By Paul Gardner
New readers begin here: When the MetroStars were around, I anagrammed them into the RotMasters. Rots for short. A rather appropriate alias, it turned out, as the team stumbled and bumbled through 10 years of screw-ups, failures and farces.
The RotMasters, unlamented, were suddenly whisked away from us in 2006. In their place we got the Red Bulls, complete with their new German-speaking Austrian owners. So the team will, for me, remain the Rots (in German, the Reds).
Story resumes here: Yes indeedy -- with yet another make-over. But I’m sticking with the title Rots for the moment, because the latest wave of change is, ho hum, looking too much like those that have preceded it ... change without a pattern, change without an aim.
Mystery surrounds it. I mean, how odd that the Rots should be making major player changes -- the exit of the Vikings, the arrival of three veteran Latinos surely destined to be first-team starters -- when the team does not yet have coach. At least not one who has been announced.
What the “new” Rots do have is a couple of guys with a tremendous wealth of experience in the pro game: Head of Red Bulls Global Soccer Gerard Houllier and Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh. I’d guess, the most knowledgeable couple on any MLS club. Which is great. As far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough, and is almost certainly heading in the wrong direction anyway.
Because the encyclopedic knowledge is all European-based. It does not, cannot, include any intricate knowledge of soccer in the USA. Does that matter? Maybe not, but two things suggest it might matter quite a lot. First: of the 11 coaches that the Rots have so far chewed up, six have been European. None of them, including Hans Backe, the most recent, was in any way successful. There have been three South Americans, also unsuccessful (although the Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio came closest to a trophy by getting the Rots to the 2008 MLS Cup final). The two American coaches, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, also achieved nothing. A dismal list, but one that strongly suggests that there is no advantage to be gained by the Rots hiring a foreign coach, however distinguished he may be (consider: one of the Rots’ foreign coaches, the Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, had actually won the World Cup in 1994).
And second: that extremely modest return from investing in foreign coaches is not limited to the Rots. Of the 17 MLS championships since 1996, 12 have been won by teams with American coaches; of the remaining five two were won by Frank Yallop and one each by Thomas Rongen and Peter Nowak -- all foreigners with extensive experience of playing in the USA. Only one MLS championship, then, has been won by an imported foreigner with no previous American experience -- the Englishman Gary Smith, who coached the Colorado Rapids, the 2010 MLS champions.
Which takes matters a good deal further, because there have been plenty of foreign coaches in the short history of MLS. These are stats which spell it out pretty unmistakably: go with an American coach. Alongside the cold, mathematical certainty of the stats, there is a warmer reason to buy American: The arrival of a generation of young American coaches, all of them recent MLS players. Jason Kreis has been a revelation since hanging up his soccer shoes one day in 2007 and taking over as head coach of Real Salt Lake the next. This past season, Ben Olsen led a rejuvenated D.C. United to its first playoff qualification since 2007, while both Jesse Marsch at Montreal and Jay Heaps at New England showed evidence of a refreshingly lively approach to the game (with Marsch getting himself fired for being maybe too unconventional).
My point being: how aware of all this are Houllier and Roxburgh? Will they pay attention? Questions that need to be asked -- never mind answered -- as the rumors continue to link the Red Bulls coaching job with Gary McAllister. A couple of weeks ago The Scottish Sun newspaper reported that the 48-year-old McAllister “Is ready to return to football as head coach of [the] New York Red Bulls.”
I recall McAllister as a player very well -- a cultivated, skillful ball-player in the best tradition of Scottish inside forwards, or attacking midfielders. The climax of his career was his two-year stint with Liverpool (2000-2002). His subsequent coaching career has been a patchy affair -- short spells at Coventry City and Leeds United, plus a year as an assistant, then interim head coach at Aston Villa.
So: McAllister as the Rots coach? A good idea? No, not at all. To start with, there is the formidable statistical hurdle mentioned above. Then, McAllister is a pal of Houllier. And then again, McAllister, like Roxburgh, is a Scot. There is nothing essentially wrong with either of those situations, but they do hint that the old-pal network and ethnic-buddyism (two factors that pervasively infest soccer) maybe at work. At work where the interests of the Rots -- and not personal prejudices -- should be the dominant influences.
Returning to those damning stats about foreign coach in MLS. I don’t think anything arcane lies behind them. They simply reflect the difficulties facing a coach who ventures, without adequate knowledge, into new territory.
That would be McAllister. Like both Houllier and Roxburgh, he is short of on-the-ground knowledge of the American game. His comments on American soccer, duly recorded by The Scottish Sun make embarrassing reading. For instance: “The game is thriving in the USA. David Beckham did a fantastic job in putting the sport on the map there.”
After that preposterous coronation of DB, try this: “The standard of the MLS has improved.” OK, we have to put up with this all the time -- McAllister is certainly not the first foreign coach or player to utter those lines. But they still grate. Because they imply that MLS used to be (and not that long ago) not much good; but has now improved (thanks exclusively to Beckham, it seems) and is now good enough for ... well, for McAllister to take an interest. And I must admit an impudent temptation to ask him whether Scottish soccer “has improved” lately?
McAllister, I’m sure, would deny he intended any of those implications. And quite probably he didn’t -- in which case he might want to choose his words more carefully, and suit them more to the reality of the situation here. But that would be difficult for him to do -- because, clearly, he knows little about what he calls “the” MLS.
The major difficulty for a foreign coach arriving in MLS is the impression that he will have -- and they all have it, without exception, either overtly or subconsciously -- that he knows more about the sport than any American he will work with or is likely to encounter.
That attitude (and let’s be clear about this, it is an attitude that is often encouraged by American sycophancy) is almost enough in itself to ensure failure. It is an attitude that is not to be found in American coaches, and its absence gives them a crucial edge over the foreigners.
There are, then, substantial reasons for the Rots to avoid another foreign coach. Though there are those who believe that the locker-room presence of Thierry Henry means they already have one.