The announcements came almost back-to-back. The two Major League Soccer teams in Los Angeles, the record five-time champion Galaxy and the soon-to-launch LAFC, announced new head coaches on Thursday.
One is a 64-year-old who will take his fourth job in MLS, a league in which he has worked in every single season starting in 1999. The other is a 59-year-old who will also take his fourth MLS job, after a decade-long tour through the international game and Europe.
The Galaxy appointed Sigi Schmid, who was dismissed by the Seattle Sounders last season and replaces the fired Curt Onalfo, who has now washed out of three MLS head coaching jobs. LAFC snagged Bob Bradley, following a disastrously brief stint in charge of Swansea City of the Premier League that ended on Dec. 27, capping a string of jobs that included the U.S. and Egyptian national teams and trips through Norway, France and England.
And that’s all fine. There is no arguing their qualifications. Schmid has won two MLS Cups, three Supporters’ Shields and five U.S. Open Cups. He has the most regular season wins in league history and the second-most in the playoffs. Bradley has broken boundaries as the first American coach to do a whole ream of things, not least manage in the Premier League. Both are two-time MLS Coach of the Year recipients, combining to make up half the list of the men to have won the honor multiple times.
But if their appointments are perfectly reasonable and valid, they also echo a larger trend: MLS teams rarely hire an unknown manager. Of the five teams that have made a managerial change since last season, four tabbed a manager who had already been a head coach within the league. Among the two expansion teams, Minnesota United went with Adrian Heath, formerly of Orlando City, and only Atlanta United went outside the league ranks, picking former Argentina and Barcelona manager Tata Martino.
Last year, Owen Coyle and Schmid were replaced by longtime team assistants, and Heath made way for Jason Kreis, taking his third job in the league. Granted, in 2015, the league brought in three new managers — Coyle, Patrick Vieira and Veljko Paunovic, the latter of whom did spend a year playing in MLS — in addition to four hires from within the circuit. But the point stands.
MLS teams are usually slow in firing, and risk-averse in their hiring, preferring to promote from within. Out of 22 current MLS managers, only six had never been active in the league as players. And of those six, three had prior coaching experience in the league before being hired to their current positions.
It’s all very incestuous. But MLS is hardly alone in this. Other leagues like the Premier League are famously managerial merry go-rounds. And this also applies to most other major American sports leagues. The lack of imagination in hiring managers or head coaches is practically universal.
It’s also understandable. When you’re in a position to hire managers, it’s almost always the case that you’re also in a position where you yourself can be fired. This quandary punishes risk. And the unknown manager tends to carry greater peril of backfiring on you than the unexciting retread. This kind of thinking leads to the same results wherever it’s applied, which is almost everywhere: jobs go to one from a small batch of pre-screened and universally approved-of managers. It’s a tiny pool, wherein every fish, no matter how small or how often it’s been thrown back, makes for an acceptable catch.
Yet you wonder how much coaching talent is frozen out, either because it doesn’t have the requisite MLS playing experience or because it just can’t seem to catch a break.
In a lot of ways, MLS can’t afford to squander talent the way richer leagues can, since the caliber of coaches working in those places is generally higher regardless. And with the benefit of the vast college game, there are hundreds of coaches gaining good experience to prepare them for a career in the pros. Yet since some early-days MLS coaches like Schmid, Bradley and Bruce Arena made the leap from the college game, such a move has been exceedingly rare. Caleb Porter is the only current coach to have done it recently, and that was back in 2012.
Yet there is an advantage to being a new-ish league. The pressure to perform instantly doesn’t really exist here the way it does in the legacy leagues of Europe or South America or in Mexico. Barring absolutely disastrous results — like Onalfo with DC United and then the Galaxy this season — managers get a honeymoon period, or at least a grace period, of at least a season when they’re allowed to build.
That means the conditions are just about ideal in MLS to introduce new managerial talent and see how far it can push the domestic league by getting more out of players. Relatively speaking, there isn’t an enormous amount to lose since the accountability demanded for losses in the short term is fairly small.
But that doesn’t happen. Or it doesn’t happen much. Few teams take chances. They prefer taking a safe bet with a low payout to a risky bet that could push the game forward. So they hire the manager you’ve heard of. Rather than the manager who might just improve your team significantly.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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