beat.
FC Dallas has only been beaten twice this season, and only the Galaxy can match that accomplishment. Like the Rapids, last year FCD fell just short of the playoffs. Hyndman has, like most of his counterparts in the Western Conference, infused a resilient – and underrated -- defense. He moved midfielder George John to the back line last year, and this spring scooped up veteran keeper Kevin Hartman and revived his career. He also has one of the league’s most dangerous attackers in David Ferreira and a potentially devastating forward line of Jeff Cunningham and newcomer Milton Rodriguez.
The Rapids nearly made the playoffs last year but their defense didn’t impress anybody. This season, Colorado is among the best defensive teams thanks to a couple of personnel changes but also the doctrines preached by Smith, whose messages of tenacity and accountability -- along with trades that landed Marvell Wynne and Jeff Larentowicz -- are paying off.