Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 23 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
It’s pretty amazing that in its first year of existence, Los Angeles Football Club can win the Western Conference in Sunday’s regular season finale. A victory at Sporting Kansas City on “Decision Day” would do it.
LAFC coach Bob Bradley is no stranger to leading successful expansion teams, of course. Two decades ago, Bradley won both the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup with the first-year Chicago Fire. But the MLS of 2018 is unrecognizable compared to the 12-team circuit the league was way back then. And while most people expected LAFC to be good, I’m not sure they expected them to be this good.
Perhaps most impressive is way they’ve played. They’re an attack-mined team that is exciting to watch. The numbers prove it. Despite losing forwards Carlos Vela and Marco Urena to World Cup duty for more than a month over the summer, Bradley’s team has netted 67 goals this season. Only Atlanta United, with the help of record-smashing Josef Martinez, has scored more.
1. “We felt early on that the starting points for a good team were in place,” Bradley told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Wednesday. “You’re trying to get better all the time. There were always enough positives to feel like we were going in a good direction. And so the work to play good football, to be a team that is as complete as possible and knows how to win different kind of games, these are the things that you just keep working on.”
2. As expected, there have been ups and downs along the way. LAFC started out 6-1-1, but also went winless during a five-game stretch in July and August. They advanced to the Open Cup semifinal, only to lose on penalties to eventual champion Houston Dynamo. Captain Laurent Ciman left midseason for French side Dijon, yet Bradley’s squad appears to be hitting its stride as the playoffs approach, having lost just one of its last 10 matches.
3. There’s no reason LAFC can’t win MLS Cup this year. But whatever happens on Sunday and in the postseason, there’s no question that the club has been a smash hit in its debut campaign. Bradley, for his part, is among the frontrunners for Coach of the Year. But I was curious: What’s his own measure of success this season?
4. “There’s all sorts of measures,” he said. “There’s the football you play, and I think in stretches that part has been really positive. But there’s also just results. We were really disappointed not to make it to the final of the Open Cup. Now we’re excited for the game against Kansas City. Great stadium, great field, great team, and so I’m hoping for a great game where the best of both sides gets put out there and the football level is really high. And then when that’s over, you see where you stand in terms of playoffs and get ready to go for it. It’s not just about competing and trying to win, but also to take the football that you work on every day of the year and make it count at the most important time.”
5. Bradley is a fascinating subject, and I always enjoy talking to him. The feeling probably isn’t mutual. Anyone who’s covered him for any length of time knows that he doesn’t love the media. I always found that strange given that his younger brother, Jeff, was a highly respected and decorated journalist employed by the likes of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine (where we spent seven years as colleagues) before becoming Toronto FC’s communications director a few seasons ago. Bob Bradley hasn’t agreed to many one-on-one interview or podcast requests lately, which is a shame considering that he’s easily the most successful coach the United States has ever produced. Bob and I have had some disagreements over the years (usually, it was him disagreeing with something I wrote.) However, soccer this country is undoubtedly better served by hearing Bradley’s thoughts more often.
6. The Washington Post reported this week that U.S. Soccer Federation CEO Dan Flynn will step down from his role next year. No surprise there. Flynn, 63, underwent a heart transplant in 2016, and whispers about his imminent departure have been circulating for months. Turns out Flynn’s exit has been in the works for a lot longer than that.
7. “For the past two or three years, Dan has been thinking about a transition strategy and has had several discussions on the topic with U.S. Soccer leadership and the board of directors,” USSF spokesman Neil Buethe told Yahoo. Had the U.S. men’s national team made the 2018 World Cup, Flynn might already be gone. The qualifying failure shook the federation to its core, though, and he was asked to stay on to help new U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro navigate a difficult first year on the job. “There was a preference for Dan to remain in the CEO role for a longer period of time to help in the transition,” Buethe said. “That concept was preferred by Carlos and unilaterally welcomed by the board, which is now in the final stages of determining exactly how the succession plan will be executed.”
8. What does this have to do with MLS? Well, if Columbus Crew boss Gregg Berhalter is indeed hired to lead the USMNT, you have to wonder how that would impact his brother Jay’s chances of succeeding Flynn. Most of the discussion regarding Jay Berhalter, the fed’s chief commercial officer, has centered on how his position might help or hurt Gregg Berhalter’s candidacy, not the other way around. As a high-ranking longtime exec, many within the organization see Jay Berhalter as a natural replacement for Flynn. But I don’t think he can be seriously considered for the CEO job if his brother is the head coach. One, it would look terrible. And two, the CEO pretty much has to have a say when it comes to determining the salary of the USMNT coach, who is typically among the USSF’s highest-paid employees.
9. Speaking of Gregg Berhalter, last week’s column focused on how the former LA Galaxy defender has kept the Crew in playoff position all season despite the threat of relocation looming over the club. Now, with their future in Ohio apparently all but secured, Columbus could miss out on the regular season’s final day. Defeat by Minnesota United on Sunday combined with a win by the Montreal Impact in New England would but the Canadians into the dance at the Crew’s expense, which would be a very MLS thing to happen.
10. If Berhalter is USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart’s pick — my understanding is we’re still on track for an early November announcement — then Stewart will be the Crew’s biggest fan on Sunday. The GM is going to get criticized no matter who he hires, to be sure. But selling an already skeptical fan base on a coach that didn’t even make the MLS playoffs wouldn’t be easy. It’s worth noting that in the past, when Flynn and former USSF prez Sunil Gulati were evaluatingoaches, the strong preference was that any candidate from the domestic league had won an MLS Cup. Berhalter fell short in final three years ago with the Crew, although he did hoist one as a player/assistant coach with the Galaxy in 2011.
