Imported coaches: A formula for failure in MLS

By Paul Gardner

This business of foreign coaches in MLS -- why does it drag on? Have we not learned enough during the 20-plus years of MLS activity that these guys do not do particularly well here?

I’m not here concerned with the reasons for their lack of success. Those reasons are varied, but not that difficult to divine, I would have thought.

What interests me more is trying to fathom what moves MLS clubs -- both the foreign-owned and the American-owned variety -- to persist with these appointments, despite the demonstrably poor results.

When I say “foreign,” I mean a coach who is imported from another country, one who has little or no experience of American soccer. Guys like Carlos Alberto Parreira, Hans Backe, Ruud Gullit, Walter Zenga, Carlos Queiroz, Aron Winter, Carlos de los Cobos, Bob Houghton, Frank Stapleton, and Hans Westerhof. There’s a great deal of coaching skill and success among those names, but none of them made himself felt in MLS.

OK, those guys are all history, pretty much forgotten, buried by their own ineffectiveness. But there are much more recent examples of non-flourishing foreigners. Owen Coyle, for one. Plus two guys currently employed -- Veljko Paunovic and Patrick Vieira.

Coyle has recently departed from the Houston Dynamo, where he reigned for 18 feeble months. Coyle, we are told, was greatly disoriented by the long-distance travel involved (like he had never looked at a map?), and found that he missed his family. Right.

Coyle’s hiring in 2015 was a prime example of Americans falling for the lure of a foreign coach. He was hailed as a coach from England’s Premier League, which was true, but did not in any way explain why he would be looking for a job in MLS -- which he was. It was Coyle who sought out the Dynamo, not vice versa.

Coyle, a goalscoring forward in his playing days, announced at his first press conference that his team would be attack-oriented, and that he loved to see “a winger taking a fullback on and getting to the byline because we all get out of our seats and get excited."

A peculiarly dated observation, given the dire shortage of wingers in the modern game. The Brit obsession with crosses loomed once more, which did not sound like good news for the Dynamo’s young Mexican star Erick “Cubo” Torres, whose goalscoring feats with Chivas USA were considerably more sophisticated than merely converting crosses.

Evidently. Coyle preferred the more straightforward physical style of the burly 6-foot-2 Will Bruin. Cubo rode the bench, an absurd waste of talent.

I trust it’s safe to assume that the Dynamo front office will not come up with another thoroughly wrong-headed call when they announce Coyle’s successor.

I know little of Chicago’s new coach, the Serbian Veljko Paunovic. He has slight MLS experience -- he played 17 games with the Philadelphia Union in 2011.

His coaching background is thin. Last year, I watched all his games as he coached Serbia to victory in the 2015 U-20 World Cup. A merited triumph, certainly, though I found Serbia to be quite the dullest team I’d ever seen emerge as world U-20 champion.

Paunovic is not off to a roaring start as an MLS coach. The Fire is in last place in the Eastern Conference, with the worst record of all 20 MLS teams.

And so to Patrick Vieira. NY City originally did the right thing. It hired the most promising of the American coaches, Jason Kreis. It didn’t work out. Kreis was not allowed any leeway for the fact that NYC was an expansion team. It seems that some sort of immediate success was needed -- probably at least a playoff berth.

There was no playoff berth, NYC rarely produced soccer worth watching. Kreis was evidently held responsible so he was canned. A decision that puzzles and rankles me. In particular: I find it hard to understand how Kreis, so clever and certain with his choice of players at Real Salt Lake, ended up with so many downright poor players on his NYC squad.

Whatever, Kreis was quickly hooked offstage to make way for Vieira. A really big name (though as a player, not as a coach it needs to be noted). Vieira is not doing particularly well. To put it mildly. That 7-0 wipeout from the Red Bulls has to be the worst defeat suffered by any MLS team, ever.

Yet, surprisingly, incredibly, Vieira seems to have escaped all criticism. I read about 12 game-reports of the rout and not a single one contained any harsh words for Vieira. I doubt I have ever come across a similar situation: an appalling 7-0 humiliation, in front of his own fans, against his local rival ... and no one goes after the coach? Dammit, this is the sort of result that gets pro coaches fired. To make one point only: when your team has been comprehensively outplayed, 3-0, in the first half, the expectation would be for some changes, some substitutions, to start the second.

