By Paul Gardner
Is it possible -- after all these years -- that foreign-born coaches in U.S. pro leagues still can see no further than the end of their ethnic noses? Can it be that, deep down, they really have faith only in their countrymen? You bet it can.
When I say “all these years” -- let me date that back to the beginning of the modern era in North American soccer, to 1967 when well-financed pro leagues began operating. Forty-five years, then.
Back in those days, it was taken for granted that the ethnic affiliation was paramount. When you appointed a Brit coach, he would immediately import a bunch of Brit players. Didn’t he ever. In 1967 the National Professional Soccer League started creating teams. Welshman Phil Woosnam had 10 Brits on the Atlanta Chiefs roster. Elsewhere, Dutch coach Co Prins at the Pittsburgh Phantoms had six Dutch men; Yugoslav Aleksandar Obradovic had five Yugoslavs on the Oakland Clippers; while another Yugoslav, George Mihaljevic, had seven of his countrymen on the St. Louis Stars; Argentine Hector Marinaro brought five Argentines to the Toronto Falcons.
Things are less blatant these days, but ethnic ties still loom large. Let us take the case of Vancouver coach Martin Rennie, a Scot. He took over the Whitecaps this year, and quickly added Paul Ritchie as his assistant -- another Scot. Also an assistant is another Brit, Welshman Carl Robinson. No, the Whitecaps roster is not bristling with Brits -- but three players signed this year tell the tale. All three are aged 32-plus veterans ... of British soccer. Two Scots -- Kenny Miller and Barry Robson (who is a Designated Player), and Englishman Andy O’Brien. Evidently all three are highly valued by Rennie.
One might wonder why. Having seen most of Vancouver’s games this year -- on television -- I’d be hard put to remember anything memorable done by any one of that trio. Miller, a goalscorer, has looked like a player hopelessly out of form. Watching him this weekend, playing for Scotland, did nothing to change that impression. His record so far for Vancouver is one goal in seven games.
The Scottish connection was also seen in Portland where former coach John Spencer, a Scot, brought in fellow Scot Kris Boyd as a Designated Player. A goalscorer who has so far scored seven times in 25 games for the Timbers. Neither particularly good nor bad, but not good enough for interim coach Gavin Wilkinson (he replaced Spencer in July), who has been leaving Boyd out of the starting lineup.
One might further wonder whether Spencer and Rennie were paying attention. Were they not aware of the fiasco created by fellow Scot Mo Johnston in Toronto? Could they not see that Mo’s insistence on bringing in Brits to play (among them, Carl Robinson), and then to coach, brought on a disaster from which the club has yet to recover?
In short, the ethnic propensity, which tries to turn the American soccer scene into another Scotland -- or Yugoslavia or Italy or Brazil -- has a unrewarding history. That ought to be known by Rennie, who is surely an intelligent man. But it’s not just ethnic thinking, of course. It is more, I think, Rennie’s devotion to a certain style of soccer. To the Scottish style, if you like, certainly the workmanlike Brit style. Fair enough -- but to make it work he’ll have to fly in the face of decades of negative experience.
I’ve listened to quite a few of Rennie’s post-game and sideline interviews, and have found them articulate and level-headed, better than most such talks. But he evidently finds it difficult to shed the constricting shackles of that ethnic/stylistic thinking. Where he comes from, midfielders are terriers. They get stuck in.
Apparently contradicting that approach is the presence on the Vancouver roster – surprisingly -- of a Brazilian midfielder, Tiago Ulisses. But Rennie quickly obliterates any thought that he might be opting for creativity, when he describes Ulisses as “a tough tackler.” Merely a Brit type player, then -- but with the bonus that he “can keep possession.”
Anyway, why would Rennie need another tough-tackling midfielder when he already has the menacing Gershon Kofie, who has so far this season racked up 50 fouls and 7 yellow cards, and occupies 8th place in the league’s top-foulers table?
Even so ... there is another Brazilian on Rennie’s roster, a very different type of player: Camilo Sanvezzo. A young player (he’s 24) with Brazilian attacking skills in abundance. But Camilo has found it difficult to command a starting spot on Rennie’s team. He has started 15 of 23 games, but has played the full 90 minutes only three times as he has been subbed off in 12 games. At the beginning of the season he had a run of 9 consecutive starts. Of the 18 games since then, he has started only 7, playing the full 90 only once. This curiously erratic use of Camilo does not suggest that he is one of Rennie’s favorite players.
Maybe Rennie considers Camilo’s four goals and five assists not good enough. And maybe Rennie is right to expect more ... but that remark about Ulisses cannot be ignored. If Rennie’s idea of a good Brazilian player is a tough tackler, then Camilo is never going to satisfy him.
History -- taking in the 18 years of the NPSL and the North American Soccer League -- speaks harshly about the ability of Brit coaches to impose their style on this country's pro leagues. If Rennie fails to see that, he might want to listen to another Scot, ManU’s legendary Alex Ferguson, who had this to say this past weekend on the matter of recruiting players:
“The South Americans love playing football, it's just in their blood. The three Brazilians -- Anderson, Rafael and Fabio -- love it and are first to training every morning. It's a breath of fresh air. Antonio Valencia is as tough as nails with great discipline about him. Chicharito has a fantastic attitude to playing and everything else. It's really good. Our scouting there has increased. We've got an operative in Mexico, two in Brazil and four South American scouts now. We've done very well in Central and South America in the last two or three years.”
Words -- advice, even -- from the master himself. And this is decidedly not a call for recruiting along ethnic lines. It sounds much more like an appeal for style, and it is not his native Scottish, of even Brit, style that he is talking about.
It would be a shame to see Vancouver, with its tremendous fan base, led down the same dead end into which Mo Johnston took the equally fervently backed Toronto FC.