When teams announce new coaching hires, the appointments are usually accompanied by the requisite plaudits and proclamations about why the right person has just been hired. The Columbus Crew took that to new heights last week, when Gregg Berhalter’s hiring was proceeded by a wave of positive spin unlike any we’ve seen in MLS in recent memory.
It suddenly made sense why the Crew took so long to announce a decision owner Anthony Precourt made a while ago. As much as Precourt spent a good amount of time talking about leaving no stone unturned, and referencing everyone from Brad Friedel (with whom he did speak) and Bob Bradley (with whom he never spoke), Berhalter’s hiring was a decision made a while back, which gave Precourt and the Crew ample time to coordinate as positive a spin on the hiring as possible.
We heard it all on day one. How he was the first American to be a head coach in Europe (a distinction that may or may not actually be true). How Berhalter won over the Crew’s search committee (though with the considerable help of search committee member and Berhalter’s best friend, Frankie Hejduk). How Berhalter’s winning mentality was exactly what the Crew was looking for (despite the fact he was fired from his only head coaching job after a year and a half in charge).
What was glossed over by the Crew is the fact that Berhalter’s actual coaching experience was limited to some time as a player/coach with the LA Galaxy and a stint with Swedish second-division side Hammarby that lasted less than a year and a half. His mission when hired was to help the relatively big-spending club make a quick return to the Swedish first division. He failed in that mission, and was fired early in his second season.
Since Berhalter’s departure, Hammarby’s results improved, with the club netting eight more points in the 15 matches since his departure than during his 15 matches in charge in his final season.
So is a coach whose only previous head-coaching experience was a failed stint in an inferior league really the slam dunk Columbus is portraying Berhalter’s hire to be? Not at all. Does this all mean Berhalter was a bad hire doomed to fail? That might be a stretch to say at this point, but there is certainly room to question the hire despite the “Can’t Miss” spin being laid out by the Crew.
Where there better options? You could certainly make the case for Robin Fraser, one of the most highly-regarded assistant coaches in MLS, and a former Crew player to boot. He too struggled in his only shot as a pro head coach, but it is unlikely anybody is holding Fraser’s time at the disaster that is Chivas USA against him. In fact, Fraser is seen as a likely successor to Jason Kreis if Kreis winds up leaving RSL for New York City FC.
Preki actually enjoyed success at Chivas USA, and posted the best record of any coach to pass through long-time losers Toronto FC, but he too was passed over for someone with zero coaching experience in the first division. And what of Seattle head coach and former Crew boss Sigi Schmid, who could very well become available in the coming weeks? Could Schmid have been convinced to give the Crew a second go-round if Seattle sent him packing?
We will never know though because Precourt was sold on Berhalter very early on, and you can bet your Buckeyes that Crew legend Frankie Hejduk had a hand in that. Hejduk has become a confidant of Precourt’s, and Hejduk’s long-time close friendship with former U.S. teammate Berhalter is well documented.
What can be said of Berhalter without equivocation is that he is one of the more well-liked people you will find in American soccer circles. An affable and even-keeled player who was seen as a quiet leader, Berhalter served as captain on several of the teams he played for. A cerebral player who took an interest in coaching even before he hung up his boots as a player, Berhalter served as a player-coach with the Los Angeles Galaxy in his last year as a player, training under well-respected Galaxy boss Bruce Arena.
Ultimately, the only opinion that matters is Precourt’s, and it’s clear Berhalter won him over. You can understand why a new owner would want to put his own stamp on a team, and hire his own guy rather than keeping around someone who has been with the team a long time (like long-time Crew man Brian Bliss, who filled in admirably as interim head coach and would have been a worthy option as well).
If Berhalter proves to be as good as the Columbus spin is making him out to be, then Precourt’s start as Crew owner could go very well. But if Berhalter struggles, and ultimately fails, Precourt will be left learning the lesson so many young owners learn. That going with your gut, and ignoring actual credentials, isn’t always the wise choice.
CHANDLER’S EXILE CONTINUES
Let us take a moment to reflect on what now appears to be the deceased national team career of one Timmy Chandler, who was yet again left out of the U.S. national team’s squad for matches in which he very well could have been a part. Chandler was excluded from the U.S. roster for the upcoming matches against Scotland and Austria, which means his absence from the national team is ready to surpass the one-year mark since his next realistic opportunity for a call-up won’t be until March.
To catch you up on the story, there have been serious questions asked about Chandler’s commitment to the national team, which led Klinsmann to stop calling Chandler in and start looking at other fullback options. Things looked like they might be thawing out when U.S. assistant coach Andi Herzog recently scouted a Chandler club match with Nuremberg, but apparently that visit didn’t yield a positive outcome because Chandler’s name was left off the squad.
The turn of events is an unfortunate one because Chandler is unquestionably talented enough to be a contributor to the U.S. team, but you also can’t blame Klinsmann for growing tired of a player whom he may perceive as having turned his back in previous call-ups, and shown an aloof attitude toward playing for the USA.
