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MLS Coach of the Year: The Too-Late Case for Óscar Pareja

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A look at why Óscar Pareja was wrongly snubbed for MLS Coach of the Year.

Orlando City SC v Sporting Kansas City Photo by Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images

In what shouldn’t have been, but felt like, a surprise, Jim Curtin of the Philadelphia Union has won the 2020 Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year award over Orlando City’s Óscar Pareja. I say shouldn’t have been, because we’ve already seen MLS change the Rookie of the Year award to the Young Player of the Year Award to allow Diego Rossi to win.

In previous seasons, Daryl Dike most likely would have won the award as the best rookie. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Pareja wasn’t honored either. Let’s look at the reasons why I don’t agree with the result.

First off, let me say that Curtin had a good year. His club won the Supporters’ Shield in a year where we weren’t sure if that award would even be given. Philadelphia has managed injuries very well, and has won matches. I’ll even add that Curtin has done a great job building Philadelphia to this point over the last several years. It’s the several years thing that is my main point of contention.

If you want to argue that taking into consideration the last several years, Curtin has been the best coach, I might agree with you. However, for just the 2020 season, Pareja is the clear choice. So how does Major League Soccer come up with the winner? They vote on very clear guidelines, taking into account numerous factors. Just kidding, it’s just based on what the following list of people feel.

  • Current MLS players.
  • MLS clubs (coaches, technical directors/general managers).
  • Select media members representing local and national outlets who consistently covered the 2020 MLS regular season.

I can’t be certain those people looked at the numbers from the end of 2019 to the end of the 2020 regular season, but we’re going to do so. Under Pareja, Orlando City went from 22nd place in MLS to fifth place, up 17 spots in the overall (Eastern Conference and Western Conference combined) standings. Under Curtin, Philadelphia went from fifth place to first place, up four spots in the standings. That is a much bigger improvement for the Lions, especially considering that it was Pareja’s first season with Orlando City, and Curtin’s seventh season with the Union.

Additionally, Pareja’s Lions went from 1.09 points per game in 2019 to 1.78 in 2020, an increase of 0.69. Orlando City also had two more wins, and 11 fewer losses than in 2019. The Lions’ longest unbeaten run in 2020 was 12 matches. On the other side, the Union went from 1.62 points per game to 2.04, which is a smaller increase of 0.42. Philadelphia had two fewer wins than 2019, seven fewer losses, and the club’s longest unbeaten run in 2020 was seven. (Note: with a shorter season, you’d expect fewer wins/losses from the previous season if all else was equal.)

When I write player grades columns for Orlando City matches, part of my criteria is my expectation for the player versus the actual results. The expectations for Orlando City from pretty much everyone, including our own Michael Citro in his 2020 Orlando City MLS preview, were not that high.

This is a team that should compete for a playoff position but I don’t see them finishing higher than sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference unless things really come together well under Pareja. Eighth or ninth might be more realistic but progress must be made.

Of course, the rest of The Mane Land staff was split as to whether the Lions would even make the playoffs in our preseason TML staff roundtable. The Mane Land staff weren’t the only ones skeptical of an Orlando City team improving too much in 2020. Over at www.mlssoccer.com, their panel made the following predictions for the Lions.

  • Ben Baer: 11th in East
  • Marcelo Balboa (Univision): 9th in East
  • Calen Carr: 12th in East
  • Charlie Davies: 8th in East
  • Matt Doyle: 9th in East
  • Kristian Jack (TSN): 9th in East
  • Frederic Lord (TVA Sports): 13th in East

Now, let’s compare that to what they thought about Philadelphia.

  • Ben Baer: 6th in East
  • Marcelo Balboa (Univision): 2nd in East
  • Calen Carr: 3rd in East
  • Charlie Davies: 4th in East
  • Matt Doyle: 7th in East
  • Kristian Jack (TSN): 2nd in East
  • Frederic Lord (TVA Sports): 4th in East

Quite a big difference. What about ESPN? In their MLS 2020 team-by-team preview, Orlando City was predicted to finish “In the cellar,” and Philadelphia as an “Eastern Conference champion contender.” Even after the Lions’ run into the MLS is Back Tournament final, most were still skeptical of what Orlando City could do “outside the bubble.” It’s pretty obvious that the expectations for Orlando were very low, and much higher for Philadelphia. Which means Pareja got more than expected out of his club than his competition.

Because the 2020 season has been so odd, there’s only so much we can tell from the schedules, but in the only head-to-head result in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, the two clubs drew, 1-1. Even then the Lions might have won if not for a vital save by Andre Blake. Regardless, Orlando City won the group. In non-conference play, the Union went 0-1-1 versus Western Conference opponents (both on the road), whereas Orlando City went 1-1-2 versus Western Conference opponents (all four on the road). The common opponent was at Dallas, with Orlando drawing 0-0 and Philadelphia losing 2-0.

There have been plenty of other articles on The Mane Land regarding how Pareja has brought out the best in his players both individually, and as a club. I’m certain that Curtin has done some good stuff on that front as well. But with all the others factors mentioned above, I can only come to the conclusion that the voters decided to award Coach of the Year to Curtin based on the culmination of several years of club development, rather than just one season, or maybe because his team won the Supporters’ Shield.

If that’s the case, then just attach it to the Supporters’ Shield, because when you look at what each accomplished — given where they started at the beginning of 2020 — it’s clear Pareja should have received more votes.

Here’s hoping that the club takes the slight as motivation as the Lions head into the playoffs.