Commentary

MLS Sack Race heads toward finish line without a winner -- um, loser

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Friday's announcement out of Tampa Bay that Rowdies owner Bill Edwards had fired president and general manager Farrukh Quraishi and head coach Thomas Rongen came as a shock.

Quraishi and Rongen are both veterans of the local soccer scene. Quraishi goes back in Tampa Bay 40 years to his playing days with the Rowdies, signing out of Oneonta State for their first -- championship -- season in the NASL in 1975. Quraishi and Rongen were general manager and head coach, respectively, of the Tampa Bay Mutiny for MLS's launch in 1996 when it had, by a wide margin, the best record in the regular season.

Reunited by Edwards for the 2015 NASL season, Quraishi and Rongen lasted 18 games into the 30-game NASL season before Edwards pulled the plug, citing the Rowdies' 2-5-1 record in the fall season after going 5-1-4 in the 10-game spring campaign.

Yes, Tampa Bay was slumping, but it was -- and still is after Saturday's 3-1 loss at home to Minnesota United FC -- in position to make the NASL playoffs. (Adding two more playoff berths to those awarded to the spring and fall champions has made following the fall standings all but pointless. The key is how a team is doing in the combined standings.)

Edwards' move came as shock to many in the soccer community -- both Quraishi and Rongen, the subject of the well-received documentary "Next Goal Wins" about his tenure as head coach of the American Samoa national team, are popular figures -- but it also came as a shock as so few U.S. pro clubs have changed coaches in 2015.

Of the 64 U.S. pro soccer teams -- 20 in MLS, 11 in the NASL, 24 in the USL and nine in the NWSL -- just four have replaced their head coach in mid-season.

Before Rongen, Jurgen Sommer was fired by the NASL's Indy Eleven eight games in the spring season. Marcelo Neveleff resigned as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers head coach late in the spring season and Austrian Guenter Kronsteiner was brought back as the club’s head coach for the fall campaign. In the USL, Preki, who led Sacramento Republic FC to the 2014 USL PRO title in its first season, suddenly left for a job in England that has not yet materialized, prompting the hashtag #WhereIsPreki?

That's four out of 64 clubs. In Spain's 20-team La Liga, 11 coaches lost their jobs during the 2014-15 season, the most of Europe's five major leagues. The number was even higher in Mexico's 18-team Liga MX, where there were 16 coaching changes during the 2014-15 season, eight in the Torneo Apertura, three in the Torneo Clausura and five between the split seasons.

MLS mid-season moves are rare. In the last five years, just 11 coaches were replaced.

MLS Mid-Season Coaching Changes:
2015 (0): None.
2014 (3): Philadelphia: John Hackworth, San Jose: *Mark Watson, Toronto FC: Ryan Nelsen.
2013 (3): Chivas USA: Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, Columbus: Robert Warzycha, San Jose: Frank Yallop.
2012 (3): Philadelphia: Peter Nowak, Portland: John Spencer, Toronto FC: Aron Winter.
2011 (2): Chicago: Carlos de los Cobos, Vancouver: Teitur Thordarson.
*Fired with two games to play.

Any number of factors account for the reluctance of MLS owners to make midseason moves. First of all, they rarely have any short-term impact. No MLS team made the playoffs after replacing its head coach in 2011-14. (On two earlier occasions, midseason replacements -- Sigi Schmid at the LA Galaxy in 1999 and Steve Nicol at New England in 2002 -- have taken teams to MLS Cup, but they both lost in the final.)

The trend has been for MLS clubs to go with former MLS players as head coaches. Sixteen of the 20 current head coaches played in MLS, 12 are 42 or younger, and eight are in their first head coaching job at the pro level. By their very nature, they've been given more slack than if they had lots of coaching experience. (Of the 12 foreign head coaches who had not previously played or coached in the United or Canada, only one -- Swede Hans Backe at the New York Red Bulls -- lasted at least two full seasons on the job.)

So much of the activity that takes place on the MLS coaching front is done in the offseason. Just three coaches were replaced during the 2013 season, but eight clubs made changes in the offseason before the start of the 2014 campaign. (In the case of Colorado, it waited until after the start of the 2014 season to officially announce Pablo Mastroeni as head coach.)

MLS's complex roster rules and multiple signing windows make it difficult to make coaching moves on the fly. Arriving in the offseason gives coaches time to assemble a roster of players whose salaries fit under the salary cap. The summer transfer window -- when a wider selection of players becomes available -- often acts to give coaches a pass until August to get their team together.

Activity on multiple fronts often saves a coach's job. Chicago, Philadelphia and Real Salt Lake rank among the bottom two teams in MLS's two conferences, but all reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Now that the Union is in the final, Jim Curtin's job appears to be safe, at least through the end of the regular season, just as he removed the interim tag last season after leading the Union to the Open Cup final. Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar's job would appear to be safe through the end of the season as RSL is now only three points out of the playoff zone after its 2-0 win over Seattle on Saturday night.

Frank Yallop
's position at Chicago is more precarious. The Fire was the only team in MLS that this past weekend drew under 20,000 fans -- a small group of supporters staged a protest in Bridgeview -- and its 1-0 loss at home to Colorado in the battle of cellar dwellers left it five points adrift -- with two more games played -- of sixth-place Montreal in the Eastern Conference and the only MLS team with a points-per-game of under 1.00.

Still, it would be difficult to imagine the Fire making a hasty move. Complicating the situation in Chicago is the fact that Yallop not only carries the title of head coach he is also director of soccer, one of four MLS head coaches to wear multiple hats. That might give an owner twice the reason to make a change but also twice the reason to pause as two jobs must be filled.

Probably the head coach in the biggest trouble is Orlando City's Adrian Heath. The Lions have lost their last two games 4-0 and 5-0 and won just one of their last eight games, conceding 24 goals during that span. Like the Rowdies, their neighbors to the west, the Lions are still in contention for a playoff berth but in their case the situation is starting to look bleak. Orlando City is still tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference with Montreal and New York City FC, but the Impact has four games in hand on Orlando and NYCFC.

Worse yet, Orlando City is a team seemingly in disarray. It received two more red cards at Toronto on Saturday to give it a league-high nine on the season. The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that the serious breach of team rules that resulted in Orlando City's decision to dump Sean St. Ledger and Martin Paterson was that they remained in New York City and skipped two days of training after the 5-3 loss at NYCFC on July 26. Not for the first time this season, Kaka was seen on Saturday screaming his displeasure with the play of rookie forward Cyle Larin, while Luke Boden -- a holdover from Orlando's USL days -- told the Sentinel after Saturday's 5-0 loss in Toronto that club's confidence was "rock bottom."

If Orlando City doesn't make a move, no MLS coach will likely cross the finish line in this year's Sack Race.
1 comment about "MLS Sack Race heads toward finish line without a winner -- um, loser".
  1. JP Terrasi, August 26, 2015 at 3:14 p.m.

    The decision to let Rongen go was ridiculous. Obviously, there is a huge disconnect with the players and the fans. The Rowdies lost key players over the last couple years and are rebuilding and the 2-5-1 record reflects that and that alone. NOT the coach. If you talk with the players and the fans, they will tell you emphatically that they supported Rongen and his vision and techniques. Horrible decision and it's sad to see... especially to Rowdies fans. I wish coach Rongen the best and hopefully, he'll land something very soon. Good luck & God Bless!

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