But Vieira made no move. So he got what he asked for. The 5-8 Dax McCarty had opened the first-half scoring with a header. No prodigious jump was necessary, he was uncontested. So he did exactly the same thing at the beginning of the second half, this one I’ll swear he had to stoop to make contact with the ball.

Vieira’s postgame comments avoided any suggestion that his coaching might have played a role in the debacle. And it seems that no one asked.

That raises a possibility, something I had thought we had left behind. Can it be that, in the presence of big soccer names, Americans still feel it is in bad taste to show dissent?

Maybe the names don’t have to be that big. Coyle was no superstar. Maybe just being European is considered enough to ensure superiority. We saw that mentality at work with the misguided appointment of Englishman Peter Walton to head up MLS referees. A job that should surely have gone to an American.

Frankly, if Vieira can come out unscathed after his team has been calamitously mauled on their own field, the mind trembles to imagine what ghastly soccer crime he will have to commit before squeaks of protest are heard.

20 comments about "Imported coaches: A formula for failure in MLS".
  1. Richard Broad, May 31, 2016 at 6:38 p.m.

    A foreign accent and a slick resume doesn't make a good coach. Hard work does. When will we ever learn?

  2. Raymond Weigand, May 31, 2016 at 6:55 p.m.

    It's not the X's and Ohs ... it's the Billy's and the Joe's. If you want to be a good coach ... get good players - not the over the hill gang who the coach is constrained to play - because it sells more merchandise and marketing spots. No coach will succeed as long as the team plays the equivalent of short handed - with three Over the Hill folks who cannot transition and are left to huff and puff around with a bunch of low budget teammates. However, all is well ... record monies are flowing in for merchandising and marketing. Seems like its the fans who perpetuate this business plan are the failures.

  3. Scott Johnson, May 31, 2016 at 7:11 p.m.

    Hey, LVG is looking for a job. (And in a year or two, his successor at Man U. will be too!)

  4. John Soares, May 31, 2016 at 7:37 p.m.

    It is not "foreign" as an issue. It's the individual's ability to deal with, evaluate and assign the players "available" where they can/will perform at their best. I admire Mourinho... ARGUIABLY the best coach in the world. But he would fail in the US mostly because his system (after Porto) has been to go after (buy) the best players in the world and THEN build a "super" team. That approach will not work in the USA. Therefore, perhaps the MLS coaches deserve much more credit than they get!??

  5. R2 Dad replied, June 1, 2016 at 12:22 a.m.

    No, not many MLS coaches deserve credit. How many are punching above their weight, succeeding without a bunch of DPs, playing attractive soccer? Pirlo is correct--too much running. How many MLS coaches have said that?

  6. Scott Johnson replied, June 1, 2016 at 10:20 a.m.

    Caleb Porter?

  7. Richard Brown, May 31, 2016 at 8:08 p.m.

    There are a lot of really bad born in America coaches.

    There are some really bad coaches born outside the US as well like Jurgen Klinnesman.

    I think Coach like Tab Ramos was just looking for a job. He never really wanted to coach. When he first came to the Metrostars a lot of young player wanted his advice. He never helped them to involved with his own game to help anyone on his own team.

    You need a guy who wants to win, but also really cares about his players. Those kind of coaches are very hard to find.

    I always thought Alfonse Mondello was one of those.

  8. Stevie G, May 31, 2016 at 8:53 p.m.

    Perhaps Vieira is a student of this blog. Perhaps he told his team not to bother defending crosses. Nobody outside England would ever put in a cross. That and both Madrid teams.

    Gardners obsession with the English is really quite a bore.

  9. Daniel Clifton, May 31, 2016 at 9:14 p.m.

    I agree with PG's criticism of NYCFC firing Kreis. That was ridiculous. He never had a chance. You look at guys like Kreis and Caleb Porter and you see relatively young American coaches who obviously know how to coach in MLS. Greg Berhalter has done a great job with Columbus over the past two years. Pablo Mastroeni has got Colorado playing lights out now. I believe NYCFC is going to be mediocre for a long time.

  10. Ric Fonseca, May 31, 2016 at 9:52 p.m.

    OMG! I tought I'd never say it, but here goes: KUDOS TO PG!!!

