By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 23, 2013) US Soccer Players - There’s still one week to go in the 2013 Major League Soccer regular season. That last round of matches, starting on Wednesday with RSL versus Chivas USA and culminating with a clash of Western Conference heavyweights when the Galaxy visit Seattle on Sunday night, will have a lot to say about who walks away with individual hardware in 2013. For the men in charge of MLS teams, their 2013 performance reviews are already happening. Just like the standings, the Coach of the Year race is tight.
Multiple candidates have extremely strong cases. Who did the best job is a matter of appreciating context, considering circumstances, and assessing which hurdles matter and which ones don’t. Not every success story builds on the same foundation. Here are the candidates and their resumes, in no particular order:
Oscar Pareja - Colorado Rapids
Of the obvious contenders for Coach of the Year, Pareja is the one working without the benefit of the spotlight. All the second-year Rapids head coach has done since taking over from the “lump and chase” Gary Smith era is turn Colorado into a free-flowing, athletic team more notable for the breadth of its young talent than almost any other side in the league. Pareja not only effected a 180-degree style change in Commerce City, he did it while dealing with some of the worst injury problems in MLS this season. Despite losing a host of veterans for long stretches at the beginning of the season, Pareja kept the Rapids on course to contend for a playoff spot.
A function of those injury issues was the quick maturation of the Rapids freshman class. It’s impossible to separate the contributions of rookies DeShorn Brown, Dillon Powers, Shane O’Neill, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin from the influence of Pareja. Whether the Colombian head coach wanted to throw the aptly dubbed “Rapkids” into the fray so quickly or not, he deserves ample praise for turning them into an entertaining team capable of beating anyone else in MLS on their day.
With all that in play, Pareja might not finish better than third in Coach of the Year voting. That’s in part because Colorado gets less press than the teams of two other contenders and because it’s arguable the other candidates achieved more in equally difficult circumstances.
Caleb Porter - Portland Timbers
Porter is the “sexy” pick for Coach of the Year, a young, first-time professional head coach with a commitment to an attractive style who turned a team with a few competent parts into an MLS Cup contender in one season. Porter’s work in Portland gets noticed for those reasons and because the Timbers are among the best-supported teams in the league. With the backing of the marvelous crowd in Portland, the Timbers are on the verge of a number one seed in the Western Conference.
In any other year, Porter’s rookie success might be enough to see him walk away with the award. Portland’s evolution into one of the league’s best teams is evident each time they take the field and a credit to Porter’s fast adjustment to the professional game. In addition to maximizing the talents of players like Darlington Nagbe, Porter turned Rodney Wallace into a consistent threat on the flank and navigated a series of injuries to his back line that threatened to derail the Timbers’ season before it got started.
If there’s a criticism to be made of Porter’s Timbers team, it’s their penchant for draws. If Portland had only managed to turn a few of those ties into wins, they’d already be celebrating winning a Supporters Shield. Still, the former Akron Zips head coach proved the hype surrounding his abilities very real by translating his approach and making Portland so difficult to beat.
Mike Petke - New York Red Bulls
Mike Petke’s ace in the hole among the Coach of the Year contenders is two-fold: the overall success of his team (on the verge of a Supporters Shield, the Red Bulls are steps beyond Colorado) and the dysfunctional nature of his organization (while Caleb Porter enjoys complete support in Portland). Petke wasn’t even really supposed to be here, but fell into the position when the Red Bulls corporate masters were unable to line up another foreign name. Since - and pardon the pun - Petke grabbed the bull by the horns and steered his team through some extremely choppy waters. The question of Petke’s candidacy comes down to how much credit one gives him for dealing with turmoil others did not face balanced against the advantages he had in terms of talent.
If one moment crystallizes the Red Bulls under Mike Petke and illustrates the quality of his leadership in 2013, it’s his September benching of Thierry Henry after a disagreement in practice. This is the Red Bulls, and that empty trophy case best explains their history during times of crisis. It’s empty for good reason. Each time New York has come up against any particular bit of adversity, they’ve crumbled. Petke knows that all too well from his seasons with the then-MetroStars. But Petke has also imparted a certain character on his team, as evidenced through his handling of the Henry situation and his team’s response. Since the kerfuffle, the Red Bulls have not lost a game and earned 17 of 21 possible points. Petke’s handling of the trouble is why they find themselves in the Supporters Shield pole position with one game to go.
Though he’s likely just a dark horse candidate with little hope of carrying enough of the vote to win, we shouldn’t leave Jason Kreis out of the discussion. Kreis’s previous success works against him when it comes to Coach of the Year, but the RSL man did lead a team going through a large shift in personnel to a top spot in the Western Conference. Real Salt Lake’s consistency is a marvel in light of those changes.
At this point, Caleb Porter seems like the popular choice to take home the honor this season. He wouldn’t be an undeserving winner. Pareja and Petke have strong cases, however, making this one of the closest Coach of the Year competitions in recent memory.
More From Jason Davis: