Major League Soccer and long-term planning. These are two terms that don’t always go hand in hand. Sure the league loves to pontificate on where it will be in twenty or thirty years down the road, but unless it involves spending or somehow figuring out how to get people to watch their product very little long-term planning is done in terms of finding and developing talent and creating a distinct style of play.
The Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union look to change that with their signings of Veljko Paunović and Earnie Stewart. Although both have long since left the field of play, their additions to their respective clubs may perhaps be the biggest signings for the league entering into the 2016 season.
To say that the 2016 MLS off-season has been a bit quiet would be a bit of an understatement. Although the league once again showed that not even their top clubs know the actual rules of the league – who knew the Antonio Nocerino was such a catch? – there was no real attention-grabbing signings. No Frank Lampard, no Kaka, not even a Steven Gerrard. One can tell that it is a bit of a dry off-season when Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong are considered major signings.
While this news might be a relief to some, for others it is a sign that the league might be falling behind. With the Chinese Super League picking European club players much has been made about the rise of football in East Asia and the decline of North America.
The argument from those who call for the end of MLS is that the league is falling behind because they are not competing for the big European players. But that is a fairly simple argument. The truth is that there are may supporters in North America who are upset that MLS teams are not competing for players in their middle to late twenties. There seems to be at times a disconnect between what the league considers marketable players and what supporters see as assets, such as former Sporting Kansas City and Hungarian international Kristin Nemeth who going to Qatar.
That being said, the front office additions of Paunović and Stewart to two of the league’s worst franchises is an interesting sign for the league. Despite being labeled (sometimes unfairly) as a retirement league, the Fire and Union have picked up two of the brightest young minds in Europe. These might not impact standings in 2016 as much as say a Jackson Martinez or a Fredy Guarin, but for a league starving for some change in management they represent a breath of fresh air.
One such move would be the appointment of Veljko Paunović as the head coach of the Chicago Fire. Paunović led Serbia to their first major international title while serving as coach of their Men’s National Team at the 2015 U-20 World Cup. While MLS is well-known for their ability to track ageing European players, they are often just as well-known for their penchant for picking up ageing European coaches who have no upside.
The Paunović signing is a game-changer in the sense that very few young European coaches have come to the United States and especially none that have his pedigree. His addition, coupled with the addition of Nelson Rodriguez as General Manager, seem to indicate that Chicago Fire finally have a plan. For a club that has made the playoffs just once in five years that is at least something to give the supporters hope.
Speaking of teams that have been in the cellar – let’s talk about the Philadelphia Union. After riding the wave of their awesome supporters and great backstory for about five years now things finally came to a head in 2015. A 10-17-7 record and a third consecutive playoff-less season (which is startling considering that the top six clubs in each conference make the playoffs) led owner Jay Sugarman to do something that the Sons of Ben and privately many journalists have wanted – the firing of CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz.
Rather than going with another retread (that means you Kevin Payne) the Union went another traditional route of MLS teams and picked a former United States Men’s National Team. While former national team players get picked like bad numbers in lottery drawings the Union’s appointment of Earnie Stewart was a bit different.
While Stewart was a former national team player and spent his twilight years in MLS he has spent the five years with AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie. Much like in his career Stewart has quietly spent his time abroad slowly building a career in management away from the overexposure to former national team players. His resume at Alkmaar was also quite impressive – two top four appearances in the Eredivise, four appearances in the Europa League, and winners of the KNVB Cup in 2012-2013.
Watching Stewart and the Union at this year’s MLS SuperDraft was interesting. In years past the team often seemed lost, like there was no real plan and that the club was just making moves to make moves. It was not uncommon for the Union to use their top draft pick and pick up a goalkeeper, then sign another goalkeeper with Designated Player money, while at the same time still fielding a goalkeeper who the club had used a top draft pick on three years prior.
But the tone was different this year. Rather than making some risky moves the club went with Generation Adidas center-back Joshua Yaro with their top pick and then looked to the future with German forward Fabian Herbers with their second first round pick. These moves, plus the addition of the Bethlehem Steel as their feeder club in the USL points to a side that has matured a bit and realized that to be successful they need to start planning for the future.
The moves of Paunović and Stewart might not be the sexy moves MLS supporters are used to in the past, but they are possibly more important. For years the quality of play of MLS has been heavily scrutinized with many using colorful terms that rhyme with bitty to describe it. The league has tried to improve play by making quick flashy signings that may have provided a temporary boost but generally never pan out.
Perhaps the answer then for MLS is in finding coaches and technical directors that are interested in the long haul. Although the work is not pretty and very often results are not seen for years at a time it does seem to be an idea that supporters can get behind. Clubs like FC Dallas and Columbus Crew SC have proven that having a long-term plan can generate success if one is patient.
So while the Chinese Super League may have stolen all of MLS’ transfer window thunder this offseason it may have made the right decision by sticking this one out.