Why are so many Major League Soccer coaches keeping their jobs?

It is hard getting a coaching job in soccer, but it is even harder keeping a job. About as frequently as the wind changes direction, teams lose patience or grow bored of their coach and feel the compulsion to cut their losses and go a different route.

Sometimes it is for a justifiable reason, but often no real reason can be determined. It is considered to be part of the game like insane refereeing calls, and large bellied gentleman wearing next to nothing in the cold.

 

Yet something odd is happening in Major League Soccer this season – no coaches have been let go. Despite the season being close to three quarters done, no coach has been given the pink slip. Barring a miracle or perhaps further implosion by Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni, no coach will lose their job.

To put this in perspective since the league was founded in 1996 the lowest number of coaches that were either fired or resigned was one (2000 and 2002-2004).

While a person could chalk that up to the league being in its darkest hours and teams cutting costs wherever possible, but even then at least one or two coaches would get the axe.

MLS Coaching Changes Since 1996
Season Number of Teams Number of Coaching Changes
1996 10 2
1997 10 2
1998 12 4
1999 12 8
2000 12 1
2001 12 2
2002 10 1
2003 10 1
2004 10 1
2005 12 5
2006 12 6
2007 13 2
2008 14 4
2009 15 2
2010 15 2
2011 18 3
2012 19 3
2013 19 3
2014 19 3
2015 21 0

 

Major League Soccer has been known to buck the norms of club soccer for decades. When the league was first founded, MLS instituted non-soccer ideas like a running penalty shot, backwards clock, All-Star Games, playoffs, and the Eddie Gaven phantom substitution. All of these things are frowned upon in a traditional soccer league and so is sticking with a coach.

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. Far too often coaches are given a short lease and not enough time to actually do anything of value. No longer are teams just 18 players picked up off of the street. There are reserves teams and youth academy teams that go back to six or seven year olds.

Teams need strategies, ideas, and objectives and those cannot be achieved when teams are flipping coaches faster than McDonalds flips hamburgers.

Teams like Barcelona and Chelsea can get away with it because of the sheer number of ex-players who are familiar with their model. But in MLS, with a league that is 20 years old, the coaching pool is finite.

So the question is why are there so few firings this season? Of course the easiest answer would be that every coach is doing a great job. There does seem to be some truth to this when one considers that there were seven coaching changes this offseason and that the league has added two new teams in Orlando City SC and New York City FC.

Perhaps owners and team management realise that it takes time to get an organisation together and to get players to buy into a system.

That sounds nice but unfortunately that is not the way that teams operate. At the drop of a hat coaches are fired and replaced not just within MLS but across the entire league.

Although it is very likely that teams such as the aforementioned Orlando and New York are willing to wait since their teams are expansion sides, but even those teams have expectations.

Do you think Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, and City Football Group are excited about NYCFC being in 7-11-7 (Wins-Losses-Draws) and being in seventh place in the Eastern Conference?

 

The second reason seems to tie into that thought – since six teams from each conference make the MLS playoffs very few teams are actually out of the running for the MLS Cup.

It is a sad reminder for why winning the Supporters Shield is almost useless, that for no matter how a team does during the regular season as long as they limp into the playoffs they still have a chance at winning the league’s top honors.

In the end mediocrity has probably saved a few coaches jobs this season. Anytime a coach is looking like they may be axed the club somehow gets on a mini roll and gets within three games of the final playoff spot or to the second or third spot in their conference.

There’s no real justification for why Mastroeni has kept his job after having a 5-9-9 record other than he is a team legend (he led the team to their only MLS Cup victory in 2010) and that the squad is still only eight points out of the final spot in the Western Conference.

But again coaches have made similar runs in the past and still found themselves with a pink slip. This happened just last season with Toronto FC and coach Ryan Nelsen.

Although Toronto’s season had sputtered a bit, the club was within three points of their first-ever playoff spot when management decided to fire Nelsen. The Canadian outfit continued their downward spiral and find themselves on the outside of the playoffs yet again.

Of course cost also plays a major factor in a coaching decision. Teams in MLS are not like teams in Europe where they can assume the cost for multiple ex-coaches. Nor is this South America where they can simply not pay them.

A coaching change could cost a team two to three years of development at both the senior and youth levels. So teams seem more willing to wait on coaches and fulfill their contracts rather than go with another unknown.

While there is no particular rhyme or reason for why this year is different it seems to point to the conflict that is inherent in the league. Is it a league that is more tied to the traditional roots of football where managers can be let go at the drop of a hat?

Or is it a league that still considers itself more tied to the traditional aspects of North American sports where aside from a few lone examples (Oakland Raiders and Washington professional football team in the National Football League) teams tend to keep their managers for the duration of their contract.

It is another interesting facet of the growing development of the game in the United States and Canada and something that will certainly be worth keeping an eye on in the future.

Author Details

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-mls/id979377624?mt=2

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