Monday, February 18, 2008

MLS - Yankee Coaches Only?

With all the recent coaching changes in Major League Soccer, there has been talk by American soccer pundits over MLS coaching changes. Some of that talk has been centered on non-American coaches and if they can succeed in the MLS. A lot is made of Major League Soccer's quirks when compared to other leagues in the world. That is, the MLS' salary cap, the college draft, the eccentric player rules and others.

I would never disagree that the college draft isn't going to present some challenges to someone like Ruud Guillit. At least not the draft that's going to occur in a few weeks. But is tracking and evaluating American players in college all that different than what European clubs do in tracking youth and reserve players? In fact, I'd venture that being able to draft a player may be a relief to the managers. No more trying to sweet talk a player into a move to your club based on cash or by implying they'll get time in the first team or dazzling them with the current internationals in your squad. You simply take a look at the players out there, a large chunk of which gather and put their goods on display at the Adidas combine, and prioritize which players you want. Come draft day you re-adjust who you actually pick based on the picks the other clubs make before yours. At the end of the day you know you're going to pick up some of those young players. In Europe there are no such guarantees. If you don't strongly pursue the players you do want you could end up getting none of them. Having some guarantee of sorts on getting some young players surely should be less stressful for anyone coaching in the MLS.

As for the salary cap being an issue, sure the dollar amount pales compared to some of the big clubs in the top European leagues. Nevertheless, every club has a budget for players. That player budget is in essence a self-imposed salary cap in any given year for that team. It's not as though as long as your a manager of a team in the Bundesliga that you have an infinite budget for player transfers and wages. They're both finite. The difference is that the MLS' is a league wide cap and it's a lot smaller than what is found in the bigger leagues.

Look at George Burley at Southampton. The Saints are having some financial problems. In the off-season he had to sell 2 of his best young players Gareth Bale and Chris Baird. Now one can argue if Baird is good enough to be a prem player... but that's different than how valuable he was to a Championship (div 2) club.

Sure, what Burley did was different from the MLS in how it was executed. But what he did to get there, sorting through player wages, evaluating what he could get for various players and deciding how the club could be best served in meeting those isn't all that different. The numbers are bigger but there are still limits. Just because you're in Europe doesn't mean you have some sort of an unlimited, pie in the sky player budget. Most clubs have one and it's rather limited relative to the league they play in.

In selling those players, Burley was able to hold on to some key veteran players. I'm not sure this is any different than Ruud Gullit having to decide what to do about Landon Donovan. He's going to need to evaluate offers from other teams for Landon, see what he can get, what kind of cap room it frees up, and what LA has to give up in return. I mention Landon because even with the grandfather of him, LA still has something like $700-800K of their $2.4 million salary cap tied up in just Landon and David Beckham. Great players for the MLS but it still makes things tight for the rest of the squad.

What about Dominic Kinnear in Houston and Steve Nicol in New England? Both teams made the MLS Cup final for the 2nd year in a row. Both teams have veteran players, some with contracts up for renewal and others possibly looking to shake things up and demand a pay increase despite still having another year or two left on their contracts. They will need to evaluate who they have, what their budget is, who they're willing to pay more or who will be let go from the team. I don't see how that is all that different from what George Burley had to do at Southampton. Granted the league didn't impose the cap on Burley. That was imposed by the company's management. Southampton's board saying that they will only spend XYZ on player wages and actually need to raise some cash from the transfer market to address their debts. The affect is the same.

I say this because in a column for Soccer America a while back Ridge Mahoney touched on this MLS pay issue. He's far from the only one. I don't mean to single him out. He made a point of noting that a possible coach for New York Red bulls, Steve McClaren, was coaching at a club that likely spent more on just 11 players than the entire MLS spends (note: since that column, NYRB hired Osorio). Is that true? I didn't run the numbers but it would not surprise me. Nevertheless, compared to the most of the Premiership Middlesbrough are hardly big spenders. McClaren had to compete for players with other teams not only in the Premiership but also the English Championship (div 2) and in France and Germany and Spain and Italy and Holland and Scotland and.... getting the picture? For example, Fulham, not a club noted for it's spending, was able to lure Franck Queudrue away from Middlesbrough. FQ isn't a household name. He shouldn't be. He's not a great player. But he's still a good left fullback for the Prem. Middlesbrough had him and would've liked to keep around; just not at the price that Fulham were offering. Had McClaren had some sort of a bottomless put full of money for player acquisitions and wages, the story would likely be different. But he didn't and Quueudrue left for greener pastures (pun intended). After all, how do clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United get their big players? I doubt it's the crappy, rainy cold weather nor the northwest's idea of "culture" that are bringing them there. Money talks; compared to many clubs he was competing with, McClaren didn't have it.

Most all of coaches in the game have to deal with monetary constraints. The MLS' salary cap shouldn't be that large of an issue for foreign coaches. The issue will be how they adjust to American culture and to what players in the MLS are capable of doing. That is, how will they adjust to having athletic players who tend to be lacking in tactical knowledge in the game. Well, that and most MLS clubs aren't willing to pay the coaching salaries that foreign coaches are looking to get. Either way you cut it, it's not an unbridgable divide for foreign coaches.

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