[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Columbus got an early jump on the 2014 season Monday by announcing it has fired head coach Robert Warzycha and replaced him with former assistant Brian Bliss, its technical director, as interim coach.
Warzycha was relieved of his duties by Crew operator-investor Anthony Precourt over the weekend after the Crew lost, 1-0, at home to Seattle despite playing with a man advantage for most of the match. Bliss, 47, will take over a team that is eighth in the Eastern Conference at 8-13-5 yet still has a slim shot to make the playoffs.
“Sometimes in these situations a fresh perspective and a new voice are needed,” said Bliss in a statement. “I’m confident in our players and the talent on our roster. I know these guys have a lot of fight in them, and they have the desire to continue battling and finish strong. Our fans deserve to see the best out of this team, and I plan to do what’s necessary to make that happen.”
The announcement comes five weeks after Precourt’s purchase of the team and its stadium from Hunt Sports Group for a reported price of $68 million. At a press conference Monday, general manager Mark McCullers revealed that a decision not to retain Warzycha for the 2014 season had already been made prior to determining his tenure should end at this juncture. The disappointing loss to Seattle, the start of which was delayed more than an hour because of a lightning storm, didn’t play a major role, according to McCullers.
“I don't think I would hang it on a specific loss,” said McCullers. “I'm not sure that the result Saturday would have changed the decision we're announcing today. When it was determined that we were going to make a change and that we weren't going to renew or extend his option, we decided that now would be the time to go ahead and make that move.”
Despite his long service to the club, which began as a player in the 1996 startup of Major League Soccer, a segment of fans had become disgruntled with the team’s direction under Warzycha. An assistant coach since 2003, he took over after Sigi Schmid led the team to its only MLS Cup title in 2008.
Columbus won the Eastern Conference regular-season title and its third Supporters' Shield in 2009, but then began a slide that dropped it short of the playoffs last season. Warzycha’s last victory, a 2-0 defeat of Toronto Aug. 17, had tied him with the late Tom Fitzgerald for most wins, 70, by a Crew head coach. But that was the only time all season the Crew had won back-to-back games, and its next two outings were shutout defeats. Some fans would wave and throw pink slips when hearing his name during pregame introductions.
Assistant coach Mike Lapper was retained. Two other assistants, Ricardo Iribarren and Vojislav Stanisic, have been let go.
Bliss, a former U.S. international who briefly served as interim head coach of Kansas City in 2006 and was head coach of the A-League Connecticut Wolves in 1999, will continue as technical director.
The firing comes just two days before the Crew hosts conference rival Houston in yet another important match. If Bliss wants to alter the roster, he doesn’t have much time; the roster freeze date is Sept. 13. There are eight games left in the regular season.
“I think the initial reaction -- you hope -- is a positive one,” added Bliss. “I'm going to try to make it a positive one. Then you get everyone's attention to refocus on what the goal is. We still think there are some good parts to this team, even with a couple of the injuries that we've had. We still think there is some depth on the roster, some quality on the roster. Getting a few results down the road in these last few games is achievable. We can get ourselves on the right track.”