Image credit to Dan Mick.

The Angle

The Future Is Now: Head Coach

by on 19 October 2016

One week is left in the MLS regular season. Two weeks remain in the NASL regular season. Four weeks until the NASL final. Seven until the MLS Cup final and the expansion draft. 

It’s all happening very fast for Minnesota United FC. As the current seasons race toward their conclusion, Jeff Rueter and Alex Schieferdecker sit down to discuss the current roster status of Minnesota United FC and the club’s needs at every position. 

Previously, we’ve discussed goalkeepersdefendersmidfielderswingers, and forwards. This week, we’ll look at the main area off the pitch!

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Alex: Hey Jeff! In five installments, we’ve gone position by position to discuss Minnesota United’s future roster. For the sixth and last talk, we need to talk about perhaps the most consequential personnel decision the team has to make and it’s not on the field. Who should manage the club in MLS? We debated about whether we should even do this discussion, but the talk is out there, I think it’s only fair that we acknowledge it.

Jeff: I think you’re right — it’s worth acknowledging both the circulating rumors as well as what we should be hoping for.

While the club has been able to fight off every single team in the league and, with two games remaining, is still in pole position for the fourth spot in the NASL postseason, it hasn’t been a great Fall Season for Carl Craig and his United. We could look at the tactics and see if he “over-managed” or question individual substitutions — that might be a topic for later in the thread.

“What are we looking for? First, I’d love to see a brand of tactics that becomes the club’s identity. Whether that’s an open, attacking plan or a possession-based scheme, I want there to be some kind of ‘Minnesota United soccer’.” – Jeff

Injuries and international duties have sapped several players for massive periods of time, leaving the team mired in The Darkness. Most damning was the injury to Greg Jordan in week one, as he’d been a crucial part of Craig’s “double-six” midfield pivot with Jeb Brovsky. With Jordan hurt, the club had to improvise without a true second defensive midfielder to cover for Justin Davis’s and Kevin Venegas’s dangerous attacking runs. All along, the goal was to allow the full backs into the attack with a sort of gegenpress tactic (like those made famous by Jürgen Klopp). Depth was an issue throughout this season. Was Carl set up to succeed this year with his roster options, or was it a lack of tactical adjustment that made this season a slog?

Jürgen Klopp is not coming to United. Might we see his gegenpress tactics, though?

Alex: I think you’re right to acknowledge that two things are true. The first is that the team has unquestionably under-performed against expectations. The second is that there are some legitimate explanations for this. Injuries are a big one. I think you can also wonder about the effects of the MLS transition and how that influences the players. I think that the club’s transfer strategy hasn’t panned out this year. I’m not sure how to apportion blame here, but there’s no disputing that we still haven’t solved our hole on the left wing, we’ve mostly wasted Stefano Pinho because we never really needed him in the first place, and our back line was much too thin all year. So Carl has had to contend with some issues that were not of his making. But the team is fully healthy now and there can be no more excuses in final two weeks, with no margin for error on the table.

“If we tap Carl to helm the team, it will be because we believe he’s the best man for the job. He brings experience with these players and the club. There’s a value to this continuity. I’m completely behind the idea of Carl coaching the club.” – Alex

At some point (probably after the season is over) there has to be a summing up, right? I think that (with as much distance as I can muster) Carl has done a passable job. It’s his first year in charge and if we make the playoffs, maybe even pull an upset or two, I think you can give his work a passing score. If we tap Carl to helm the team next year, it will be because we believe he’s the best man for the job. He brings experience with these players and the club. There’s a value to this continuity. I’m completely behind the idea of Carl coaching the club next year.

But I don’t begrudge the team for doing their due diligence on other coaches either. MLS experience and head coaching experience rightfully count for a good deal. I don’t get the sense that the club has made the decision yet about next year’s management. I think in two, three, hopefully four weeks, they’ll have all the information they need and a way forward. So let’s speak in the abstract to start. What qualities are we looking for in a head coach?

Jeff: This is framed by the coaching talk but it definitely stretches to the players as well: how much do you value continuity for the transition from NASL to MLS? I think when #Unitedgate was in full swing and we thought the team’s brand would be lost, there was a greater need to have a handful of players and a coach that the fans could still rally behind from the previous iteration. It’s all speculative, but I feel like keeping the United moniker took a lot of the onus away from needing familiar faces for the new league. I don’t think there’s as much pressure to keep familiarity from the NASL days now that the club doesn’t need to be selling fans on a new name. Instead, the club can truly take a “best available” approach to their coaching and roster spots. To quote Billy Beane: “Always be upgrading. Otherwise, you’re f*cked.”

I think Carl deserves a passing grade for this season, all things considered. In their final years before transitioning to MLS, teams have historically finished mid-table as they balance planning for the future with their current season, most memorably when Montreal finished 7 in an 8-team NASL (where 6 teams made the post-season). There’s a precedence for the split-focus that United has had to maintain this year. All of that in mind, I’d definitely expect that Craig gets an interview for the MLS position.

What are we looking for? First, I’d love to see a brand of tactics that becomes the club’s identity. Whether that’s an open, attacking mentality or a possession-based scheme, I want there to be some kind of “Minnesota United soccer.” That said, and this might be the biggest lesson to take from this year: I want the coach to have some flexibility with how to go about this. In 2015, Manny Lagos switched up the lineup and the formation with great regularity and never settled into some kind of gameplan. This year, Craig has kept to the 4-5-1 nearly every week while rotating the players (due to injury) and making minor tweaks to the gameplan based on the opponent. I think there’s got to be a better mesh between the two coaches’ doctrines.

