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American Coaches Traditionally More Likely to Succeed in MLS

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Orlando City history shows trend among American coaches.

New York City FC v Orlando City SC Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

There has long been a thought that European soccer coaches are superior to American coaches. This has led to many Major League Soccer teams bringing in foreign coaches that have little understanding of the league to coach their teams to little success.

In MLS’ 21 full seasons of existence, there have been 14 head coaches that have led their teams to league titles. Only one of those coaches, Gary Smith of the 2010 Colorado Rapids, had no experience in MLS before leading his team to the championship. This fact is not a coincidence.

MLS is unlike any soccer league in the world. With salary caps, Designated Players, college drafts, allocation orders, discovery lists, and expansion drafts, no league in the world has more complicated rules than Major League Soccer. It’s hard enough for many American coaches to wrap their heads around these rules, but nearly impossible for most foreign coaches.

Grant Wahl’s book “The Beckham Experiment” recorded a problematic situation when the LA Galaxy hired Dutch coach Ruud Gullit. It was 2008 and the San Jose Earthquakes were coming back into MLS after leaving for Houston two years earlier. With an expansion draft coming up, Galaxy General Manager Alexi Lalas had to attempt to explain the process to a confused and frustrated Gullit.

Wahl writes that Lalas attempted to explain the rules of an expansion draft to Gullit but the former Dutch star just could not comprehend them. When Lalas informed Gullit that he couldn’t protect all of his players in the draft, the coach demanded to refuse the transfer. “Number one, it’s not a transfer,” Wahl records Lalas as telling Gullit. “Number two, this is MLS, and you can’t refuse that. There’s very few players with no-trade clauses.”

While the Gullit situation may be an extreme case, it’s understandable that MLS would be very confusing for a coach who spent their entire career in Europe. It makes it all the more obvious as to why only one coach unfamiliar with MLS has won an MLS Cup.

When Phil Rawlins decided to start up his own professional club in Austin, TX, he brought with him Englishman Adrian Heath, who had played for Rawlins’ favorite team, Stoke City and spent his best years with Everton. When Rawlins made a move to Orlando, launching Orlando City, Heath joined him.

Over the following four years, Heath’s Lions would lift five trophies. But that was in the USL, a much different league than MLS. USL teams are owned by individual owners and don’t feature the absurd restrictions that MLS places on clubs. When Heath joined MLS, the club also brought in Paul McDonough, a man with no MLS experience when it came to operating within a club. The result was the Lions missing the postseason in both of their first two seasons, and regressing in 2016.

When the decision was made to dismiss Heath of his duties midway through last season, the club brought in Jason Kreis. The 44-year-old played 12 years with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), becoming the sixth all-time scorer in MLS history. In 2007, he became the head coach of Real Salt Lake, the last team for which he had been playing.

Kreis had tremendous success in his first coaching role, finishing in the top three of the Western Conference six times in 12 years in the small market of Salt Lake City, UT. That included never finishing outside the top three in the conference each year between 2010 and 2014, advancing to two MLS Cups, and winning the league title in 2009. In 2013, his Real Salt Lake side reached the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, falling to Sporting Kansas City in an epic shootout on the road.

While Kreis did have a difficult spell in his one season with New York City FC, many attribute that to the club’s billionaire owners who reportedly took full control of the club, forcing players on the coach including the aging Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. Lampard’s arrival was delayed so he could play with NYCFC’s more important sister club, Manchester City, and only played 31 MLS games over two years, starting just 25.

During his first off-season in Orlando, Kreis was apparently given more freedom in which players arrived, allowing him to acquire players that would fit his system. The Lions got off to a great start in Kreis’ first season, winning six of their first seven games. The first points dropped at home came in the sixth game in their new home and the first loss came in their seventh. Despite the club struggling a little heading into the Gold Cup break, they still sit in fifth in the Eastern Conference.

Comparing the past three seasons, Orlando City has been a good indicator of why MLS clubs should hire MLS experienced coaches. The Lions had gained 18 points after their first 20 games in 2015 and 23 points in 2016. That’s quite less than their current 29 points after 20 games this season. While they averaged 1.29 points in 2015 and 1.21 points in 2016, the purple-clad team is currently averaging 1.45 points per game. That means that while the team finished with 44 points (7th place) in 2015 and 41 points (8th place) in 2016, it is on pace to finish this season with 49 points, fifth in the East.

That’s not to say that foreign coaches can’t find success in MLS. But history has shown us that teams are much better going with coaches that have experience dealing with the complicated rules of MLS, either as players, coaches, or executives. Orlando City’s short history in the league has shown that to be true.