The hot seat: MLS managers under pressure this season

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Just over a week from the start of the 2016 MLS season, these seven coaches could be counting their days on their respective sidelines, Jason Davis writes.

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The 2016 MLS season is sure to deliver a few surprises, and among the possibilities is the firing of a coach (or two) in a league not really known for turning over management during the season. No matter how hesitant clubs are the change bosses midstream, there are a number of names who could rightly said to be on the hot seat as the campaign gets underway on March 6.

A wrong turn or two might mean the end for one or more of these names, though not every coach faces the same type of initial scrutiny.

Let’s take a look at those on the hot seat, as well as two head coaches who have to be careful if they’re to stay out of the conversation.

Pablo Mastroeni - Colorado Rapids

Despite finishing last in the Western Conference and 14 points off the playoff places, Mastroeni remains in charge of Colorado Rapids heading into a third season. In two years on the job, the former Rapids midfielder has a win percentage of 26.76 percent, by far the worst in the league. No head coach who could compete with Mastroeni’s dubious record after 2014 managed to keep his job, prompting questions about Colorado’s commitment to winning under owner Stan Kroenke. To hear Rapids fans tell it, the billionaire has no time for his MLS property, what with Arsenal and the (now Los Angeles) NFL Rams in his portfolio.

That perceived lack of ownership interest might be Mastroeni’s saving grace, but it’s not difficult to imagine that a poor start could spell the end of the 39-year-old’s tenure. It’s worth pointing out that when Oscar Pareja skipped town to join FC Dallas, and the team needed a replacement, Mastroeni was a reluctant candidate for the job. The reluctance should have been a warning sign for everyone involved.

Prediction: The Rapids haven’t improved their roster enough to compete in the West, and Mastroeni remains out of his depth. A midseason ouster would be a bit of surprise, but 2016 will certainly be Mastroeni’s last year in charge.

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Owen Coyle - Houston Dynamo

(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Houston is his team now. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Coyle’s first year in Texas can fairly be called an “adjustment year,” but that probably means his second year in Texas will involve much more pressure to return Houston Dynamo to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Houston isn’t a team used to falling short of the postseason, and thanks to the leadership of Dom Kinnear, the club found themselves making deep runs and appearing in the MLS Cup final on a fairly regular basis.

And this team will be more Coyle’s team than the one from the transitional 2015 season. Club legend Brad Davis is gone, shipped off to Sporting Kansas City. In are a host of new names, including creative midfielder Cristian Maidana via trade with Philadelphia. This coming season will be a fairer referendum on Coyle’s ability to get the most of out of an MLS side after making the move from the British game. 

Prediction: Coyle stays in the job all year with the Dynamo hovering around the playoffs places. If they miss out again, the Dynamo - who have new, local, majority ownership - make a change. 

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Jim Curtin - Philadelphia Union

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The final Curtin? (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Here’s Curtin’s problem in a nutshell: Beyond the very basic issue of turning a losing club into a winner, he isn’t Earnie Stewart’s guy. When the former U.S. men’s national team midfielder arrived from the Netherlands to take the reigns as sporting director of Philadelphia Union, fans rejoiced; Stewart’s hiring represented leadership for a club that has been floundering. But that might be bad news for Curtin, who remains head coach despite the front office changes in large part because finding a replacement was too big a big task on a short timeline.

Curtin will get his chance to prove he can enact Stewart’s plan, but it’s difficult to imagine he’ll get a long leash. Stewart doesn’t strike as the type to make change just for the sake of change, but if the revamped Union start out slowly or are well off the playoff pace come summer, Stewart won’t be out of bounds to bounce Curtin in a bid to salvage the season. It would be strange if Stewart doesn’t impose himself with regards to the head coach spot eventually.

Prediction: The Union improve enough to see Curtin hold on to the job for 2016, but another playoff-less season results in a change next winter. 

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Jeff Cassar - Real Salt Lake

Pity Cassar, the coach who had the unenviable task of following Jason Kreis as boss at Real Salt Lake. All Kreis did was take a side in the league’s smallest market and turn them into a team-focused powerhouse that won one MLS Cup, made another final, and got as close to a CONCACAF Champions League title as any MLS team ever has in the new era of the competition. Following Kreis would be a tough job for any coach, much less a neophyte like Cassar.

Cassar did okay in year one, leading RSL to their seventh straight playoff appearance. But the job got harder in 2015, when GM Garth Lagerwey bolted for Seattle. Cassar then decided to make a change to the club’s iconic 4-4-2 diamond formation, a move that put his stamp on the club but damaged his job security when it failed to produce another playoff appearance. With new leadership across the board and RSL in the midst of a new ear, Cassar’s job is on the line in year three.

Prediction: Cassar goes after the season.

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Adrian Heath - Orlando City

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

On thin ice in Orlando? (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

By Heath’s own admission, the Englishman was very nearly out as Orlando City head coach during a tumultuous offseason that saw strange happenings in Central Florida. Principal owner Flavio Augusto da Silva brought his international, Lusophone vision for the club to bear in a way that turned disastrous when his choice to lead the soccer operations came and went in two months--at the cost of GM Paul McDonough, the builder of the team’s inaugural roster, who left for Atlanta.

To be fair to Heath, 2015 was rough on many fronts. Not only did he have to learn the MLS ropes, but his roster was beset by injury and international absences while adjusting to the league. With a little more luck, things should be better in the club’s second year. Heath established himself as a part of a family-oriented club through the rise to MLS, but that doesn’t mean he won’t see the door if they miss out on their playoff target again.

Prediction: Heath leads Orlando City to a playoff berth and adds at least another year to his Orlando tenure. 

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Mauro Biello - Montreal Impact

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Biello: Goodbye? (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Biello manned the Montreal Impact coach’s box for all of 14 games in 2015 after taking over for the fired Frank Klopas. By every measure, Biello did an excellent job (while also benefiting from the arrival of Didier Drogba) and deserves a full season at the helm of the Impact in 2016. Taking Montreal to the playoffs after an up-and-down regular season that saw them well back of the pack deep into the summer is not a small feat.

There’s exactly one reason Biello makes this list, under a heading of “must be wary” - Joey Saputo. The Montreal owner is one of the more volatile figures in the league, a boss capable of dismissing an employee on a whim if or when things don’t go well for even a relatively brief period of time. Saputo and Biello go way back, but that won’t buy Biello a free pass if he doesn’t get good results.

Prediction: Montreal maintains their momentum from last year and rides a decent season from Drogba to a playoff spot and another season for Biello.

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Greg Vanney - Toronto FC

Vanney’s position at Toronto is somewhat tenuous for two reasons: one, TFC has a terrible history when it comes to continuity, and two, the amount of money the club has spent to make themselves a playoff team brings with it enormous pressure to stay relevant to the postseason race week-in, week-out. Should Toronto fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference for any considerable length of time, Vanney would be the most easily proposed change. As the old wisdom goes, you can’t fire the players.

TFC has a revamped defense, the reigning MVP, and enough talent to contend in the East. A playoff spot is the minimum requirement for Vanney, though winning once they get there is the necessary next step. Anything else could lead to the American’s end in Canada.

Prediction: Toronto improves on last year’s season, makes the playoffs again, and actually does something in the tournament. Vanney goes nowhere.

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