Coaching chasm: Why Arena, Bradley, Schmid still rule U.S. soccer's roost

The new generation of MLS bosses has yet to make up the gap on three looming legends.

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When the time comes to write the definitive history of MLS, few historians will start with the midsummer events of any season. It’s traditionally the time of year when we lose focus; when Europe’s traveling circuses rumble through; when heat-sapped teams drift through inexplicable results before the final sprint for the playoffs. New signings may arrive, sure, but we rarely get an immediate sense of their impact. It’s a nothing time of year.

But there was a remarkable 24-hour sequence last week that may turn out to be as telling, even as damning, a summation of the first two decades of MLS as any other event.

On Wednesday, Bruce Arena, back with the U.S. men’s national team, won the Gold Cup. On Thursday morning, the LA Galaxy sacked the man who’d replaced Arena and installed the winningest coach in MLS history, Sigi Schmid. And by Thursday night, some of the preemptive logic behind the Galaxy’s sudden move became clear when reports began to circulate that Arena’s one-time successor with the national team, Bob Bradley, would become the inaugural coach of LAFC.

Just like that, we were back in a moment we’d thought had passed — three giants of the opening years of MLS, steeped in the college game, back at the peak of domestic soccer: One man reasserting his credentials as national team coach as the Jurgen Klinsmann era is rapidly erased from memory; two others setting the tone for what promises to be a compelling territorial battle in one of the league’s two key markets.

Old dogs, new gigs

It’s a pretty stunning turnaround for all concerned.

Arena’s Galaxy team had been built in (even built for) the Designated Player era, but in its final incarnation under him had looked bloated and out of touch as Targeted Allocation Money and USL second teams transform the league’s depth. Schmid, too, in his final days with Seattle, had looked tired and incapable of motivating a team he’d stayed with too long.

As for Bradley, the bruising humiliation of the Swansea experience may have been the result of a thankless position, but he’d gambled on what he knew was a long shot, knowing it would likely be his only shot, and he’d failed. And even if it might be more accurate to say he’d been failed, the fact was he was left bearing the consequences.

Bradley’s return to MLS is in some ways the most obvious move of the three: a brand name charged with building a brand, given all the respect and indulgence he was never granted in his last job. He is a good fit for LAFC, still a vital and innovative coach, but it’s perhaps unfortunate that the Galaxy’s hijacking of his arrival with the Schmid appointment has cast both men in MLS terms as ancient history.

Arena’s presence in the top job is one that sets a symbolic value on existing institutional knowledge — on fixing American problems with American know-how. It’s not so much a straight swing away from the idea of global expertise as it is a suggestion that what global expertise has to teach has already been learned, and that it needs local knowledge to best apply it.

But most of all, what last week’s events brought into sharp relief was the perceived limitations of the next generation of coaches. And that might be the truly significant issue when the history of MLS is written.

The next generation

Since the turn of this decade, there’s been a steady trend of American players who’d spent the bulk of their pro careers in the league becoming MLS head coaches.

Ben Olsen, Jesse Marsch, Jay Heaps, Jason Kreis, Pablo Mastroeni, Greg Vanney and Mike Petke are some of the most prominent examples, though you can also add in slight outliers like Caleb Porter, after his diversion through the college game in Akron, or Colombian Oscar Pareja. Gregg Berhalter stands out for his more peripatetic playing and coaching career before arriving at Crew SC, but demographically, he too can be lumped in with this group.

Of that group, all have had moments as the next bright young thing in U.S. soccer. Porter’s Olympic qualifying experience under Klinsmann saw his star wane a little, though he’s since built Portland into MLS Cup winners. Kreis, too, appeared to be on a fast track to the national team job at one point before his bruising New York City FC experience.

Of the others, Mastroeni is still more of a Rapids legend as a player than as a coach, though perhaps, like Heaps and Olsen, that will be enough to ensure plenty of longevity in the job. Vanney, Marsch and Pareja have all built strong club teams around distinctive philosophies.

It could also be said, though, that Toronto’s abundance of resources would have taken the team to its current position regardless of Vanney’s influence, New York’s pressing game is found out annually in the playoffs, and that Pareja’s Dallas may be young and exhilarating, but it can be infuriatingly defensively naive as well.

Has anyone from this group yet taken the step that suggests they will transcend the achievements of the intermediate generation of coaches who came before them, the likes of Dominic Kinnear, Frank Klopas, and Frank Yallop? They’re good coaches with decent MLS records, but they’re probably at their level.

With the new, prominent roles of Arena, Schmid and Bradley on the domestic scene, it begs the question of whether this generation (some of whom now have a managerial sample size of near a decade) has done enough to advance the game, and whether that’s a damning verdict of the technical milieu of MLS that shaped them.

Because what we can say for sure is this: The failures on these veteran coaches’ CVs took place at a higher level of expectation than these younger coaches have reached.

If the second Arena era of U.S. soccer is about ascribing correct value to institutional knowledge, we might want to ask how that knowledge is being passed on and absorbed where it matters.

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