By Ridge Mahoney
He was hired with the big picture in mind, but now Tom Soehn goes back to the 24/7 headache of head coaching in which any day could come disaster.
That’s a pessimistic, even fatalistic, viewpoint of course, yet the haunted, tortured demeanor that Soehn wore during his final months in charge of D.C. United bespoke of the pressure he felt as the 2009 season unraveled without a playoff appearance, just as had occurred the previous year.
In his first season, a first-round exit from the playoffs after topping the Eastern Conference with a 16-7-7 record soured a portion of the fan base, and discontent grew as United posted an 11-15-4 mark in 2008 despite winning the U.S. Open Cup. The following year, United won fewer games but accumulated more points: at 9-8-13, it finished in a three-way tie for the final playoff spot with 40 points, and lost out to eventual champion Real Salt Lake via tiebreakers.
When D.C. United dallied regarding a contract extension, Soehn removed himself from the process, and in January, 2010, took a role as director of soccer operations with Vancouver, which still had a season of second-division soccer ahead before it could join MLS. Whether or not team management has also hired him as a backup plan in case a coaching change was needed, that’s the job he has now, at least temporarily.
The Soehn Era starts Wednesday night at Home Depot Center against Chivas USA, which is in its own makeover mode. After a six-win season, management cut loose one former MLS defender, Martin Vasquez, and replaced him with another, the urbane and polished Robin Fraser, who when hired in January mentioned that converting a bad team into a good one is a 24/7 commitment until considerable progress is made.
Once the shock of Teitur Thordarson’s dismissal wears off, Soehn and the Whitecaps can prove that an 11-game winless run isn’t truly what they are, and rather than a bad team, Vancouver is just off to a bad start. There are some prized pieces to work with: forward Eric Hassli is a handful, as is winger Davide Chiumiento, and if defender Alain Rochat could be fitted into the same position game after game he might bring some stability to a rickety back line.
Soehn could do with some luck regarding injuries, as defender Jay DeMerit, goalkeeper Joe Cannon, midfielder John Thorrington, and forward Atiba Harris – all probable starters – have missed most of the season. When Thordarson’s dismissal was announced, team captain DeMerit remarked that despite the poor record, Thordarson hadn’t “lost the locker room,” declaring the players hadn’t tuned out the man in charge.
Vancouver tried to cut a new course when it moved up to MLS by retaining Thordarson, hired in December, 2007, as its head coach. When they made the jump, Toronto FC, Seattle and Portland all reassigned their head coaches to different positions, and hired other men to run the ship. Train-wreck Toronto has changed coaches several times since then, Sigi Schmid is on the hot seat in Year 3 with Seattle, and John Spencer has so far utterly charmed the Rose City. We’ll have to see what happens when Montreal graduates next year.
Thordarson won the USL title in 2008 and reached the final again in 2009, so he had a track record of success in North America. He consulted with Soehn and team officials regarding major decisions: the signing of DeMerit, the selection of 17-year-old Omar Salgado with the No. 1 SuperDraft pick, the choices made in the Expansion Draft.
Whatever role he played in the long-term future of the team, Soehn is now in charge of the here and now. He has experience as a professional indoor player and a long stint as an assistant coach in Chicago as well as his stint at D.C. United to draw upon, but in the relatively short history of MLS, no head coach has performed better the second time around.
He’ll do well enough to stabilize the squad and get it moving in the right direction as the Whitecaps prepare their move to a renovated B.C. Place in September. In the short term -- as coaches juggle their rosters to account for Gold Cup absences – after Chivas USA, Vancouver moves on to Salt Lake City, where RSL will be anxious to make amends after losing its first home league game since 2009. Then the ‘Caps head to Seattle for the first MLS renewal of a cross-border rivalry that dates back to the North American Soccer League days.
That rough run should reveal how much difference Soehn can make, and whether the season can be salvaged or it’s time to start thinking about the next one.