MLS' foreign coaches stigma is dying, and it may have never been real

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Coming from outside U.S. soccer was seen as a curse. Now we know more about why those bosses failed.

The names that littered the first two decades of Major League Soccer – Ruud Gullit, Aron Winter, John Carver, Owen Coyle and Carlos Alberto Parreira – set in place an adage that may soon prove premature: International coaches can’t succeed in MLS.

Of the seven foreign-born coaches in MLS, five currently have their teams above the red line and in playoff contention. Those coaches all have varying degrees of experience in American soccer, from Oscar Pareja and Wilmer Cabrera’s deeper roots in North America, to Veljko Paunović’s one season playing for the Philadelphia Union to the blank slates of Patrick Vieira and Tata Martino.

Vieira led New York City FC to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, while Martino has expansion Atlanta United looking like a playoff team in its first year. Pareja, meanwhile, has turned FC Dallas into a perennial title contender, and Cabrera has helped Houston become the early surprise this MLS season.

Their success, especially that of Vieira and Martino, have started to turn the tide when it comes to opinions about hiring coaches without experience in the realm of U.S. soccer. For many years, going outside the MLS bubble often meant increasing the risk of failure. It seems now that trend may be turning.

What’s different about Vieira and Martino? It may boil down to a few factors that go beyond just managerial ability.

The right infrastructure

There is an argument to be made that it’s not always been the manager who has failed, but rather the infrastructure of the club.

Toronto FC ran through managers, both foreign and domestic, without winning until they settled on a front office and a philosophy for building a team. The result was a more talented roster, smarter investment and a solid infrastructure to provide a winning formula for Greg Vanney to steer.

The LA Galaxy was under the advisement of Alexi Lalas when it hired Gullit, who had some success in Europe before coming to MLS, but even Lalas has admitted the front office in LA was too cluttered during his tenure. The problems with Gullit’s time as coach certainly extended beyond just the behind-the-scenes structure, but the success of the Galaxy under Arena can be attributed as much to his savviness with the leagues many rules as it can his ability to manage a locker room.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It should be no surprise, then, that Vieira, Martino and Paunović (above) have all found some levels of success in their first two years in the league with a front office that is stacked with MLS knowledge.

Vieira relies on Claudio Reyna as his general manager. Reyna spent just two seasons of his career in MLS, but he grew up in the U.S. system, was captain of the U.S. national team and served as the U.S. Soccer’s youth technical director. He then spent two years preparing for his director of soccer role ahead of NYCFC’s first season. Martino is backed by another former U.S. national team captain, Carlos Bocanegra, who played six seasons in MLS, and Paul McDonough, who worked as the general manager for Orlando City and had years of experience in the U.S. soccer market as a college coach and player agent. Paunović, meanwhile, partners with Nelson Rodriguez, who has held a number of roles at Major League Soccer HQ, with Chivas USA and U.S. Soccer.

That knowledge in the front office has eased the pressure on coaches to understand how to work the roster roles and financial restrictions. Removing those responsibilities allows the managers to do what they were hired to do: coach the team.

All three of those coaches also have hired assistant coaches with MLS experience: Aron Hyde in Atlanta, Eric Gehrig in Chicago and Rob Vartughian in New York. Those hires were made to help provide knowledge and background on the road, on the sidelines and within the locker room. It’s no coincidence that all three teams saw it as a necessary ingredient for the coaching staff; it was a conscious decision made in order to give the head coach a better chance at success.

A league of choice

The foundation of an organization and its ability to handle the nuances of MLS is probably the most important factor when looking at the success of any coach, not just the foreign-born ones. But one league source said not to discount the eagerness of both Martino and Vieira to come to MLS when considering their success.

Both coaches had their pick for jobs. Vieira was on the fast track for a top European job as coach of the Manchester City reserves. Martino, meanwhile, had coached Barcelona and then the Argentinian national team, and while he didn’t find success in Spain, he certainly could have found a job at a big club in Latin America.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, both were drawn to MLS. Martino reached out to Atlanta to initiate conversations about coaching the expansion side, while Vieira called the opportunity to coach NYCFC, “an honor.” Paunović had dossiers on every MLS team during his interview with the Chicago Fire, a sign of his knowledge of the league and his desire to land in MLS, even as he was considered a rising coaching prospect after leading Serbia to the U-20 World Cup title.

The want to be in the league also indicated an eagerness to learn about and adapt to its many rules. That falls in stark contrast to coaches like Gullit and Winter, both of whom come with some infamous tales regarding their lack of working knowledge about MLS roster rules, travel and other intricacies.

A changing league

Arena’s success in LA and Dave Kasper’s ability to keep D.C. United in the playoff picture every year on such a small budget are the best arguments for how a deep knowledge of MLS rules can make the difference between winning and losing in MLS. But the rapid growth of this league also means the league is no longer on an island in global football – and that’s no doubt contributed to an easier transition for foreign managers.

In past years, it would have been difficult to imagine rosters like that in Atlanta or New York. Atlanta has built a competitive roster in Year One by spending eight figures on transfer fees and then supplementing those designated players with millions more in Targeted and General Allocation Money spending. So, too, has NYCFC, which is led by the likes of David Villa, but aided by players like Ronald Matarrita and Rodney Wallace.

The money in this league is increasing, and just as importantly, so is the scouting ability of many of the clubs. The knowledge of talent around the world has led to an influx of players to MLS that is starting to pull the league into a more competitive sphere – though it still has much work to do to get on the level of its biggest regional competition, Liga MX. Just three years ago, a talent like Yamil Asad probably would not have been on the radar of MLS teams. Same with players like Johan Kappelhoff, Alexander Ring and Carlos Carmona.

Whereas previous coaches would likely have been exasperated at the limits of the MLS salary constraints, the influx of cash into roster building, growing homegrown infrastructure and relative growth of talent within the U.S. has lessened those problems for coaches like Vieira and Martino. MLS is getting to a point where the areas of translation are decreasing for coaches without experience in the U.S.

With the success of coaches like Martino and Vieira, and the improvement of the Fire this season under Paunović, MLS owners may be more willing to look outside of the regular MLS bubble. For a league that still lags behind in its minority hiring in the top coaching jobs, it would be a welcome sign of maturation.

It might also signal the league has grown to a point where it’s become a more active player within the international soccer community. 

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.

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