By Ridge Mahoney
Asking which of the new coaches hired by MLS teams in the past few months will get off to the quickest start or last the longest really aren't the most pertinent questions regarding the futures of Robin Fraser, Aron Winter and Ben Olsen.
Their diverse backgrounds and personalities reflect why their new employers -- Chivas USA, Toronto FC and D.C. United, respectively -- hired them in the first place, and in those hires can be gleaned perhaps how much time they’ll be given to straighten things out. Those teams didn’t show much patience last year after
hiring Martin Vasquez, Preki and Curt Onalfo, respectively, though Vasquez lasted the season.
Of the three, Preki did the "best," though at 7-10-7 that was far from good enough to satisfy Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which as it turned out was also planning another hefty increase in ticket prices. So last September out went Preki and the man who hired him, director of soccer Mo Johnston, and for a fourth straight year TFC missed the playoffs.
After ex-assistant coach Nick Dasovic finished out the season, a coaching search led by consultant Juergen Klinsmann led TFC to Winter, a former Dutch international who played and coached in the Ajax system but has never been in charge of a first team in any league, let alone one as byzantine as MLS.
Of the new group -– and in this article we are not evaluating those men hired by expansion teams Vancouver (Teitur Thordarson) and Portland (John Spencer) – Olsen is by far the youngest at 33 (in May). He had only a few months of experience as an assistant coach prior to being hired interim head coach after D.C. dismissed
Onalfo and his 3-12-3 record.
Winter will be 43 next month, Fraser turned 44 in December, and while they are not young in years and have several seasons of seasoning as coaches, they are very new to this particular job.
A few years ago, Real Salt Lake took a chance on a young coach with very little experience, Jason Kreis (just 34 at the time), and during his tenure he’s won a league title and established a winning persona. That accomplishment came in his third season (2009) in charge: after a very rocky (6-15-9) record in 2007, RSL snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the 2008 campaign and got past the first round.
RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey believes Fraser, who left the team after serving as Kreis’ chief assistant for 3 1/2 seasons, will succeed if given the opportunity.
“You know, one thing I hope for is with all of these young coaches -- Robin, Ben Olsen with D.C., and whomever else might get hired in their first job – is those organizations give them some time and let them make some mistakes,” Lagerwey said. “Getting a team to be a serious contender in its first year with a new coach is very difficult to do. The expectations have to be realistic but we both know that doesn’t always happen.”
Expectations are very high in Toronto, which in four seasons since joining the league hasn’t reached the playoffs as expansion teams that followed it into MLS – San Jose (2008) and Seattle (2009) – broke through.
When he took TFC to Turkey 10 days ago for preseason camp, Winter was met by former Dutch teammate Ruud Gullit, whose own brief MLS coaching stint with the Galaxy in 2008 quickly went bad (6-8-5). If that’s an omen, it can’t be a good one.
Gullit blamed the unique, restricted ways of MLS for his struggles, yet he also refused to dig through DVDs and chase down player information and put in the long hours demanded by the league’s structure.
“As a coach, it’s pretty much on until your team gets pretty good,” says Fraser, who at RSL helped Kreis with
advance scouting of opponents and all elements of team preparation. “You are pretty much on 24/7 because there’s always something that needs to be done or could be done to make the team better, and that’s one of the things I learned from Jason; how hard you have to work to make your team good. He set a great example that way.”
Winter has the backing of Klinsmann, but it’s not the former German international who, as a consultant, will have to endure complaints from disgruntled fans if TFC stumbles on the field. There’s not a lot of patience left at BMO Field, period. The experience of former Revs’ assistant coach Paul Mariner is an important element to offset Winter’s lack of MLS acumen.
D.C. fans are also plenty disgruntled about their team along with its stadium issues, but Olsen gets some slack with his long history as a D.C. player and a few player moves – Dax McCarty, Josh Wolff, Charlie Davies (?) – that offer some hope. Unlike Winter, Olsen will be expected to make mistakes and continue learning the job he took on last year, yet still the four-time champion is under pressure to upgrade the lineup and rack up some wins. Olsen has the work rate; how quickly can he get up to speed?
Under Vasquez, Chivas USA plummeted to the bottom of the Western Conference and finished 8-18-4, second-worst in the league to D.C. United (6-20-4). On the basis of those records alone, the new head coaches are facing monumental renovations for which time is needed, but not necessarily granted.