Increasing the Pressure in Major League Soccer

Toronto's new head coach Ryan Nelsen.  Credit: Nick Turchiaro - ISIPhotos.com

By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 13, 2013) US Soccer Players - Threatened with relegation and feeling the pressure of playing in the top flight of English soccer, Reading FC fired manager Brian McDermott this week. McDermott was the man responsible for getting the club back into the Premier League in the first place, but because the team is in danger of immediately returning to the Championship, loyalty is not a luxury the club believed it could afford. Right now, Reading is in 19th place and four points from safety after four consecutive league losses.

Whatever one’s opinion on the “fairness” of Reading’s decision to fire him, McDermott himself was undoubtedly aware of the tenuousness of his position. A bad run, no matter the credit he built up taking the club to the Premier League, and he’d be gone. The longevity of a manager at that level measures in months rather than years, and only a string of trophies can guarantee job security from season to season. McDermott went from Manager of the Month in January to unemployed in March. Such is the lot of most English managers.

Meanwhile, the 2013 MLS season is underway, and it’s difficult to ignore how different Major League Soccer head coaches have it. Without the specter of relegation chasing them from game to game, even coaches at the league’s worst performing teams typically know they’re unlikely to get a pink slip before the year is done. MLS rarely rewards turnover. A playoff place is rarely so far away that a head-coaching change in the middle of the season makes much sense.

It’s impossible to disconnect the rules under which the two leagues operate from the amount of pressure applied to the typical coach. Relegation serves as an accelerant, pushing teams to make firing decisions much more rapidly. In North America, postseason playoffs give clubs a safety net, allowing coaches time to make adjustments and reverse negative trends without constantly worrying about their job status.

Let’s imagine a future when pressure on MLS head coaches reaches Premier League-like levels, even without the threat of relegation. For lack of a better analogy, imagine that the attitude that pervades the National Hockey league when it comes to coaches infiltrates American and Canadian top-flight soccer. Imagine an MLS where owners fall prey to the whims of fickle fan bases.

How would MLS change? Would a greater amount of pressure on the men in charge of lineups and tactics dramatically alter the product on the field?

MLS has the reputation as a cookie-cutter League, filled with teams playing similar styles. Parity might make MLS among the most competitive leagues in the world from top to bottom, but it also makes it difficult to develop a unique way of playing the game. Because the League is fast and physical, even teams that hope to slow things down and cultivate a more refined passing game tend to revert to rushing and kicking to compete. With more pressure and a thinner line between employment and unemployment, head coaches would be even more likely to forego the more difficult path in the hunt for points. Shorter tenures means less time to implement a new style and to find the players necessary to implement it.

Coaching is, by nature, a conservative profession. Names like Zeman and Bielsa stand out from their peers because they value offense over defense. They put scoring goals above preventing them, a philosophy that runs counter to coaching’s basic nature. In an MLS with more pressure but the same playoff safety net, it would take a truly unique coach (as unique as Zeman or Bielsa) to break out of a conservative mindset and “go for it.” Organizing a defense and relying on an adept goal-scorer or two is simpler in the short term. With uneven quality across a roster limited by the salary cap and weather that punishes high-effort teams during much of the season, sitting back is not only the easy way, it’s often the most prudent way.

Even worse, with a higher head coach turnover rate, clubs might find it difficult to develop a style of their own over a longer timeline, the way Jason Kreis has done at RealSalt Lake. If short-term results are paramount, and owners treat coaches as easily replaceable commodities, the head coach becomes less important as part of the club-building process. Like with Major League Baseball where the field manager ‘manages’ the players on the field, club presidents, technical directors, and general managers gain even more power in such a scenario. Like with baseball, continuity usually happens further up the food chain.

For MLS, the current environment fosters complacency in many cases, gives coaches little reason to stretch their teams. Would a set of hotter seats prompt coaches to rely on experienced players to the detriment of newer, younger, talent? Expectations should be higher than just reaching the playoffs for coaches placed under greater pressure. In most of the world, it’s not good enough do the bare minimum. In an MLS where that is also the case, the drama surrounding a coach stuck in a rut of dropped points would present its own sort of intrigue.

Imagine an MLS where making the playoffs one year doesn’t buy a coach a grace period for the next season. Imagine an MLS where a string of losses with a playoff place on the line in September results in a head coaching change. Imagine an MLS where every coach knows he’s in constant danger of losing his job. Imagine an MLS more like England, where leading a team to a spot in one of the world’s best leagues isn’t good enough to buy a coach much more than a stay of execution.

Would that be a better MLS?


Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact him:matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.

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4 Responses to Increasing the Pressure in Major League Soccer

  1. Stan says:

    We had 4 new coaches in 2013–that’s over 20% of the league.

    2012 saw new coaches in Rennie, Heaps, Mariner, Marsch, with Pareja and Olsen in their first full seasons.

    MLS is at such a disadvantage in terms of the salaries it offers that connections are a key part of bringing in players, and those connections can only bear fruit over the course of multiple transfer windows. So, in answer to your question, no–it would not be a better MLS.

  2. Sal says:

    This article is incredibly simplistic. In reality, coaches in any league (and any sport) are expected to win and will generally be gone in some period of time if they don’t produce. Yes, there’s no relegation in MLS. However, there is an equivalent pressure to make the playoffs that doesn’t exist in some other places.

    In Major league Soccer, there’s actually a wide variety of approaches to how teams hire and fire their staffs:

    Some teams roll through coaches so quickly that they never really have a chance to establish themselves or create a style. (Examples: Toronto, NY Red Bulls)

    Some teams keep coaches for the full length of their contracts, no matter how badly they perform. (Examples: Colorado, Dallas)

    And some teams that have excellent coaches and systems that have performed year after year tend to keep them. (Examples: Houston, San Jose, Los Angeles)

    And anyway, trying to compare coaching and assembling a team in a league that has relegation with one that has a salary caps, drafts, trades, discovery picks, etc. etc. is an exercise in futility.

  3. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    If there is complacency in MLS it is not from the coaches or even the players but from upstairs the ownership. I think that the owners in MLS are too much of a tight bunch a little to friendly with one another. The cookie cutter does not come so much from style but from structure. Prime example would Chivas USA which has been a complete disaster both as a team on the field and a brand in the market since coming in to the league and yet still enjoy the full support of the commissioner and has little to know motivation to do any better or to re-brand.

  4. Charles says:

    Which league would a team be more complacent, a league where one team has won 20 out of 28 years…or one where you are expected to win every year?
    Very simply written article.