Vieira, Paunovic take note: MLS hasn't been kind to international coaches

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Vieira and Veljko Paunovic now coach New York City FC and the Chicago Fire, respectively. But as Graham Ruthven reflects, history shows that MLS isn't always kind to international coaches...

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Major League Soccer can be something of a hostile environment for outsiders - especially foreign coaches. Drafts, trades, salary caps, playoffs and all the rest make North American soccer a daunting prospect for even the most illustrious of managers.

This season, however, Patrick Vieira and Veljko Paunovic are aiming to break with convention, taking charge of New York City FC and the Chicago Fire, respectively.

There have been some success stories. Thomas Rongen, Frank Yallop, Sigi Schmid, Peter Nowak and Gary Smith are the five technically foreign managers to win MLS Cup, although Smith is the only one who did not have prior coaching or playing experience in North America. Schmid was born in Germany but has been in the U.S. since he was a toddler, Rongen has been stateside as a player and coach for four decades and Yallop is England-born but grew up just outside Vancouver.

Below are six previous foreign managers from a list of many whose MLS tenures can provide lessons - some good, some bad - for Vieira and Paunovic.

Ruud Gullit (LA Galaxy, 2007-2008)

Press Association

Gullit didn't work out (Press Association)

With Gullit’s appointment at the Home Depot Center (as it was back then), MLS’ glitziest and most glamorous club went for a big-name coach to go along with their big-name players. And as a two-time Champions League and European Championship winner, the Dutchman certainly was a big name.

It didn’t take long for Gullit himself to realize that he was the wrong man for the LA Galaxy job, though. “In LA, nobody is talking about soccer,” he complained. “No television stations. You see it nowhere.” The former AC Milan and Chelsea midfielder never grasped the nature of American soccer culture, even riling his own players. “At times he [Gullit] was a little disrespectful and that bothered me,” Landon Donovan reflected years later.

Gullit left just nine months into his three-year contract with the Galaxy, citing personal reasons. But with the Carson club cut adrift in the Western Conference, his exit was undoubtedly forced. Alexi Lalas also lost his job as general manager, with the LA hierarchy completely overhauling the front office. Gullit’s hiring is still used as a case study and a warning to any franchise intent on appointing from outside the MLS circle.

Aron Winter (Toronto FC, 2011-2012)

Press Association

Cold Winter (Press Association)

Toronto FC might be the most tedious franchise in MLS, but it could never be faulted for a lack of ambition. The appointment of former Dutch international Aron Winter in January 2011 was made with typical bluster and hype, although such fanfare quickly subsided.

Upon his arrival at BMO Field, Winter targeted CONCACAF Champions League, winning a fourth straight Canadian title and leading TFC into the MLS playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s history. The former Ajax and Lazio midfielder delivered on two of those promises, but domestically he was nothing but an abject failure.

Toronto FC lost nine straight games - the club's worst start in league history - to start the 2012 campaign before parting with Winter. From there, the Reds never recovered and the Dutchman was gone by June 2012. Winter’s appointment was supposed to mark a new dawn for Toronto FC, but in actuality it only accentuated their status as North American soccer’s most wretched club at the time.

Ryan Nelsen (Toronto FC, 2013-2014)

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Fool me twice... (Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

After the failure of Winter just one year prior, Toronto FC was perhaps expected to make a less experimental appointment ahead of the 2013 MLS season. Instead, the club hired former Blackburn Rovers and New Zealand defender Ryan Nelsen, yet another coach with no experience of North American soccer, even if he had played in MLS. He didn’t even have any coaching badges.

It showed, too, as TFC finished second-bottom of the Eastern Conference in his first season in charge. His second season didn’t go much better either, with Nelsen eventually dismissed in August 2014 after winning just three matches in a stretch of 13 outings.

Nelsen’s exit was particularly messy following his public dressing down of general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, with the Kiwi’s entire coaching staff also following him out the BMO Field door. Jermain Defoe soon left as Toronto FC descended into the kind of chaos characteristic of the franchise. Greg Vanney took over as the Reds’ ninth head coach in just eight years, but much damage had already been done under Nelsen. His appointment will go down as one of the most baffling in MLS history.

John Spencer (Portland Timbers, 2011-2012)

Tim Z. Rider-USA TODAY Sports

Spencer was up and down (Tim Z. Rider-USA TODAY Sports)

Head coaches of expansion clubs tend to be afforded a certain degree of tolerance (unless you’re Jason Kreis, of course). John Spencer, as the first manager of the Portland Timbers in their MLS tenure, was given such leeway, although he hardly needed it in his debut season as a senior manager.

The Timbers embarked on a historic start to the 2011 campaign, winning their first five MLS matches at home. Ultimately Spencer’s side fell away, but the Scot still led Portland to the brink of a playoff place, coming close to being the first expansion club since the 2009 Seattle Sounders to make the postseason. A conversely slow start to the 2012 season saw Spencer handed his papers, though.

Even more unfortunate for Spencer was his successor, Caleb Porter, has shown what can be done with one of North American soccer’s most illustrious franchises, winning last season’s MLS Cup. However, Spencer must take a share of the credit for moulding the Timbers into what they are now.

Hans Backe (New York Red Bulls, 2010-2012)

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Backe: Stable (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

MLS is certainly not short of its poisoned chalices, but even by such a standard, the head-coaching job at the New York Red Bulls is laced with more poison than most. Widely regarded the most thankless job in North American soccer, Hans Backe (Sven Goran Eriksson’s right-hand man for a number of years) was seen as a shrewd appointment back in January 2010.

Backe was the fifth coaching change in five years for the franchise (including a pair of interim stints by Richie Williams), but Backe became something of a defining figure for the Harrison club. He brought a sense of stability to a franchise which had become renowned for its changeability, setting the Red Bulls on a much more prosperous course.

Nonetheless, he left New York having struggled to make a real impression in the playoffs. But Backe could never be put down as a failure as such, leading the Red Bulls to the postseason in each of his three years in charge. More importantly, he implemented a culture that is still sustaining the club now.

Steve Nicol (New England Revolution, 2002-2011)

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Nicol set a the bar (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Success stories when it comes to tales of foreign managers in MLS are few and far between, but that of Nicol’s time with the New England Revolution is told rather glowingly. The Scot was in charge of the Foxborough franchise for no less than 10 seasons, ranking second overall in the number of MLS matches coached (301).


Nicol developed the Revolution in the mould of his own tenacious personality, although his failure to win a championship ring - despite making four MLS Cups - did somewhat come to define his time at the club. Nonetheless, the former Liverpool defender earned his place as a North American soccer giant.

Despite being an outsider to the league upon his initial interim appointment in 1999, Nicol quickly became engrained in the North American game. Vieira and Paunovic can take lessons from that, serving as a warning over their commitment to the cause. MLS is unlike any other league in world soccer and a different kind of coaching is required, too.

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