That makes the recent call-up of Eric Lichaj all the more interesting. Klinsmann had never once called in Lichaj before during his more than two years as U.S. coach, but Lichaj’s recent inclusion just might suggest that Klinsmann is ready to finally close the door on Chandler and move on to other long-term options.
Lichaj is 24 and can play both right back and left back, and looks like the player who just might benefit the most from Chandler’s exile. That would be fitting considering it was Chandler’s decision to skip the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup that opened the door for Lichaj to play in that tournament, which was his last go-round with the national team.
Of course, you can never say never. Come March, Klinsmann could have a change of heart, but it will probably take some serious contrition from Chandler to earn his way back into the fold. Of course if Lichaj winds up being a quality option, Chandler could wind up out in the cold even if he wants to come back.
HAYNES A COACH TO WATCH
Though his team didn’t win last weekend’s NASL Soccer Bowl final, that didn’t stop Atlanta Silverbacks coach Brian Haynes from receiving plenty of congratulatory hugs and handshakes from well-wishers in Atlanta.
Saturday’s defeat didn’t overshadow the work Haynes had done to make the Silverbacks a respectable team. His work earned him NASL Coach of the Year honors, and now has him in the rumor mill for a potential move to an MLS head coaching job.
Haynes hadn’t spoken to any MLS teams about available positions before the NASL Final, but now with the season over, he is ready to throw his hat into the ring for one of the handful of jobs currently available.
“That’s somewhere I’d love to end up,” Haynes told Goal about coaching in MLS. “I’ve been there as a player and assistant coach. Of course it’s a dream of mine to be able coach in MLS. I believe I can do it. I think I know how to do it now after being a coach here (in NASL with Atlanta).
Haynes served as an assistant coach with the FC Dallas before and should receive some consideration for the available FC Dallas head coaching position.
If Haynes can’t land an MLS gig this winter, he just might stick around Atlanta a while longer as the southern city’s own MLS expansion hopes continue to grow. For his part, Haynes firmly believes Atlanta would be an ideal location for an MLS club.
“I think It’s a great place to have an MLS franchise first and foremost,” Haynes continued. “I think the education the people have gotten from what little success we’ve had, and doing as well as we’re doing, I think now they can understand and appreciate it.
“If you can have every weekend this kind of atmosphere, and having the likes of the Thierry Henrys of the world showing up here, coming to play in an environment with 20-30,000 people, it does something for the whole city. It brings the city together, and if we can bring a winning franchise it would be even better.
“Going back to when I was a player in MLS I remember thinking what a great city this could be to have a franchise. They have everything you need to make this a great city for a team. All we need is a soccer-specific stadium, or a stadium that can become one, and with the money that the (Arthur) Blanks of the world have, it’s possible.”
While Atlanta does appear to be a front-runner for one of the expansion slots MLS is looking to fill in the coming years, Haynes might not have to wait that long to make his return to the league he played in with the then Dallas Burn from 1996 to 2000.
MLS COACHING CAROUSEL UPDATE
Things have gone a little quiet on the MLS coaching carousel since the hires of Frank Yallop by Chicago and Berhalter by Columbus. Here is an update on positions thought to be up for grabs:
MONTREAL IMPACT- The Impact shot down rumors of Alessandro Nesta taking over as head coach, but all signs still point to Marco Schallibaum being replaced. Who will the Impact seriously consider? Good luck trying to figure out what Joey Saputo wants to do.
FC DALLAS- Nothing new on this front, though sources tell Goal that the team’s unwillingness to pay Oscar Pareja’s buyout figure is the real reason why Pareja isn’t returning to the club. It might seem like a case of the team being cheap, but with the club set to pay out Schellas Hyndman’s contract (yes, he was forced out), you can understand why FC Dallas might be hesitant to splash too much more cash on its coaching situation. That could help pave the way for a Brian Haynes to land the job.
PHILADELPHIA UNION- Signs point to John Hackworth sticking around as head coach despite the team’s failure to make the playoffs. This isn’t really much of a surprise, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some turnover on the team’s staff in the coming weeks.
REAL SALT LAKE- Jason Kreis has RSL in prime position to reach a second MLS Cup Final, but the wise money is probably still on this being Kreis’ last season with RSL. Whether it is New York City FC, or Seattle, Kreis will have his pick of options when RSL’s season ends. And if Kreis does leave? Red Bulls assistant and former RSL assistant Robin Fraser would have to be the first phone call GM Garth Lagerwey makes.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS- Sigi Schmid has yet to be fired, but the team didn’t exactly give him a resounding vote of confidence. Adrian Hanauer stated the team will be taking the next two weeks to assess the club’s situation. That also happens to be how long the team would have to wait to talk to Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis, who just might be Seattle’s next target.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS- Reports linked the Whitecaps to U.S. Under-17 national team head coach Richie Williams, with assistant coach Carl Robinson another possibility. You have to wonder if Vancouver will be a team that waits around to see how Sigi Schmid’s situation in Seattle plays out, because the Whitecaps would have to be interested in inquiring about a coach who has won MLS Cups with two different teams.
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