The Angle

Dispelling the Myth: Foreignness and MLS Coaching

by on 10 November 2015

On Monday, NYCFC announced that Patrick Viera would take the reins of the team’s sophomore year in MLS. The MLS internet responded with a collective snark. Jason Kreis, the MLS golden boy and future World Cup winning coach of the USMNT, couldn’t do it (because of those meddling foreign owners!) so how could someone with no knowledge of MLS?! (Hey, look, I just snarked your snark! Double snark!)

This post wasn’t meant to be about Vieira or Kreis specifically, but it comes out of that little tick in the back of my mind when I see groupthink passed off as fact. The assumption is that because MLS has so many rules (and this is a fact), that foreign managers will not be able to fully adapt to it. Thus, you need a pipeline of homegrown talent. It seems logical, right?
This may be true, but I’m a suspicious person and so I wanted to test this theory with my own theory, which is that because foreignness is a marker that stands out to people, it is marked more readily as a reason for failure. That is, if a domestic coach fails, no one says, “well it’s just because people from MLS don’t understand.” If a foreign coach fails, however, it’s because they couldn’t get their brains around the extra rules.

Every country has this. You’ll hear this all the time from English commentators when they rail against “continental” managers. The original germ of this article was because I thought Bob Bradley was overlooked in places like England for the same reasons MLS teams tend to look inward. And I think it’s a mild case of xenophobia (it’s fine, we all do it, you’ll be ok). So I spent some time compiling data. I am testing this hypothesis: “not knowing MLS” has a negligible effect on success in the league.

My general belief is that technical directors are there to know the rules and head coaches shouldn’t be hindered any more if they don’t have intimate knowledge of the big phonebook of rules. But I don’t have any good way to test that belief, so let’s focus on what we can prove or disprove.

I spent a good amount of time putting together a big ole spreadsheet to test my hypothesis (here it is, available to everyone). I am not the stats wunderkind like some soccer fans, so I am making it available and I am very curious to get notes back from people and see what you can make of it. But first a number of caveats.

Caveat #1:
I am highly suspicious of statistics. People often pass off data as factual and designating objective reality (but let me stop there before I tell you about my dissertation, something which none of us wants). But statistics can be helpful for understanding macro-level trends. They can give us a good perspective to make inferences and broad observations.

That said, they divorce us from context. For example, Thomas Rongen’s 10 days at Chivas USA (a great idea for a Quentin Tarrantino film, by the way) was terrible, but the first ten days of an expansion are very different from, let’s say, leading the tire fire of Colorado Rapids, where no one seems to care if it is ablaze. And so, we need to remember that there are many different contexts being lumped in together.

Caveat #2:
I am still not exactly sure how to define our terms and I am very open to feedback on this. I want to define “foreign” as: a coach with little to no knowledge of the league’s rules. And so I have put in this category those such as José Luis Sánchez Solá (El Chelis) and Adrian Heath. Heath, of course, will not have been quite as green to MLS, but I think it’s still fair to say he was “foreign” to MLS rules. In general,

I considered two or more years of MLS involvement (as player or coach) enough time to say that those coaches were “domestic.” I think this is a fair way to designate this division.

In addition, I have only incorporated data from 2000 and after. This was done for a few reasons. First, I think MLS 1.0 is different enough that lumping its data in with more recent managers. In addition, I think the amount of managers with no MLS experience in the beginning would skew the data.

Caveat #3:
This spreadsheet is messy. I’m sorry, but gimme a break. Feel free to copy it, clean it up, and send it back.

Observation #1: Sh*t don’t matter
There are a few metrics that myself and Dave Laidig (who knows how to use a calculator) used in looking at these data. The first is points per game (ppg), since it adjusts for length of tenure. What it tells us is that the difference between the average ppg of domestic and foreign coaches is .1. That’s it.

Managers unfamiliar with MLS have a ppg average of 1.34, bottoming out with Hans Westerhof’s 32-game reign of terror at Chivas USA during which he won four times. Ray Hudson’s 1.74 ppg during his 50-game stay at Miami Fusion makes him the most successful foreign manager.

The median ppg for all MLS managers is 1.38, while foreign managers have 1.32 and domestic managers have 1.39.

As for the domestic coaches, they earned an average 1.44 ppg. Perry Van der Beck still holds the record for worst ppg of all time, clocking in at .36, but Thomas Rongen’s time at Chivas USA comes in a close second at .4 ppg. My personal Lord and Savior, Jesse Marsch, he of the beautiful flaxen hair, holds the best ppg average at 1.96.

The fact is: judging by this metric, the difference between having experience in MLS and having none is a negligible difference. Put it this way: it’s the difference between Owen Coyle (1.32 ppg) and Mark Watson (1.39 ppg).

If we look at another metric, win percentages, we find a similar story. (I have my doubts about win % being useful, but hey, why not?). Foreign managers won 35.3% of their games while domestic managers won 38.9% of their games. This is essentially the difference between Adrian Heath 35.3% and Denis Hamlett (39.7%).

So my first observation is my main observation: my hypothesis is correct that there is absolutely no merit to saying that foreign coaches don’t succeed in MLS. They succeed only slightly less than domestic coaches.

Observation #2: Oh, Chivas USA again?
Now that we’ve satisfied the primary question, I can turn my attention to something else that caught my eye. There are a few usual suspects that keep on appearing. I know we all want to forget Chivas USA in the collective MLS memory, but it happened and everyone needs to deal with that. I bring them up because they hired three foreign managers (Sola, Westerhof, and Real). This shouldn’t surprise anyone since they made “being different” from MLS one of their raisons d’être.

Chivas USA’s median ppg (foreign and domestic) was .93. Yeah, that’s terrible. But the reason it is important is because I think when most MLS fans say that foreign coaches can’t succeed the way domestic coaches can, they are thinking of instances like Chivas USA, which is the outlier.

Observation #3: Colin Clarke
Why has no one given Colin Clarke another freaking chance at MLS? 41% win percentage and 1.43 ppg. I don’t have time to go into his NASL numbers, but the dude has always competed on a budget in the second division. I know this is a non-sequitur, but seriously I am curious.

Observation #4: Foreign blokes don’t get a fair shake
The median tenure of a foreign manager is 40 games, while it is 68 games for domestic managers. That tells me that patience is much lower for foreigners.

Observation #5: We haven’t had that many
The fact is that foreign managers account for only 15% of games played in MLS since 2000. There have been only 19 foreign coaches in the last 15 years. And so, it brings me back to this myth that people have that says foreign managers can’t succeed here. It gets brought up every time a manager like David Moyes, Patrick Vieira, or Fabio Capello get brought up. Now, it may be that Vieira will be a flop in New York. But if he’s a flop, it will be because he’s a foreigner. And yet, Jason Kreis’s domestic experience won’t factor into anyone’s evaluations of the man.

So let me use the macro-level of statistics to get us to talk about the micro-level of context. I think the contextual reasons why Chivas USA’s plan failed tells us quite a lot about how not to employ foreign managers. I think that the context of Jesse Marsch’s partnership with Ali Curtis (who sure as hell knows the MLS phonebook of rules) tells us a lot about how to have a great strategic plan for success in the league.

But let’s dispel the myth that foreignness has absolutely anything to do with success in MLS. It’s lazy and flat out wrong.

What do you see in these data? There are 9 more ways to look at this blackbird and I would love to hear feedback.

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