1316_isi_vieirapatrick_bpi_mw_manu21_manc21_22.2629887 Matt West/isiphotos.com

Dear Patrick Vieira: In MLS the Team Is Always the Star

As Patrick Vieira takes the reins at New York City FC, he should get to know Major League Soccer, what works in this quirky league, and what doesn't. Wendy Thomas has a few thoughts for him.
BY Wendy Thomas Posted
January 04, 2016
2:00 PM

NOW THAT THE DUST has settled on New York City FC's decision to sack Jason Kreis and hire Patrick Vieira as his successor, and the fallout from the public recriminations against City Football Group (CFG) for terminating a manager after one season in which it refused to implement his recommendations has been eclipsed by Portland's MLS Cup victory and the annual offseason dismemberment and reconstruction of MLS teams, the question of what Vieira should do to maximize his chances for success in MLS remains.

For those who wish nothing but ill upon Vieira in his new position as retribution against CFG for its inept handling of the Kreis termination, bear in mind that it is in the interests of both MLS and its fans that the league is not a closed shop to the great coaches of the world. I am not suggesting that Patrick Vieira is a great coach–having never seen a Manchester City youth team game, I can offer no insight on Vieira’s coaching ability. Of course, one cannot ignore the deep irony that CFG has recruited a coach from MCFC, a team synonymous with throwing money at its problems, to MLS, a salary-capped league where coaches are barred from solving their problems with money.

CFG acolytes surely must appreciate by now that it is doing more with less that is impressive—doing more with more is what anyone should be able to do. And Vieira’s hiring is but one more sign that CFG is tone-deaf from a branding perspective.

Nonetheless, MLS fans should be rooting for Vieira to succeed, if only to demonstrate that it is possible for a coach to translate skills learned abroad to teams here at home. It is no coincidence that the foreign coaches who have proved successful here spent years learning the world of American soccer before assuming the reigns of an MLS franchise: Steve Nicol, Thomas Rongen, Carl Robinson, Oscar Pareja, Juan Carlos Osorio, and Peter Nowak were all extremely familiar with the league and North America before becoming MLS coaches. By having a league with so many arcane mechanisms related to player acquisition and spending, MLS has created barriers to entry that diminish the pool of potential coaches. Requiring a multi-year investment of time from potential coaches before they can achieve success reduces MLS’ talent pool, and the smaller the pool, the shallower the talent available.

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. One of the primary narratives of the first two decades of MLS was the New York Metrostars’ (now Red Bulls) perennial failure to succeed despite bringing in high-profile coaches—Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic, Alfonso Modelo, Octavio Zambrano, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley—and relying heavily on aging stars who consistently failed to adapt to MLS (Rafael Marquez, Lothar Mathaus).

NYCFC’s first season suggests that the franchise is hell-bent on ignoring everything the first two decades taught its neighbors across the Hudson about finding success in MLS. On the assumption that NYCFC is not so myopic, what lessons can the experiences of coaches from season’s past impart to Vieira in his new venture?

1. Do Your Homework

By far the biggest challenge for Vieira will be learning how to utilize the many unique mechanisms of MLS to his team’s advantage. There are no salary caps in Europe, no SuperDraft, no allocation money, no discovery rights, no expansion draft, no re-entry draft, no TAM, no trading system (akin to what we have in North America), no designated players, no NCAA, and no USL affiliates. 

Perhaps no one best embodies the MLS stereotype of a foreign coach who comes to the league hopelessly unprepared so well as Ruud Gullit. 

“Bruce is 100% prepared," Alan Gordon once said, "and I don’t think we were 5% prepared with Ruud.” 

Though a legend in Europe, when Terry Byrne hired Gullit to coach David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy, Gullit made clear that he did not plan to learn the MLS system, which he viewed as silly, so instead he chose to ignore it. However, once confronted with rules that hemmed in his ability to buy players on a whim, he was confronted with the fact that he simply could not understand how to manage under a salary cap.

“Foreign coaches think, ‘OK, I have an 18-man roster, so now my right back gets injured, so he’s out for the season, so let me go sign another right back at X amount of dollars.’" Sigi Schmid once said. "You’re told, ‘No, you can’t, because of your salary cap, and you can only have 18.’ So [if you do sign someone], who are you going to let go?” 

Gullit did not understand how to trade players or MLS’ single-entity structure. He condescended to his own management and lost the Galaxy locker room in epic fashion. Ty Harden briefly retired from the sport rather than work with Gullit.

