More than perception at stake for foreign coaches in MLS

NYCFC Patrick VIeira


COMMENTARY – New York City FC and the Chicago Fire lost a combined 37 matches last year. Now they are looking to reinvent an old formula towards success.

The two teams replaced coaches with 735 matches of experience between them with coaches who have never managed a minute at the senior level. Although their new arrivals each hold impressive resumes, NYCFC and the Fire are not only asking their new coaches to build a contender but to bring them to prominence in their respectively crowded sports markets.

Patrick Vieira and Veljko Paunovic head to MLS after each had been linked to prominent head coaching opportunities in Europe. Both have elected to start their club coaching careers in what may seem to be shallow waters. However, just because there’s no relegation doesn’t mean the cost of failure for either coach is any less.

NYCFC does face some prejudiced cynicism from MLS observers but they have not done enough to silence them. The club lost its first president, fired its first head coach and is continuing to replace the failed pieces of its first team.

Nonetheless, the team has the best average attendance out of any New York team not playing football or baseball.

Now NYCFC have to work for longevity in both MLS and New York. Though they have captured the city’s attention, the only way they can keep it is by winning. Although the club is moving forward with its academy, it will take years before its first class ripens into homegrown signings for the first team. It may take equally as long for them to find a home inside city limits but those efforts would be stymied if they become irrelevant.

As Paunovic put it in his introductory statements, the Fire are a ‘wounded lion’ and are seen as such by most in the league. The four-time U.S. Open Cup winners have not won a playoff game since 2009 and have only one postseason appearance in the past six seasons. Peter Wilt’s pragmatic agreement with the City of Bridgeview saved the team from crippling rental costs but has now left it on Chicago’s geographic and sporting periphery.

Current owner Andrew Hauptman’s tenure has been dogged by fan protests and internal squabbling in the front office. He eventually acted and cleaned house and gave former MLS and U.S. Soccer executive Nelson Rodriguez tabula rasa to rebuild the club as its new general manager. Paunovic’s hire is the first step in that direction.

Both incoming coaches have earned reputations for their work in youth development. Vieira is credited with successfully using CFG’s nine-figure investment to build Manchester City’s academy into one of the best in England. Paunovic recently won the U20 World Cup with Serbia giving hope to a federation after its senior men’s team missed the last three major tournaments.

While Vieira will work with sporting director Claudio Reyna and the rest of the front office in building NYCFC’s entire infrastructure, Paunovic and Rodriguez only need to modernize theirs. Both coaches have young players with great potential, but only Vieira will be expected to balance veteran stars with hungry young professionals. Paunovic’s one season with the Philadelphia Union provides some understanding of the MLS landscape while Vieira is still seeing firsthand what travel and turf can do to a team.

Observers tend to point to logistical issues like what Manchester City’s U19s experienced Wednesday as the reason why foreign coaches struggle in MLS. While the league’s complicated roster rules also play a role, both teams are trusting their general managers to handle that. That leaves the coach to deal with the players exclusively on the field.

This is nothing new in MLS.

The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas are hosting must-win matches in the conference finals this week because of this philosophy. Jesse Marsch and Oscar Pareja finished one-two in Coach of the Year voting working exclusively with first team players and those inside their comprehensive (and leading) academies. Ali Curtis and Fernando Clavijo are handling the management duties.

The only difference between these two teams’ current organizational setups compared to NYCFC’s and the Fire’s is in the people. The four individuals working for the Red Bulls or FC Dallas have previously played and/or coached in the US. Between NYCFC and the Fire, Reyna and Paunovic are the only ones with experience playing in America.

Sunday, the Red Bull and FC Dallas technical staff members will try to find a way to overcome their respective deficits and reach the MLS Cup Final. If NYCFC and the Fire find themselves in that position, they will shatter the perception of failure with incoming foreign coaches and fans across the league can challenge executives to think beyond what has been tried and tested.

If they don’t, both teams could have problems far greater than just replacing a head coach and a technical director come next season.