Ian Darke posed a question for Steve McManaman for this week's Chelsea-Fulham match. To paraphrase, he asked if Roberto Di Matteo would keep his job if he won the Champion's League this year. Steve paused and said simply he didn't know. This is quite possibly the most ridiculous job to hold in the entire world. The stakes of coaching at any level of professional sports are fraught with peril for one's job. In fact, you could argue that winning isn't everything, but outside staying away from criminal or morally repugnant behavior, winning is all that is required.
But you take the job to win, so what would you do as owner if your coach was 14-20-8 over his tenure. If you answered, "Fire him", you are probably not wrong. He failed to meet the expectations that every franchise has; to make myself slightly queasy as a Chiefs fan, "just win baby" is always the first rule of coaching. If you thought "Let's wait and see", you just won your conference last year and now boast the best record in MLS.
It's not a fair question to ask of any owner, who fully expects his investment to pay dividends immediately, but sometimes it is better to wait. The single entity structure of MLS actually favors such prudence, and the two teams atop their respective conferences dictate that. Those two teams will meet this Saturday at Livestrong Sporting Park and the models cannot be more alike.
Real Salt Lake is an organization built from the bottom up. Look at these results with Garth Lagerway as GM and Jason Kreis as manager:
|Points Per Match
|Kreis First Year
|After Rio Tinto Opened
Jason Kreis has built a consistent contender from a team that couldn't hang with the MLS five years ago. Instead, of trying to build a club around your players, both Kreis and Peter Vermes have built teams around their style.Andy Williams was the only player from their 2006 roster who continued to contribute when they won the MLS Cup in Kreis' third year. Vermes is hoping that the scripts play alike in this regard as well, as he is in his third full season as manager for Sporting KC.
The funny thing is you would never expect Sporting's displays to be the work of a center back. I would expect a more stodgy Roy Hodgson type style, and you certainly get some of that with the defense of Kansas City. The midfield and forwards more embody the Total Football approach, pressing high and switching fluidly between positions in the field. From the start, he didn't have the correct team to do this, so the preliminary efforts were failures with almost symmetrical results to RSL. His points per match in his interim start was .92, identical to Kreis first season.
|Points Per Match
|Under Curt Onalfo
|Livestrong Opens 2011-12*
*Includes road trip to open last season.
It would be easy to credit each resurgence to the opening of the stadium for each team, but in each case the team's evolution just coincided with the new stadiums. For Vermes' improvement, it required a complete overhaul. Eric Kronberg is the only player remaining from the roster of Vermes' first season as Technical Director. Through the draft, he has acquired Chance Myers, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury, and CJ Sapong. Every first round draft pick was a key starter on last year's team. Even more impressive is the success he's had filling out the roster, finding players others couldn't place or were blatantly misused. Most impressive of these moves was changing Kei Kamara from a striker into the league's most dangerous winger.
This is not a story of one shoe fits all, but in MLS, it has proven to be far better to be patient and let a coach establish his style. If you look at the teams who succeed and those who are flailing at the moment, look for a plan, because while they don't always work, it's most certain that having is a solid start. In MLS, you can't simply buy a championship (even LA's star studded lineup was deep and a solid team from top to bottom), and therefore you must have a solid formula for victory. For RSL and Sporting KC, the simple solution has been deep lineups, suited for active pressing and possession control. Then all you do is fill the seats, make your home field a nightmare for opponents, and win.
Seems simple, but ask yourself as a fan given the chance how many would choose patience over your instincts.