“This trading thing, it’s so complicated…It’s like the stock market. If you want a player, then you have to get rid of another player to get under the salary cap," Gullit said in Grant Wahl's The Beckham Experiment. "The rules and all the things that they do here are so different from what we do in Europe… Everything  that looks logical, they do in a different way.”

In years past, a foreign coach who failed in MLS could perhaps escape with his reputation in Europe unscathed by feigning surprise at the shackles of working in a salary-capped league. But every coach in MLS works in the same system. Every coach must deal with the fact that he cannot simply go out and buy players; he must attempt to coach the players he has to make them better. No one will give a pass to Vieira if, after five months time, he defends a losing record by claiming ignorance at the rules imposed on him by MLS. 

As a counterexample to Gullit, let’s examine how Adrian Heath, another foreign coach, spent five years preparing to be an MLS coach. He first demonstrated he could be successful coaching in the lower leagues at both the Austin Aztex and with Orlando’s USL team, where he won the 2013 USL Cup. During that time, he studied the MLS system. Though Orlando’s first season was not without blemish, OCSC made a number of very intelligent decisions that reflected a deep understanding of MLS.

First, Heath brought in the perfect designated player to serve as the franchise’s public face, Kaka. Orlando, with a huge Latin population, immediately fell in love with the warm, family-friendly, Brazilian. At 32, Kaka demonstrated both that he was still young enough to compete on the pitch and his refreshing humility inspired the rest of the team. Orlando found key MLS role players in Aurelian Collin, Tally Hall, and, using the mechanisms afforded it by MLS, brought in lots of young talent like Cyle Larin (through the draft), Kevin Molino (through Orlando’s USL team), and Brek Shea (through the allocation system).

In order for the system to work, you’ve got to work the system.

2. Rebuild With Intent

In light of NYCFC’s failure to make the playoffs in 2015, Vieira may have it in his mind to rebuild, to tear apart the existing team and formulate a new one from scratch. There are ways to clear house in MLS, but if that is indeed Vieira’s intention, he must do so with a plan for rebuilding his foundation once it is torn asunder. 

Known as the “Miracle Worker” in Europe, Bora Milutinovic managed the New York Metrostars for one season in 1999. Unhappy with his roster, Milutinovic got rid of a slew of players. The Metrostars traded away Giovanni Savarese (the club record holder for goals scored at that time); Raul Diaz Arce (who had already won two MLS Cups by that time); U.S. national team veterans Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola; and Diego Sonora (who went on to win the MLS Cup with DC United that season). However, having rid the team of most of its Starting XI, Milutinovic was befuddled about how to replace them. The team eventually hired Lothar Matthäus, who believed the league would make a welcoming “retirement home” only to find himself beset by the chaos of MLS games. Milutinovic’s season with New York was the worst single season performance for any team in MLS history: He finished 4-27-4 and set a record for most consecutive games lost (12).

“Our rule of thumb is, we’re gonna play with a goalkeeper and try to play with a back four," Bruce Arena told the New York Times in 2006, "and the next six, who knows?” 

It is possible for an MLS coach to rid his team of rot and remake its foundation, though. In the fall of 2008, one week after Gullit was fired, Arena arrived at one of the most dysfunctional locker rooms in league history. His two stars, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, hated each other. The management had been ousted and the team had failed to win a game in two months. Arena commenced an epic sweep of the Galaxy locker room, ridding himself of eight players: Carlos Ruiz, Joe Franchino, Steve Cronin, Ante Jazic, Mike Randolph, Troy Roberts, Peter Vagenas, and Israel Sesay (who went out on loan).

However, Arena already had a plan on how to replace them. In the next year’s draft Arena picked up two players from the University of Maryland, Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza, who anchored the Galaxy backline for the next six seasons. He traded the Galaxy’s second round 2010 draft pick to the New York Red Bulls and in exchange acquired a then-underperforming forward named Mike Magee. He signed a totally unknown 21-year-old midfielder from Brazilian club Sao Paolo, Juninho, and traded forward Carlos Ruiz to Toronto FC in exchange for a couple of draft picks in order to open up cap space to bring in Eddie Lewis. Arena signed Gregg Berhalter from Colorado, promoted Tristan Bowen from the L.A. Galaxy’s academy and, after seeing some impressive national team performances, snapped up a couple players from England’s lower leagues: Donovan Ricketts (who had impressed Arena during Jamaica’s 2010 Concacaf World Cup qualifying) and Chris Birchall (who Arena remembered from his performance at the 2006 World Cup for Trinidad and Tobago.)

