MLS: Finding the right head coach

Men like Zambrano and Clavijo have mixed results

They came to the United States from different countries and traveled very different paths to MLS, yet in Fernando Clavijo and Octavio Zambrano the Revs and the Metros, respectively, may have found a type of coach who can succeed in MLS.

They are not from the same mold as another type of MLS coach. The savvy, native-born products like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley have not succeeded solely through a mystical affinity with the American player. It is not their mastery of a made-in-the-USA Ouija board that motivates players and dictates winning tactics.

Arena and Bradley won games and titles by carefully analyzing and interpreting the game itself and then selecting, training and fielding the players most capable of performing their vision of it.

Between them, Arena and Bradley have won three of four MLS titles, and another native American, Glenn Myernick, reached the final in 1997. (Dave Dir hasn't reached a final, yet is the only MLS head coach to keep his job since the league's inception.)

The other three men to coach a team in an MLS Cup are cut from a different cloth, the same fabric of Clavijo and Zambrano.

Sigi Schmid and Thomas Rongen and Lothar Osiander came to this country early in their lives. Schmid arrived as a boy; Rongen and Osiander as young men. During the process of assimilation into American culture as they played and studied the world's game, they found ways to win.

Osiander played for an NCAA championship team at the University of San Francisco, and won U.S. Open Cup titles with his club team, the Greek-Americans. He reached the MLS final in the league's first year, but a slow start in 1997 prompted the Galaxy to fire him and replace him with Zambrano.

Rongen played in the NASL for six seasons, which is the best playing pedigree of any current MLS coach, with the exception of Clavijo. Rongen won an ASL title ù admittedly not a monumental achievement ù a decade prior to D.C. United's victory last month in MLS Cup '99. In previous MLS stints, he'd won Coach of the Year honors in Tampa, then was hounded out of New England.

Schmid came to MLS last spring without prior league experience, yet he'd won three NCAA titles at UCLA. In his first year as an MLS head coach, he took over the Galaxy after Zambrano was fired and led L.A. to the championship game.

Clavijo, a native of Uruguay, and Zambrano, born in Ecuador, both came to this country as young men and have lived here for nearly half their lives. Clavijo played more than a decade of pro soccer indoors and outdoors, Zambrano turned to coaching in his early 20s.

Neither will inherit a team teeming with talented players, as did Rongen and Schmid. Neither will have the chance to build from scratch, as did Osiander in his first go-round.

Neither has an easy job. Others born in foreign countries who have called the U.S. home for many years failed in MLS, and while their circumstances are unique, the peculiar workings of the U.S. league played a vital role in their downfalls.

Those who have gone before

Brian Quinn, Timo Liekoski, John Kowalski, Laurie Calloway, Ron Newman and Alfonso Mondelo. All came here from foreign countries, and spent years in the American soccer culture prior to taking their MLS jobs.

In each case, some vagary of the league's operation, such as management interference clashing with its single-entity structure or ongoing headaches with national-team commitments, paved their way out.

Metros general manager Charlie Stillitano said one of the deciding factors between the two men was that Zambrano had been a head coach in MLS, and Kraft Soccer Properties director Sunil Gulati cited Clavijo's familiarity with MLS as a crucial element.

Quinn came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1981, and like Clavijo, played more than a decade of pro soccer before becoming a coach. He fell from grace by losing too many games, yet wasn't fired until General Manager Lynne Meterparel ù promoted from her Revolution ticket-selling job when Kraft Soccer Properties assumed control of the team ù took a liking to Osiander.

Quinn's predecessor, Calloway, played in the NASL after a long playing career in England and turned to full-time coaching as the league sank. He lost control of the Clash ship early partially through his failure to handle Eric Wynalda.

Several coaches have run afoul of hotshot U.S. players performing poorly for their MLS teams. Calloway had the misfortune of coaching during a time when the U.S. player pool was so thin a core of players were guaranteed national team call-ups, no matter how poor their club form.

Liekoski, a native of Finland, had worked as a U.S. Soccer staff coach prior to being named the first Crew head coach. He played college soccer at Hartwick. With the Crew at 6-16, he got his pink slip courtesy of Tim Connolly, an employee of the Hunt Sports Group who'd been named to oversee soccer operations despite no experience in the sport. Wrong boss, maybe, but the right move.

Mondelo came to the U.S. in 1981 from Spain after an injury ended his playing career. He lasted less than a full season with the Metros, and was axed despite having dragged the team to a playoff berth. His sin? Bora was available, and Stillitano had to have him!

Kowalski, like Liekoski, had worked as a U.S. staff coach. The Polish native played college soccer at the University of New Haven and coached in the MISL and ASL. After a 17-15 season in 1997, he got the boot early in the 1998 season with the Mutiny staggering under a 3-12 record.

No coach has a deeper background in America than that of Newman, who came to this country more than 30 years ago. He started strongly but eventually lost his steam in Kansas City.

The jury is still out on Miami's Ivo Wortmann. The native Brazilian had a decent first season with the Fusion, but the team was wracked with turmoil this year following a rift with, and the eventual departure of, Carlos Valderrama. Dealing with those foreign superstars is yet another MLS trap.

MLS teams will watch Zambrano and Clavijo closely. Will more head coaches come from the assistant coaching ranks if they succeed, or will more teams take chances on college winners like Schmid if they stumble? And how many more seasons will it take for former MLS players to infiltrate the coaching ranks?

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney

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