The two MLS teams that recently fired their British coaches square off Friday when Houston plays at Orlando City, and the fates of, respectively, Owen Coyle and Adrian Heath in many ways reflect volatile dynamics in the Eastern Conference.
(Not for discussion here is the wisdom of hiring foreign coaches, few of whom have excelled in MLS. Scotsman Coyle and Englishman Heath each lasted a season and a half in MLS, and though both came to America following several coaching stints in England, Heath had a seven-year head start in the USL before graduating along with OCSC to MLS.)
Yes, from first place to 10th Western Conference teams have accumulated more points than their counterparts in the the Eastern Conference. Western Conference bottom feeder Houston has 17 points; Eastern doormat Chicago has 14. Portland (24 points) and the Lions (20) currently occupy seventh place in their respective conferences.
Yet the math doesn’t make the East any less competitive nor any less prone to severe fluctuations in team performances. The Red Bulls, Supporters’ Shield winners last year, have already lost nine games after dropping just 10 of 34 in 2015. MLS Cup finalist and host Columbus is scraping along just one notch above the bottom.
In its expansion year, Orlando City tied a league record (since the shootout was abolished after the 2000 season) by winning 12 games, two more than fellow newcomer New York City FC and Philadelphia. Both of those teams have shot past Orlando City to share the conference lead during the past month, and though the Lions are in contention in the wake of Heath’s dismissal and are unbeaten at home, a record of 3-0-6 at Camping World Stadium indicates an inability to exploit a decided homefield advantage -- raucous crowds, artificial turf, extreme heat -- and seize victories.
Orlando City ranks 18th of the 20 teams when it scores the first goal at 3-2-3. (Houston is 19th at 4-3-2. The Crew is last at 2-2-3.) It has scored more goals (11) in the 76th minute or later than any other team and has also conceded eight. Only one team, Crew SC (10), has given up more late goals.
Stats aside, a depressing 2-1 loss to Fort Lauderdale of the NASL in the U.S. Open Cup and a 4-0 blowout at FC Dallas a few days later accentuated a sense the team -- unlike several conference rivals –- was regressing. Expectations had been of the opposite: that the return of former USL Player of the Year Kevin Molino, who missed most of the 2015 season because of injury, and addition of Antonio Nocerino -- a former Kaka teammate at AC Milan -- along with a season of MLS experience for Heath and the returning players would trigger improvement.
In their second MLS season, the Lions have again been wildly successful at the gate -- only Seattle tops OCSC’s average attendance of 34,535 -- and Heath along with Kaka and several players took prominent places by making appearances and speaking frequently to the press.
By green-lighting Orlando City as an expansion team, MLS returned to Florida more than a decade after folding the Miami and Tampa Bay franchises were terminated in late 2001. With a foothold in the south, the league envisions another three-team regional rivalry with Atlanta and Miami a la the Cascadia Cup triad of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.
Heath’s departure, along with that of Jason Kreis from New York City last year, follows a trend of most expansion teams changing coaches rather quickly. Only Seattle, which retained former USL head coach Brian Schmetzer as an assistant when it hired Sigi Schmid to start up in 2009, has been relatively stable.
Toronto has swapped coaches almost yearly since joining up in 2007, and most of the rest gave their first hires only two or three seasons. Montreal booted Jesse Marsch after its expansion season of 2012 and while disputes with international players helped usher him out the door, his team had set the mark of 12 wins equaled by Orlando City. Marco Schallibaum and Frank Klopas were hired and fired before longtime assistant Mauro Biello was handed the keys last November. Philadelphia (2010 expansion team) and Vancouver (2011) are already on their third head coaches.
Eerily, the Timbers whacked John Spencer midway through his second season on July 9, 2012. Heath got the boot Wednesday, July 6. Like Heath, Teitur Thordarson tried to make the jump from USL to MLS with Vancouver, and he lasted just 12 games.
The deep-lying reasons for Heath’s departure may not come out for a while, but in an increasingly competitive league, mediocre results -- even for expansion teams that need time to grow and mature -- are not long forgiven.