Viera will have to plumb the depths of both MLS and the smaller leagues of the world in order to fill his roster and stay under the cap. So if his staff hasn’t been following, say, the Belgian Pro League, the Campeonato Nacional in Chile, or the NCAA championships, he best get cracking.

3. Play Your Kids

NYCFC has two 37-year-old midfielders. It is hard to say whether it is insulting that CFG ignored Kreis’ warning that having two aging midfielders would backfire in MLS or a sign of progress that MLS teams can no longer succeed by bringing in aging European imports. Arena and Schmid are both MLS icons but their tried-and-true commitment to veterans at the expense of youth represent an era fading into MLS obsolescence. The Seattle Sounders were the oldest team in the league last season despite being one of the biggest spenders. Ditto the Galaxy. 

That being said, both the Galaxy and Sounders have superior academies from which to sign first-team players—an accomplishment on which not every team in MLS has fully capitalized. D.C. United, for example, has only one true standout homegrown player in Bill Hamid, and the extent to which United can truly claim credit for the keeper is debatable since he spent less than two years in its system before being signed to a homegrown contract.

No coach embodies the new dawn of MLS more than Oscar Pareja at FC Dallas. The Colombian made it to the MLS Western Conference finals with one of the most modest salary budgets in the league, all because FC Dallas made it a priority years ago to forego hiring aging superstars and instead double down on the kids—in north Texas, in South America, anywhere he can find them. As a result, FC Dallas boasts one of the league’s youngest teams and plays some of the prettiest soccer in the league. Team captain Matt Hedges, U.S. youth international Kellyn Acosta, Colombian international Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz, Victor Ulloa, Alex Zendejas, and Tesho Akindele are just some of the budding young talents that have made FC Dallas so successful.

"This is the group that I want to coach and the group that I dreamed to coach one day," Pareja said after his team lost in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup. "Tonight I was very pleased and the game gave me the opportunity to coach this group of players and my dream came true. This is the heart that I want to see in the organization in games. I love it.” 

If Vieira is going to get anywhere in MLS, NYCFC has to make the most of the huge population of youngsters it has available to it in the New York Metro area. NYCFC currently has no real academy, no USL affiliate, and no Homegrown players. By way of comparison, during the past two months NYCFC’s rivals in the Garden State have signed seven Homegrown deals: Tyler Adams, Brandon Allen, Derrick Etienne, Alex Muyl, Chris Thorsheim, Mael Corboz, and Scott Thomsen. 

Vieira’s recent background involves working with youth players. That gives him a leg up on many of his cohorts, and one of his first priorities for NYCFC should be to get started on building a great academy. The longer NYCFC waits to start developing its own talent, the longer it will prolong its travails.

4. Respect Your Fans

When Carlos de los Cobos arrived in Chicago he promised the Windy City attractive, possession-style soccer that would mobilize the fanbase and bring trophies to the club. Shortly after arriving, de los Cubos axed Jon Busch, a popular goalkeeper for the team despite the fact that Busch was playing well. He benched one of the team’s most popular players, C.J. Brown, before his retirement at the end of the season. And he brought in the oddest assortment of players, like Julio Martinez and Deris Umanozor, who were totally unequipped to play in MLS.

To his credit, de los Cubos tried to execute on his vision of playing attractive soccer in Chicago by bringing in more technical players like Nery Castillo, Freddie Ljungberg, Marco Pappa, Patrick Nyarko, and Baggio Husidic. However, several of these players suffered badly in the physical conditions imposed by MLS. The Fire missed the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and de los Cobos’ time in Chicago marks the lowest win percentage in franchise history. Membership in the Chicago Fire’s Supporter’s Group dropped to an all-time low and, after a nine-game winless streak, de los Cubos was fired in May 2011.

Now, it is possible for a coach to turn an alienated and hostile fanbase in his favor. At the beginning of the 2015 season, Jesse Marsch took over the New York Red Bulls from Mike Petke, a franchise icon. During a town hall conducted last year that Marsch attended, fans frothing at the mouth with rage stood and cursed Red Bulls’ management for terminating the beloved Petke, and, in true New York fashion, defied Marsch to do better. Marsch, to his credit, told the angry mob the gauntlet they’d thrown down was one he’d embrace. Instead of defending the dispatch of Petke, Marsch countered the fans’ wrath with one request: Just give me a chance, and if I don’t get results, then fire me.

With Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill out of the picture, Marsch brought in younger, team-oriented players like Sascha Klijestan, and took youngsters from the Red Bulls’ excellent academy, such as Matt Miazga, and gave them regular minutes in the Red Bulls’ Starting XI. Under Marsch, the Red Bulls played some of the best soccer the franchise has ever seen, relying on a high-pressing game that made the most of the team’s new ethos of acting as a collective. By the end of the season, Marsch had turned a riotous mob into true believers.

Nowhere are fans tougher to please, and nowhere does the rubber meet the road more swiftly than in New York City. Grandiose speeches about CFG’s aesthetic principles will matter precious little to the residents of the most demanding city in the world. If Vieira wants to survive in the Big Apple, he can start with a couple olive branches (e.g., take a couple fan favorites like Poku and David Villa and sign them to contract extensions) followed shortly by real results.

5. The Team Is the Star

Many foreign coaches have arrived on North American shores preaching the lofty goal of teaching America’s huddled masses how to play the beautiful game… well, beautifully. Aron Winter, a product of the acclaimed Ajax system and proponent of "Total Football," promised to bring a new level of tactical nous to Toronto FC in 2011. As it turned out, achieving tactical superiority in MLS is an underwhelming achievement since the tactics employed by most teams are pretty basic.

Winter may be a tactical genius or tactical fool, but his singleminded focus on tactics led him to overlook basic problems in his locker room. Winter traded Dwayne De Rosario, the team’s captain and all-time leading scorer, who went on to become the first Canadian to win MLS MVP honors. Without De Rosario, the team became rudderless. TFC’s most talented winger, Joao Plata, was miserable playing for Winter and started begging for a transfer. Winter also signed Dutch striker Danny Koevermans, who immediately got injured playing in the rough conditions of MLS. 

“I don’t mention it out of respect mostly to the media," Winter told ESPN Deportes in 2011. "It’s hard to openly talk about what I think or feel because I don't want to hurt or offend anybody. But me, it really caught my attention at the really poor level of play that is played in this league.” 

Consequently, the team Winter had touted would bring Total Football to MLS turned into one totally incapable of passing the ball forward. Winter’s Toronto team began the 2012 season with a 0-9-0 record, the worst start in league history. Winter won seven games with TFC in a little over a year, despite the fact that he employed the formation he deemed as tactically superior (4-3-3) almost the entire time.

Coaches won’t win in MLS on tactics alone, not now and likely not ever. And anyone who thinks that coaching can be reduced to tactics isn’t a coach—he’s an analyst. 

When Jason Kreis took over as head coach for Real Salt Lake, he was 34-years-old, the youngest coach in MLS. Salt Lake is one of the smallest media markets in the league and has none of the overt glamour of Los Angeles or New York City to attract global superstars. Yet Kreis, with his reserved Midwestern demeanor and steely ambition, quietly went about putting together a remarkably successful team. Boasting his beloved diamond midfield, Kreis instilled possession-first soccer at RSL and in so doing also brought RSL to its first playoff series in 2008. He subsequently won MLS Cup in 2009, narrowly missed out on winning the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011, and brought RSL to the MLS Cup finals in 2013.

Like all great small-market coaches in MLS, Kreis maximized his resources, picking up low-priced options in South America and smart kids in the Superdraft. But Kreis also brought a simple philosophy to RSL: "The team is the star."

RSL may be the team that adopted the slogan, but many MLS teams that go deep in the postseason seem to follow Kreis’ philosophy. Though many consider the L.A. Galaxy a star-centric squad, anyone who watched Robbie Keane defend the Galaxy’s penalty box during the waning minutes of the 2014 Western Conference final against Seattle knows it’s hard-working, team-first players like him who tend to be difference-makers.

In his book, Roy Keane wrote about the “five percent difference”—the margin between Manchester United and Wimbledon is five percent, so if Manchester United doesn’t come prepared and focused it can lose to a vastly inferior opponent.

In MLS, the margins are thin as a whisker: and that five percent difference is more like one percent. When a coach can’t spend millions he needs to improve the players he has and inspire them to be truly committed and truly selfless.

In other words, the coach needs to make the team the star.

Wendy Thomas is an attorney and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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