11. Stewart has formally interviewed at least two candidates, as we reported earlier this month. I believe Berhalter is one of them. Who’s the other? Not sure at this point, but I’m told by multiple sources that Bradley, Tab Ramos and Peter Vermes have not been interviewed.
Cherundolo: “It’s important that the coach understands how MLS works…I'd like to see Earnie hire someone who understands the American mentality, who knows how to grind out results in CONCACAF. That’s what the #usmnt needs right now. We need to qualify for the World Cup."
— Doug McIntyre (@ByDougMcIntyre) October 19, 2018
12. The response to Steve Cherundolo saying that next U.S. coach should be familiar with MLS was interesting. This is a guy who has spent the last 20 years playing and coaching in the Bundesliga. He’s hardly an MLS shill, and his perspective is more credible than most. It reminded me of what Revs coach Brad Friedel, the Premier League’s record holder for consecutive appearances and a recent National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, told me back in May:
13. “I do think the national team coach should be American,” Friedel said. “There are a lot of really good American candidates now who would do a good job. What happens a lot with the foreign coaches, who are also outstanding coaches, is they don’t understand the lay of the land in the United States. It takes them a while to figure out how MLS works. When you’re born and raised in a different system, it’s really hard. That’s one of the dangers of hiring a foreign coach. But there’s also some great foreign coaches out there that could do really well.” Maybe Friedel and Cherundolo, arguably the most successful Americans ever to play at an elite level in Europe, actually know what they’re talking about.
14. To the surprise of nobody, Atlanta United announced that Tata Martino would not return to the sidelines next season. Where he ends up remains to be seen, but apparently it’s not going to be the U.S., because Martino doesn’t speak English and Stewart said that’s a requirement of the job. I’m not sure Martino is the right fit for the U.S. anyway — the U.S. player pool doesn’t have a Martinez or Miguel Almiron — but should the language issue really matter? In Atlanta, Martino’s training sessions and pre-game team talks are delivered in Spanish. Nine players on Atlanta’s roster speak Spanish. Only two players who were on the most recent USMNT squad do: Kellyn Acosta of the Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC’s Marky Delgado. (That’s obviously another issue, but still important to point out just as a practical matter.)
15. Martino understands questions in English, but he isn’t comfortable doing media interviews. That’s understandable. I wondered how well he’s able to communicate with his English-speaking players in private moments, so I asked a contact who has spent a lot of time around the Argentine over the last two years. “He’s capable of having very basic conversations, but I don’t want to oversell it,” is what I was told. Take it for what it’s worth.
16. I think the Crew make the playoffs. Sunday marks their first home game since the news broke that a deal to remain in Columbus was making significant progress, and I have to think Mapfre Stadium will be rocking on Sunday even with rain in the forecast. The other reason is the Impact’s recent history in New England. Montreal has lost each of their last four trips to Gillette Stadium, getting outscored 9-2.
17. For the first time since joining MLS in 2011, the Portland Timbers have qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons. First year coach Giovani Savarese deserves much of the credit. It’s never easy replacing a successful predecessor; Caleb Porter led Portland to the 2015 MLS Cup before stepping down last season. I wanted to know how Savarese found the right balance between keeping what worked under Porter and putting his own stamp on the Timbers.
18. “The first thing you have to do in order to earn respect,” Savarese said, “Is be honest at your work, giving everything you have every moment in the day, so that everyone sees the effort to make sure that things work. From that point, you try to be sincere, surround yourself with good people, be honest with the players, and make sure your ideas are clear.”
19. Savarese is an MLS original, having played for the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) during the league’s inaugural season in 1996. He also played for the Revs and San Jose Earthquakes plus clubs in Italy, England and his native Venezuela before moving into coaching, first in the Red Bulls youth ranks, then with the second-tier New York Cosmos.
20. “Even though we were in the NASL, it was a very competitive league and I had the fortune to coach some great players,” with the Cosmos, including Spanish legend Raul, Savarese said. “It gave me so much information, so many lessons that you can use in the future.
21. “Even before the interview process, I always felt that Portland would be a perfect place for me to land,” he continued. “I felt prepared for this opportunity. That’s why I took my time, to make sure I was ready. To come back to a league that I’ve always been part of in some way — as a player, as a commentator, as a fan — is something I wanted to do.”
22. Savarese is among a number of players from that 1996 MetroStars squad to became a head coach. Sporting’s Vermes is the longest-tenured boss in MLS. Ramos has led the U.S. U-20s for the last seven years. Omid Namazi is currently in charge of Iranian side Zob Ahan. Tony Meloa coached the Jacksonville Armada in 2015-16, while Manny Lagos helmed Minnesota United when the club was in the lower divisions. Italian great Roberto Donadoni managed the Azzurri and a bunch of Serie A clubs. The only other MLS team that has produced as many coaches is Bradley’s 1998 Fire, which counts Chris Armas, Lubos Kubik, Jesse Marsch, Peter Novak, Jorge Salcedo and Lagos as alums.
23. The Timbers can face any one of six different opponents to open the playoffs. As of now, they’d draw the arch rival Seattle Sounders. Would Savarese relish that matchup? “Once you start choosing which team you’d rather play, that’s the moment that you fail,” he said. “But if it’s Seattle, then you have the biggest playoff game that you can play.”
More soccer on Yahoo Sports:
• Wednesday’s Champions League roundup: Dortmund crushes Atletico
• Tuesday’s Champions League roundup: Real Madrid finally wins a game
• USMNT Stock Watch: Sargent, Cannon, Long trending up
• Still missing Ronaldo, Real Madrid sets record scoring drought