Being hired to be fired is the burden of being a professional soccer coach. Impatient chairmen, pressures of relegation, and mutinous squads can usher a manager to the exit door. The margins between success and failure can be very fine, especially in a league like MLS that is built to ensure parity. MLS has had its share of sackings, with eight teams looking to hire new managers after the 2013 season. Oddly though, you could say that MLS coaches can keep their jobs even in situations that would see a coach get sacked if it were another league. Two of the three teams with the worst records in the league kept their managers last season. The third team, which actually behaved like it was in a relegation battle and sacked its coach midseason, was deemed so dysfunctional it eventually required league intervention.
Instead of pressure from the competition format, the pressure to succeed stems from the amount of investment made in the offseason and the resultant expectations. DC United and Toronto did not invest heavily to support their managers in 2013, and so Ryan Nielsen and Ben Olsen were able to keep their jobs. Chicago brought in two Designated Players and Mike Magee, but despite finishing outside the playoff spots on goal difference, Frank Klopas was canned. It’s an odd situation, exacerbated by MLS’ unique setup.
So in this offseason of high profile arrivals, who is going to be feeling the heat? The coaches can be sorted into a few different cohorts, and I’ve ordered each cohort from most to least tenuously situated.
The Danger Zone:
- Ryan Nielsen, Toronto – Nielsen didn’t have the most secure job last season, but adding three DPs and a host of other talent puts the focus squarely on his abilities. If the talent does not start to mesh prior to the World Cup, he may be gone by the All-Star break.
- Ben Olsen, DC United – kind of surprising that he stayed in the job after last season’s record setting year, but a trophy provides some kind of teflon coating. The playoffs have to be the goal this year, and signs of falling short could cost Olsen his job.
- Sigi Schmid, Seattle – the arrival of Clint Dempsey meant that Sigi had a timeframe to deliver success, and last year’s playoff appearances didn’t help him. Hopefully his squad of better people can earn Seattle some silverware, or Sigi will be gone at the end of the year.
- John Hackworth, Philadelphia – he has done an admirable job reforming the team after the Nowak-led dismantling, but he really needs to get to the playoffs this season to validate the offseason splurge on Maurice Edu.
- Frank Klopas, Montreal – he really shouldn’t be in danger given how little turnover there has been for a squad that really needed some freshening up, but Joey Saputo does seem to have a strict rule of one season per coach.
- Frank Yallop, Chicago – Yallop is a solid MLS coach who will need to spend some time separating soccer matters from one of the league’s most quietly dysfunctional front offices.
The Rookie’s Nest:
- Mark Watson, San Jose – not truly a rookie coach, but this is Watson’s first season with a squad he has been able to shape. He’s in an interesting position as well, since San Jose’s new stadium is due to open in 2015, and there will be more pressure on the ownership group to open the stadium with either a successful team or one that is shown to be moving in a new direction.
- Carl Robinson, Vancouver – Robinson has a talent-laden roster that never seemed to be fully harnessed under Martin Rennie. He clearly wasn’t the ownership group’s first choice and that puts some additional pressure on him to perform.
- Gregg Berhalter, Columbus – the most interesting of the rookie MLS coaches, he is the first appointment of a new owner, which should give him some additional time to get things right. While Michael Parkhurst is a big pick up, is there enough academy talent to build a team that can advance from the East?
- Jeff Cassar, Salt Lake – a strong veteran core and the guiding hand of General Manager Garth Lagerway should provide some level of insulation for Cassar as he grows into this job.
- Wilmer Cabrera, ClubX (Chivas USA) – a highly regarded American coach, Cabrera probably would have been offered the Colorado job if he hadn’t decamped to Los Angeles so quickly. As the manager of the only league-run club, it is hard to see him getting sacked unless he follows Chelis’ lead and completely disregards the flanks.
The Cushy Throne:
- Mike Petke, New York – Supporters’ Shield winner, snappy dresser, fan favorite. Why is he atop this section? A locker room full of big personalities and the need to win in New York, especially with a city rival joining in 2015.
- Dominic Kinnear, Houston – Houston has perfected the art of rounding into form at the right time, but the margin for error appears to be shrinking in the Eastern Conference. Consecutive MLS Cup appearances are a plus, but balancing off-season losses and World Cup absences will be a huge test.
- Jay Heaps, New England – he built a very entertaining side around some young American attackers and turned them into a playoff team in 2013. Losing Agudelo will change how the team plays, but in acquiring Bunbury, he seems to be doubling down on his plan. He’ll need to hope the results keep coming as well.
- Oscar Pareja, Dallas – he’ll be given time to get it right in Dallas, likely with a mandate to integrate academy products into the first team a little more regularly.
- Peter Vermes , Kansas City – he just won MLS Cup, and has had only to make minor tweaks to his squad. It’s quite possible that the club’s investments have just started to pay off.
- Bruce Arena, Los Angeles – who would want to tell Bruce that he’s fired? It would take an epic collapse for the consideration to enter the board’s mind.
- Caleb Porter – Porterball has won some fans, with even more won over by the adjustments to make sure the team would succeed in the playoffs.
- TBD, Colorado – because how can you fire someone who does not exist?
So that’s a general overview of where the coaches stand. Since MLS can be unpredictable, we’ll no doubt be surprised that a pre-season favorite experiences a sudden drop in form that sees them part ways with their seemingly safe coach. As MLS lets teams spend more money and the league starts to split along financial lines, it will be interesting to see how that affects coaches’ longevity. The days of coaches keeping their jobs despite poor performance may be in the past, and the league could benefit from the higher standards.