  11. Leonardo Perez, May 31, 2016 at 10:52 p.m.

    I've always read your columns about the injustices and biases that USSF has with latinos. I've seen it here in San Antonio and I agree with you. But, you've also written about not enough minority coaches or team managers ever being hired in the MLS and other soccer organizations. But, let me ask you Mr Gardner, why does Soccer America not have any women or minorities as jounalists or office managers right now. You speak alot about diversity but does Soccer America practice it? Or,is diversity in the eyes of the beholder?

  12. Ray Almubaslat, May 31, 2016 at 11:24 p.m.

    Hiring an American Coach or a Foreigner should not matter, though I do agree with the notion that just because you have an English accent it does not qualify you any more than an American coach. What should matter is the qualification and experience as well as leadership and charisma a coach brings to the team. Also, understanding the culture of the players on the squad as well as country they live in would certainly not hurt and coaches with international background could communicated better with international players since most American coaches have not been exposed to International Soccer. Professional coaches should be judged like professional players: They must lead and manage effectively in order to get the job done including getting the Win at the end of each game, but also developing the squad and improving the team and planning for the future all at the same time.

  13. R2 Dad, June 1, 2016 at 12:09 a.m.

    So essentially, the media are unable to do their job because they are too busy fawning over Patrick Viera and must flatter to gain access? Sounds like we need better reporters. But reporters have been overtaken by bloggers, and no one knows who they are nor respects them in an after-match media session. Catch 22. All the known reporters are over 60 and mostly cover other sports.

  14. Mark Headley, June 1, 2016 at 12:54 a.m.

    I suspect we are not getting our pick of the foreign litter, as we do w/ such accomplished US coaches as Bruce Arena. Why so much success, along w/ much failure, of many Europeans at foreign clubs especially? Should clubs here really turn away, say Pep, Simone, if/when happily available? Why ignore success of Swedish Pia Sundhage w/ USWNT? Has anyone suggested RM coached cannot succeed if French, Italian, Portuguese? Has the Dutch Cruyff's influence at/beyond Barca not rightly been widely hailed, beloved?

  15. Scott Johnson, June 1, 2016 at 10:21 a.m.

    Sigi Schmid seems to be doing alright with the Flounders, despite being German. :)

  16. Albert Harris, June 1, 2016 at 12:10 p.m.

    PG's complaint is with imported coaches who have little or nor experience with American soccer. Sigi was here for years coaching in the college ranks just like Arena. I'm sure Paul was not including him in his analysis. A foreign born coach who has played here for MLS and understands the differences in the league compared to Europe would likewise have a much better chance of success than an 'import' who seems surprised that there are 3000 mile road trips and sea level to Denver elevation changes.

  17. Stuart Shaw, June 2, 2016 at 5:59 p.m.

    Paul! (and readers familiar with Paul's work) you must read this guardian article about klinsmann. i believe paul will have felt a strange warm glow in his heart in the moment when the article was published.

  18. Stuart Shaw replied, June 2, 2016 at 6:08 p.m.

    "After five years at the helm of the US men’s national team, here is what Klinsmann has made of himself: a plodding technocrat in dad pants, bereft of tactical skill and passionate only in the defense of his own incompetence."

  19. Richard Brown, June 22, 2016 at 4:30 p.m.

    Carlos Alberto Parreira when he came to my beloved Metros. We were still send players to him. One was a 16 year old who could really play. He noticed the kids quads were not build up enough to take him.

    We also sent him an Italian a mid from my team. He liked him but the coach wanted to train in the Italian alps for the high altitude. He could not go he was here illegally then that was a problem not any more. Then he would not be able to come back to the US. He and his brother both left our teams they were afraid.

  20. Scot Sutherland, June 28, 2016 at 3:04 p.m.

    PG doesn't discuss the reasons for poor showing by coaches from overseas. But I think it matters. Winning in every other league is about buying better players. In MLS it is about building a team that outperforms the qualities of the individual players. It takes players and coaches a while to understand this. Henry and Beckham took a while to understand. Drogba and Keane have done better. Gerrard is struggling because his raking passes are difficult for some of his teammates to handle. Not everyone can do what Dos Santos did with his most recent service.

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