Alex: I think you’ve made a clever point about identity. While I’d say continuity has it’s own merits, I do think that some of the pressure and worry, at least on our end, has been alleviated. Not to mention poor results recently have been discouraging about our current crop of players and coaches. Now if we turn it around and somehow win the championship, that might go the other way.

“In hindsight, the best coaching hire of the past few years in MLS has been Jesse Marsch (honorable mention Oscar Pareja). He’s a superb tactician and he’s brought guys like Alex Muyl into the fold. If I’m making the decision for Minnesota, that’s the type of coach I’m hunting for.” – Alex

Now as you allude to, the hypothetical coach is a somewhat predictable figure. Everyone wants to play soccer like Borussia Dortmund. You want a coach who is going to have your team winning, but winning with style. That’s why Dom Kinnear, an extraordinarily successful coach, and Pablo Mastroeni, who has built an MLS Cup favorite this year, are still regarded with some suspicion. Their teams have won, but not entertained. I’d add one more trait to the hypothetical coach. I want a coach who goes out of their way to introduce youth players into the setup. Count me among the Matt Doyle-ites who believe that the academy system represents the future of MLS and American soccer. I want a coach who feels the same way.

Let’s name some names. In hindsight, the best coaching hire of the past few years in MLS has been Jesse Marsch (honorable mention Óscar Pareja). He’s a superb tactician and he’s brought guys like Alex Muyl and Sean Davis into the fold. If I’m making the decision for Minnesota, that’s the type of coach I’m hunting for. Is that your prototype as well? Does a person like that exist?

Is it Tom Soehn? (That was a joke…)

Jeff: It’s Tom Soehn.

Alex: Oh god.

Jeff: Realistically, I think there are targets who fit the mold cast by Marsch, Pareja, and Carl Robinson. One name I’ve heard tossed around as a potential fit would be Toronto’s Robin Fraser. His CV is impressive: assistant coach for RSL’s title, head coach for Chivas USA’s last two years of relevance, assistant to Thierry Henry (Mike Petke), assistant to Greg Vanney in Toronto’s two postseason years. He’s 49 and has been involved with the league in some way for every year of its existence.

Another guy I think could have similar success is Los Angeles’s Curt Onalfo. He was an assistant to Bruce Arena from 2011-2014 before taking over LA2, showing that he’s worked with young players in an ambitious organization. Further, he was an assistant for the USMNT from 2003-2007, and managed the Kansas City Wizards from 2007-2009 and DC United in 2010. I think he’s ready for another MLS head coaching gig.

“Another guy I think could have success is Los Angeles’ Curt Onalfo. He was an assistant to Bruce Arena from 2011-2014 before taking over LA2, showing that he’s worked with young players in an ambitious organization.” – Jeff

The other names that could be thrown out are much better known commodities. Do you have feelings on the likes of Gio Savarese, Sigi Schmid, or Tab Ramos?

Alex: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’d be thrilled with either Fraser and Onalfo.

Of the other three names, only one of them I think is worth considering here. It’s not Sigi Schmid, though he’d would be a safe but reliable selection. If he were available to me, I’d take him. I just doubt that he’ll be available to us. I think the appeal of LAFC will be too much for him, and I think the appeal of him will be too much for LAFC. Tab Ramos I’m not a fan of. I know he’s a good friend of Manny, but his lack of club experience is a concern. He didn’t exactly bowl people over with his tactical nous when in charge of the U-20s.

Gio Savarese, on the other hand, has done a remarkable job with the New York Cosmos. I’m voting for him as the NASL Coach of the Year. He’s shown he can handle big players and big egos. He’s shown tactical flexibility and creativity with personnel. He’s shown some willingness to involve youth. His teams have played good soccer. Gio absolutely deserves a chance at MLS and I could see it being with us.

We’ve focused entirely here on domestic candidates. But as we’ve seen, Atlanta United went with Tata Martino, who has no MLS experience, but is obviously a well-known coach globally. I personally don’t care much what Atlanta does, and I’m not at all concerned about keeping up with the Joneses here. But might the foreign option be worth considering all the same?

Looking for an analysis of the success that foreign coaches have had in MLS? Wes Burdine tackles the myth here.

Jeff: I don’t think Sigi would be a bad choice at all! It’d be tough to see him turn down a potential superteam in LAFC, but maybe what he enjoyed about Seattle was building them up in a middle market. If that’s what he’s looking for, he goes straight to the top of my list of candidates. I’d be over the moon with him as the gaffer.

I agree that Savarese would be a great fit on many levels. I’d be curious to see how he handles youth, as the Cosmos haven’t had a long enough history to truly produce “their own” talent. I don’t know if Minnesota would ever have a Raul-type figure in the fold, so his balancing of egos may not be relevant. The job he’s done this year with a depleted roster, however, is nothing short of a coaching masterclass.

I’m not invested in Atlanta’s process much, either. Sure, foreign options are worth considering; however, for a team that doesn’t necessarily need to win right away and wants a better long-term product, bringing in someone who knows the league (or the greater American soccer landscape) would help. Gimme Craig, Fraser, Onalfo, Savarese, or Schmid over Martino.

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Any thoughts on what/who you want to see as far as the first MLS head coach goes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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