By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (June 20, 2012) US Soccer Players -- For the longest time, you couldn’t talk about former New England Revolution head coach Steve Nicol without mentioning his top assistant, Paul Mariner. It was Nicol that made the Revolution the annual contenders that they were, pushing for an MLS Cup title year-after-year, nearly winning one on a handful of occasions, and consistently finishing near the top of the League standings.
Mariner was always there as Robin to Nicol’s Batman. Nicol and Mariner were a double act, the Yallop and Kinnear of the East, the stable coaching tandem that kept the New England one of Major League Soccer’s leading franchises. Unlike Dominic Kinnear, however, Mariner’s path to a MLS head coaching job became a long, winding trip.
An England international as a player, Mariner eventually landed at Harvard as an assistant coach. That lasted one season, with Nicol hiring him for the Revs. From 2004 through 2009, Mariner was Nicol’s top assistant while New England qualified for the playoffs every year and appeared in three straight MLS Cup Finals from 2005 to 2007. The championship never came, but the winning spawned consistent rumors of Mariner moving into a head coaching job elsewhere in MLS. One of those rumors linked Mariner to the Seattle Sounders in 2009, before the club debuted in MLS, a job that eventually went to then-Columbus Crew head coach Sigi Schmid. Despite the respect he’d earned working alongside Nicol, Mariner’s seemingly inevitable move up the ladder was slow in coming.
When Mariner went back the England and joined the staff at Plymouth Argyle, the club where he began his pro playing career, it was a mild surprise to MLS observers. At the time, it was a safe assumption that Mariner’s first head coaching job would be here. Mariner left New England to become the top assistant to Paul Sturrock at Plymouth in what could only be called a small step up, then took over the manager’s position when Plymouth drifted into the relegation zone of the Championship.
In the end, Mariner wasn’t able to keep Plymouth up, and took the opportunity to return to MLS when Toronto FC offered him their Director of Player Development position in early 2012. It seemed like an odd fit at first. The pragmatic Englishman Mariner teamed up with the Ajax-schooled newbie head coach in Aron Winter. Whatever partnership existed between the two ended when Toronto decided to go another way. That way was giving Mariner his first MLS head coaching job.
Having long been thought of as a head coach-in-waiting, it’s possible Toronto hired Mariner with the thought that he might one day take over the team. The ex-Revolution man, with many of the credentials needed to do the job, serving as an insurance policy behind the green Winter. TFC traded in the policy when Winter proved himself unable to turn the current collection of players on the TFC roster into even a mediocre MLS team.
Yes, Mariner’s turn as an MLS head coach was always seen as a matter of “when”, not “if.” That he only now finds himself in charge of a club after leaving New England for his native England, finding the going there difficult, and returning to North America to be part of TFC’s fifth (or is it sixth) overhaul, is somewhat surprising. There’s no question Mariner should be an MLS head coach, but once again he’s cast in the role of savior. At Argyle and now in Toronto, he starts in salvage mode.
Mariner needs to improve and do it quickly. This isn’t the typical turnaround since Toronto’s terrible start is historic in its severity. The Reds have three points through 11 games played, have scored just eight times, and have a -15 goal differential. This isn’t just a matter of the team changing coaches midseason because they failed to meet reasonable expectations… it’s a full-scale disaster.
Paul Mariner’s debut on an MLS sideline, a moment nine years in the making, came against one of the League’s better teams in Sporting Kansas City. It was a somewhat unfortunate bit of timing. Defensive lapses, a running theme through TFC’s season so far, led to the two Kansas City goals, and the Canadian club’s offensive woes continued on the other end. Expensive players missed good chances. The defense lacked basic communication. From appearances, TFC looked like less of shambles than they did before, but it still wasn’t good enough to earn any points.
TFC has talent, or so it seems. What’s not clear is whether that talent is too raw, too worn down, or too disjointed after the Winter era to allow Mariner to turn them into an occasional winner. Now he has a tabloid-esque distraction, suspending three players for an early morning altercation with police outside of a bar in Houston.
So here we have Mariner in his long-awaited MLS head coaching debut, dealing with the kind of problems that almost seem unique to the woeful Toronto club. Although any team in need of a new head coach is probably not a regular winner (hence the need for a new coach), TFC is a particularly challenging situation for a man with all of the proper qualifications but little head coaching experience. After so many years being the guy everyone thought should get a chance to lead an MLS team, it would be a shame if Mariner’s first opportunity goes poorly simply because the road to respectability is so rough.
There’s another way to look at it, of course. Mariner can hardly do any worse. As long as TFC can scrape together small handfuls of points between now and the end of the season, Major League Soccer’s former perennial head coach-in-waiting will have made a significant difference. That should be enough to buy him another year. That means a better, more properly planned-for, chance to prove what everyone has long suspected about Paul Mariner. The coach in waiting might just be the next great MLS head coach.
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